Articles, Blog

Civil War Medicine Exhibition Walkthrough

February 18, 2020

Hello, I’m Robert Hicks and I’d like to present
to you a short tour of our temporary exhibit, “Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury,
Death, and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia.” If the Civil War was happening today with
the same proportion of casualties, we would be witnessing between 8 and 10 million dead
due to combat wounds, injuries, and disease. Every family would be affected, and so it
was in the 1860s when this war took place, but Philadelphia has its own story. We wanted
to focus on a few individuals whose experiences reflect the larger picture: one White soldier,
one Black soldier, one female nurse, one doctor, and the voice of America’s poet Walt Whitman.
He made hundreds of visits to the hospital to help those wounded men who were far away
from home and family. He wrote poems after the war and through the end of his life, the
Civil War was predominant in his thoughts. Why did we conceive the idea to do this exhibition
in the first place? It all started with this man and the letter to my left. This man’s
name is Henry Huidekoper and he was a very young man at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg
in 1863. He was wounded at Gettysburg and in fact he received the Medal of Honor for
his actions on the first day of that battle. But how did he get into this collection and
what did he say? Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who was a doctor during the Civil War and advanced
the study of nerves, neurology. He and his son put out a questionnaire to try to get
answers from veterans, now decades after the war, talking about how they would continue
to live with the injuries that they had. Well the postmaster of Philadelphia at the time
was Henry Huidekoper. He responds to Mitchell with a two page letter, it is type-written
and the date is 1906. And he briefly mentions what happened to him at Gettysburg, he was
shot in the leg and he had an arm amputated at the elbow. And he said, “After the war,
I had some trouble with adjusting,” and he has this marvelous image of driving in a carriage,
and he says, “A gust of wind blew off my straw hat and I would reach up with my right arm
that I no longer have to catch my hat.” And of course he didn’t catch his hat. But he
says in the letter, he learned to compensate for that in time. And by the time he type-writes
this letter, he’s perfectly adjusted to life with one arm. But he says, “Every night when
I sleep, I have dreams and every time I dream, I’m a man with two arms and two hands. And
in my dreams, I enjoy taking a pen and writing, and I’m writing the right hand that I no longer
have. And when I have that dream, it induces such a pain in my non-existent that it wakes
me up in the middle of the night, even after almost half a century.” The fact that he felt
a pain in the arm that’s no longer there, we now call the “phantom limb pain.” The phantom
limb syndrome comes from Dr. Mitchell and his work on Civil War soldiers.When we saw
that letter, we knew we had to do this exhibit. In this exhibition, we wanted to focus on
the White soldier and the Black soldier. The Black soldier was known as the United States
Colored Troop soldier. Well, we wanted personal items from a Black soldier and a White soldier,
and for a USCT soldier, we got this badge. This was a badge was purchased and worn by
veterans after the Civil War, and this was owned by Presley Dawson or Presley Dorsey
of the 43rd United States Colored Troops. It was loaned to us by the grandson of this
soldier. And I repeat grandson, not great-grandson, which also illustrates that the Civil War
is not ancient history, it’s still within the reach of public memory. This big drum
is called a “spirometer.” It would’ve had two hoses, you breath in, you breath out,
and it measures lung capacity. At the end of the war, the army sent to all of the doctors
in the regiments a kit to take in a variety of measurements for both White and Black soldiers.
Now, the army collected all this data for a reason: what would these soldiers do when
they leave the army? Particularly the Black soldiers who would no longer return to slavery.
It was thought that they would go to cities and get jobs in factories, and for this purpose,
a baseline fo industrial insurance was needed. Well since we didn’t know anything about Black
soldiers, this was a major insight. And in fact, the data collected on United States
Colored Troops constitutes the first data collected by the government to assess the
health of African Americans in this country. Two studies were created right after the Civil
War. One study concluded that there was no effective difference between White and Black
soldiers in their performance on duty. The second study had a different conclusion: the
Black soldiers were inferior performers, which is pretty strange when you think about all
the manual labor that Black soldiers had to do in creating fortifications, digging trenches,
and so on. And yet, of those two studies, the one study most influential over time was
the one that found disparities. So the instrument here is a component of what we can now call
“racialized medicine.” But the influence of this kind of a study was pretty far-reaching.
Even as late as World War II when we had the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the Black soldiers
who were recruited as fighter pilots, the top brass of the army asked the question,
“Can a Black man really operate a complex machine such as an airplane?” Well when they
looked for data on the performance of Black soldiers, where did they get it? Well the
last time the army had conducted any significant study was the Civil War. So the data produced
on Civil War soldiers had a long-lasting impact in determining what kind of assignments Black
soldiers would get in the military all the way through World War II. This exhibition
is not developed around any particular timeline, we want people to imagine, “What would this
be like if I had been there and had to participate in these events?” So we’ve organized the exhibit
very broadly around hurting, healing, dying, the major experiences of soldiers. In the
case here, we have a number of specimens that have embedded bullets in them. These specimens
were removed on the battlefield either from soldiers who recovered and survived, or in
some cases soldiers who had died and specimens were sent to the Army Medical Museum in Washington,
a storehouse for specimens that were gathering during the war to help instruct military surgeons
on what was happening and how to deal with it. The minié ball is the bullet you see
represented here. This was a bullet fired from a rifled musket. It caused such extreme
damage to the limbs, this is what required all those amputations. These specimens are
