Horror Show

Our editor in chief visits the Mütter Museum and learns just how much the Civil War affected medicine.

By Michal Meyer | May 7, 2015
Wounded Soldier

Photograph of a wounded Civil War soldier, ca. 1865.

Library of Congress

Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits 
Mütter Museum 
Philadelphia, PA 

In one brief scene in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the president’s son Robert vomits after seeing a pile of amputated limbs awaiting burial. Apart from the occasional historical reference, such as in Lincoln, little remains to remind people of the particular medical horrors of the American Civil War. But for those people fascinated, horrified, or simply curious about the fate of damaged bodies when Civil War battles ended, Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits, an exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, offers much more than a glimpse into the medical side of the war.

Aspects of today’s military medical infrastructure were first developed during the war: nursing as a profession; the widespread use of effective anesthetics—chloroform and ether—during surgeries; and the first examples of mass evacuation of wounded soldiers from the battlefield to distant hospitals (in this case using Northern railroads).

This war differed from previous ones in its industrial scale of weaponry and slaughter, and it produced new horrors, such as the hollow-based Minié bullets that shattered bones. In his manual for field surgery from 1861, Samuel D. Gross describes the use of probes to find bullets. “In many cases,” Gross remarks, “the best probe is the surgeon’s finger.” Unsurprisingly, most head, chest, and abdominal wounds sustained during the war were eventually, if not immediately, fatal.

The Mütter Museum is known for its boldness when displaying the human form, and this exhibition is no exception. On entering, visitors find Gross’s manual on display, followed by various bullet-shattered bones from the war. The ways a bullet can break an arm or leg bone left me both horrified and fascinated. Also included are an artificial hand and a wooden splint to hold broken legs in place. An interactive exhibit lets visitors, with the help of a mirror, “see” their wounded arm turn gangrenous and be amputated. (Amputation was a common occurrence in an age in which neither surgical instruments nor bandages were sterilized. While much of the weaponry and medicine had changed, as with previous wars, disease was still the biggest killer.)

More compelling to me than “losing” a limb was Henry Shippen Huidekoper’s letter to neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell, sent 40 years after Huidekoper had lost his arm in battle. Huidekoper was so accustomed, he wrote, to having only one arm that he never thought about the missing appendage. In his dreams, though, he always had two working arms, no matter whether he dreamed of his childhood or of the events of yesterday. Huidekoper, a white Union soldier, is one of three Philadelphians used in the exhibit to give the war a human face.

The example of Cornelia Hancock, the second of the three Philadelphians, shows how nursing, typically done by women within the family setting, transformed into a profession. No photograph exists of the third figure, a black soldier named Prestley Dawson; instead he is represented by a photo of another soldier. A Frederick Douglas quotation makes clear that black soldiers were fighting for more than just military victory. Douglas felt that serving in the military gave black Americans a right to citizenship, a right white Americans took for granted.

Two other figures help visitors interpret the medical side of war: poet Walt Whitman, who volunteered in hospitals, and Weir Mitchell, who treated the war’s wounded. Their words appear on the walls of the exhibition. Whitman is presented as a comforter, sitting by hospital beds and writing letters to dying soldiers’ families. For Weir Mitchell, “War is a disgustingly dirty business. You don’t realize that in history, in fiction, or in pictures. It’s filthy.”