Chloroform and the Civil War

By: Colleen vonVorys-Norton

One of the biggest advancements in the 19th century was in the medical field. Most of the advancements came from medical advances needed on the battlefield. This is especially seen during the Civil War when there weren’t many registered or trained surgeons. This meant that many of the wounds were treated from manuals. Both the Union and Confederate had a manual, though there are some differences in them since they were written by different doctors. These manuales cover a wide range of topics. For example the Confederate manual covers everything from the clothing allotment for each soldier to how to know when to amputate a limb.  One of the emerging fields in medicine was anestesia. Historically there was nothing really to help patients deal with the pain during surgery. Doctors realized that chloroform was efficient at making people unconscious or desensitized. It’s discovery is credited to Samuel Guthrie in 1831 and like most medical treatments, it was first used by the rich and the military.

The administration of chloroform is one of the differences between the Union and Confederate manual. For example, the Union mentions using it in passing. They are focusing more in those sections on what the treatment is and just has chloroform in passing. Interestingly, the Union prefered ether to chloroform because “being the least liable to destroy life.”¹ At this point, doctors were beginning to become hesitant to use chloroform since some individuals were dying from it. But this did not stop it completely in the war effort. In fact, it was believed that  “anaesthetics sometimes, and especially chloroform, prevent the union of wounds by adhesion, or by ‘first intention’”¹. In layman terms, they believed that using chloroform actually helped wounds heal faster and with less amounts of scar tissue.

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Gettysburg Amputation, courtesy of Warfare History

The Confederate side however was very adamant about using chloroform. Not only were they explicit about it but they also had two chapters in their book not only about their views on it, but also exactly how is should be used. They believed that they reason that some people were dying from it was because it was used carelessly. This is why they went into specific detail on how to use the drug. They note that it should be used in careful amounts because the patient at times may not be able to pull the rag away if the drug becomes too much. But in general they “do not hesitate to say, that it should be given to every patient requiring a serious or painful operation.”² Where the Union was more careful with its usage, the Confederacy used it not only for surgeries but also for when they were cleaning painful wounds or even just to calm patients. Since chloroform was used so frequently, they outline specifically how it should be used properly. The device that they talk about parallels the shape and design of the anaesthetic mask still used today.

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Chloroform mask. This was connected to a bottle that contained the chloroform and it would drip onto the cloth. courtesy of Medical Antiquities

Even though the medical world no longer used chloroform in general anesthesia, it is still very important to see just how far medicine has come in just a few centuries. Looking at something that is taken for granted in present day has dangerous roots but it because of those deaths that medican advanced to the way it is. Even though it is not commonly recognized, times of war advance the medical field quickly because doctors need to find new ways to fix a variety of injuries and this was especially true during the Civil War. Especially in a day and age where something like germ theory is taken so lightly, it is important to look back a few centuries and see just how far humanity has come in such a short amount of time.

 


¹ Hamilton, Frank Hastings. Practical treatise on military surgery. San Francisco: Normal Publishing, 1989.

² Chisolm, Julian John, and Ira M. Rutkow. A manual of military surgery: for the use of the surgeons in the Confederate States Army: with an appendix of the rules and regulations of the Medical Department of the Confederate Army. San Francisco: Norman Pub., 1989.

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