arranged over an image of the human body to suggest to visitors what parts of the body
these specimens come from. Here we have the section on healing. Now these instruments
at first glance may look pretty threatening because they’re pretty heavy duty and, yes,
they’re involved in cutting bone, cutting flesh, amputation. But it’s not only amputation.
These tools are used for a variety of purposes, the smaller ones used for many minor injuries.
And it’s a reminder that that one projectile, the minié ball bullet, had such destructive
power that in some cases amputation was the only remedy. But amputation was not an easy
decision to make and it was only when other possibilities failed that they resorted to
this. A physician on the battlefield has approximately 90 seconds to consider the patient that’s
been brought before him, make life decisions about what to do, and if it’s a decision to
sacrifice a limb, that is of course gonna affect that patient for the rest of his days.
We did want to put to bed a common myth that in the Civil War, doctors performed bloody
amputations without anesthesia. This is not true and it is also not true that soldiers
“bit the bullet” in order to stave off the pain. In 95% of all surgeries, anesthesia
was used, either ether or chloroform. It’s only in those 5% of the cases where it was
simply not available and time was of the essence did the surgeries take place without them.
It’s true that the war did not produce new medicines for us, but it did produce a lot
of knowledge about surgery and a lot of knowledge that increased our understanding of how the
body works. If you see an ambulance take an injured person to emergency medical care today,
we expect that person is going to arrive at the hospital and receive treatment from a
battery of professionals assessing all dimensions of that person’s health.That system of emergency
medical care that we now take for granted was in fact the chief invention of the Civil
War. Before the war, if you were injured or sick, the doctor came to you at your home.
You did not go to a hospital, a hospital was known as a place where people went to die.
So soldiers who were wounded coming into hospitals, maybe for the first times in their lives,
are getting a different orientation. Hospitals are here to rehabilitate, repair, and send
a soldier back to productive duty if possible. We’ve shown you some instruments that you
probably expected to see, cutting instruments for amputations for example. But we wanted
to put out a few instruments that represent some areas of medicine that may be unfamiliar
to you. For example, there’s an item that is worn about the wrist called a “sphygmograph”
that is wound up. It’s mechanical and it creates a little strip chart recording of a pulse.
So even in the Civil War, they’re gathering data in the form of graphic displays of bodily
functions. Also, we have what’s called a “Magneto electric generator.” This is a hand-cranked
device that generates its own alternating current. Now this was not standard issue in
the army, but in Philadelphia, there was a specialty hospital designed to look at soldiers
with nerve injuries, and Dr. S. Weir Mitchell with a team of doctors investigated these
cases of damaged nerves, and they began to use electricity both to explore how the nerves
functioned in the first place, and also how to remedy damaged nerves and reactivate them
if they seem to have gone lifeless. Also in this case, we have a prosthetic limb and,
as you might expect with all those amputations, there was a big demand. And manufacturers
vied with each other to present the government with models that were functional and comfortable
to wear. And in some cases, we know that amputations themselves were conducted in particular ways
with the idea of wearing a prosthetic limb comfortably afterwards. Also in this case,
we have things that everybody would recognize: a hypodermic syringe and a thermometer. And
this particular thermometer is bent, and that is intentional because it’s not placed in
the mouth, but in the armpit. We also have in this case a very early hypodermic syringe,
but it’s not used exactly the same way as getting a shot is today at the doctor’s office.
A small lancet would be first used to cut the skin, then the needle would be introduced
into that cut, and the doctor would slowly inject the solution of morphine directly into
the body. And then it would be removed and that cut would be bandaged. In addition to
all those battlefield injuries, disease was also a problem. These long glass tubes contained
specimens that represent the appearance of dysentery, lesions in the digestive tract.
So specimens such as these were also collected and saved during the Civil War to study the
phenomena, also to preserve specimens against a future date, when cures and new medicines
might come into play. But also in those days, it was possible to vaccinate against one disease:
smallpox. There were multiple outbreaks in the Southern states and the Confederacy had
a difficult time finding vaccines. Well you see on display a small device that looks a
chrome-played stapler. It’s actually a device for early vaccination. It’s meant to be used
to prick a pustule on a person suffering from a mild form of smallpox, remove a little bit
of the fluid from the sore, and then go to a healthy person and jab them with it with
the idea that they get a very mild form of the disease, but after they recover, they’re
immune from smallpox. I’m standing in front of the Amputation Booth, this is the one interactive
of this Civil War exhibit. A person will enter some data about themselves on this keypad
here: their height, their sex, their skin tone. They enter this booth and they stand
on a pair of green footprints that align themselves with a full length mirror. But in place of
their right arm, they see a computer-generated arm. And the idea is, over the course of about
two and a half minutes, they watch what happens when a minié ball strikes the arm. The arm
is wounded and it becomes infected as the gangrene sets in and becomes worse, so the
arm is amputated. There’s healing and then a prosthetic limb applied. And later, the
phantom limb syndrome makes itself apparent. Well this concludes our small tour of Broken
Bodies, Suffering Spirits. We know that you are not able to see this exhibit, but if you’re
interested in more, we also have posted to the web 9 videos, a medical historical travelogue
of Civil War Philadelphia. If you are a student or a teacher or you’re an undergraduate, you
might be interested in our set of 10 online lesson plans. These lesson plans span a variety
of activities connected with Civil War medicine, from how to amputate to the health of the
United States Colored Troop soldier. These are designed to focus on becoming acquainted
with primary sources in the history of medicine so it puts you in the front lines of the Civil
War. Thank you again for visiting!


