During the war, the removal of the wounded from a battlefield involved not only the negotiation of a truce, but also tortuous rides in lumbering ambulances to makeshift hospitals in barns, commandeered houses and open fields. These trips were sometimes followed by a train ride in a cattle car to a nearby city, such as Frederick, Maryland or Washington City, where the wounded soldier, if he lived through the transportation nightmare, would be ensconced for months in a hospital.
Naturally, infection set into open wounds, followed quickly by an invasion of maggots (fly larvae), whose biological imperative as scavenger was an unwelcome terror to soldiers already brutalized by pain and fever. In the North, surgeons evacuated the maggots from the wounds with a variety of caustic agents, including turpentine, carbolic acid and the like, while the Southern physicians, lacking many of the resources of the North due to the blockade, allowed the maggots to remain.
This apparent neglect, however, in fact prevented infection, since the maggots dined both on the dying tissue and the infesting microbes (that the surgeons did not know existed), thereby keeping the wound clean, allowing new tissue to grow and the patient to recover. The Southern surgeons noted the beneficial effect and shared the information with their colleagues as communication allowed.
Today, in some hospitals, maggots are introduced to complicated wounds and achieve the same beneficial results that the observant Confederate surgeons noticed over a hundred fifty years ago. While the South suffered a higher ratio of deaths, in this one area, it was luckier to be a wounded Southern soldier rather than a Northern.
Robin Oliveira, author of My Name Is Mary Sutter, grew up just outside Albany, New York in Loudonville. She holds a B.A. in Russian, and studied at the Pushkin Language Institute in Moscow, Russia. She is also a Registered Nurse, specializing in Critical Care and Bone Marrow Transplant.
IMAGE: Wounded soldiers in a Civil War hospital, 1862
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