Dead Men Do Tell Tales

In fact, they can, with modern forensic archeology, be quite eloquent. Case in point comes from the Manassas battlefield, when recent excavations have revealed quite a lot about about wounds and surgical practices. In an article for Smithsonian magazine, recently discovered remains of Union soldiers show a lot about their fate. The bones were discovered during a pipeline excavation and were apparently came from a field hospital active during Second Manassas.

Owsley and Bruwelheide confirmed that that the bones belonged definitively to Union men rather than Confederates with sophisticated isotopic analysis. By linking the chemical constituency of the bones with diet, the Smithsonian researchers were able to make some very impressive deductions. “Oxygen isotopes tell us about their drinking water,” Bruwelheide explains. “And that varies by region, so we were able to place these men in the northern states.”

Some of the bones had been expertly amputated.”These were done by an experienced surgeon. This was not novice work.” One man had been shot with an Enfield rifle, probably wielded by a Confederate.

Owsley reconstructs the story of the man with the Enfield slug in his femur—a man who was between the ages of 25 and 29—in harrowing detail. “He’s retreating, withdrawing,” Owsley says, based on his knowledge of the ballistics of the bullet and the damage it caused. “He’s shot in his buttocks area, really high,” as he’s fleeing the Confederates at his back. But this man’s is no ordinary wound. Rather, judging by the deformation of the conical, rifled bullet, the slug went in at an angle, embedding itself sideways in the man’s upper femur and precipitating a nasty longitudinal fracture down the bone’s length. (The deflection “could have been because of the cartridge belt he was wearing,” Owsley theorizes.) When the soldier’s foot came down, the situation only worsened, with the bone snapping completely and bits of it splintering off inside his leg. “This is just so difficult to treat,” says Owsley.

The unfortunate soldier was triaged as untreatable and probably given morphine if it were available and left to die while the doctors concentrated on more savable patients, then tossed in a pit with the amputated limbs. Such were the ways of war.
While we’re on this gruesome subject, let’s jump to Pre-Columbian Peru, where opening people’s heads was done with marked success.

… according to a new study led by the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s David S. Kushner, M.D., clinical professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, trepanation was so expertly practiced in ancient Peru that the survival rate for the procedure during the Incan Empire was about twice that of the American Civil War — when, more three centuries later, soldiers were trepanned presumably by better trained, educated and equipped surgeons.

“There are still many unknowns about the procedure and the individuals on whom trepanation was performed, but the outcomes during the Civil War were dismal compared to Incan times,” said Kushner, a neurologist who has helped scores of patients recover from modern-day traumatic brain injuries and cranial surgeries. “In Incan times, the mortality rate was between 17 and 25 percent, and during the Civil War, it was between 46 and 56 percent. That’s a big difference. The question is how did the ancient Peruvian surgeons have outcomes that far surpassed those of surgeons during the American Civil War?”

I would suggest that dealing with a hole made by a Minie ball might have been different than what the Peruvian surgeons had to deal with. Nevertheless, the results are impressive for the time period.

And speaking of Civil War wounds, here’s a soldier who took one right between the eyes—and lived to tell about it.

Miller gave the following statement regarding his battle wound: “I was left for dead when my company fell back from that position. I got up with the help of my gun as a staff, then went back some distance, then started parallel with the line of battle. I made up my mind as long as I could drag one foot after another I would not allow myself to be taken prisoner. I got a nurse to fill my canteen with water so I could make an effort in getting near safety as possible.”

He ended up with an open wound in his forehead, one that occasionally spit out chunks of lead. Thirty-one years would pass before pieces of the bullet would stop randomly oozing from the bullet hole, and through it all, Miller simply went about life as usual.

And finally a look at President Rutherford B. Hayes’s gun collection. Hayes was wounded during the war at South Mountain, and described the incident.

Fearing that an artery might be cut, I asked a soldier near me to tie my handkerchief above the wound. I soon felt weak, faint, and sick at the stomach. I laid down and was pretty comfortable. I was perhaps twenty feet behind the line of my men, and could form a pretty accurate notion of the way the fight was going. The enemy’s fire was occasionally very heavy; balls passed near my face and hit the ground all around me. I could see wounded men staggering or carried to the rear; but I felt sure our men were holding their own. I listened anxiously to hear the approach of reinforcements; wondered they did not come.

Hard to imagine a modern president with a gun collection like Hayes’s.



One response to “Dead Men Do Tell Tales”

  1. […] I mentioned that the remains of two unfortunate soldiers killed at Second Manassas had been found in a surgeon’s pit on the battlefield. I am happy to report that they have been decently interred at Arlington National Cemetery after […]

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