  • Reply Marisa Madole December 29, 2019 at 5:29 pm

    One of my favorite museums! Thank you for making this video!

  • Reply Spiral Python December 30, 2019 at 2:52 pm

    Really interesting exhibition. Thanks for uploading this virtual visit from a researcher in disability in Australia 🇦🇺

  • Reply K MB February 5, 2020 at 2:22 am

    I love the idea of focusing on different individuals who lived through this experience. It's so much more personal and engaging.

  • Reply Code Name February 8, 2020 at 2:15 am

    I have wanted to see this museum since I was little. I will see it before I get old.

  • Reply Marlowe Lewis February 8, 2020 at 3:00 am

    Favorite museum and new favorite channel!

  • Reply Jean Fish February 8, 2020 at 10:53 am

    My grandparents were born in the late 180p' s ( baby uncle born 1900)… " grandson was born in the 1st 2 decades of the 20th century?

  • Reply Jean Fish February 8, 2020 at 10:55 am

    My ancestors fought on both sides…families were torn apart..

  • Reply Muffin February 9, 2020 at 6:39 am

    Thank you so much for sharing this for those of us who are unable to go!

  • Reply Bev Gordon February 9, 2020 at 10:28 am

    Very interesting except the female nurses’ roles were completely ignored. Too bad. Otherwise, a well thought presentation.

  • Reply wonderwend1 February 9, 2020 at 9:22 pm

    What an interesting exhibition

  • Reply Civetta Dalish February 9, 2020 at 10:29 pm

    An electric pulse reader back then? I had no idea!! This made my little medical nerd heart so happy! I have already send this link to others. This is fascinating!

  • Reply Kentucky 1950 February 9, 2020 at 11:23 pm

    I am the great granddaughter of a Union soldier.

  • Reply VZ_ 342 February 10, 2020 at 3:34 am

    What a truly awesome exhibit of a terrible time. I’ve seen a number of Civil War veterans’ graves and always wondered about what they must have gone through.

  • Reply The Paranormal Parlor February 10, 2020 at 5:07 pm

    Enjoyed the video, very interesting!

  • Reply Gary Cooper February 10, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    The Civil War was not so long ago. My paternal grandfather was born less than 33 years after the end of the war. When my parents were children, there were still Civil War veterans alive in their communities.

  • Reply MagpieRat February 10, 2020 at 8:32 pm

    7:45 – That guy is not a physician. His patient is far beyond that stage – he's an embalmer!

  • Reply P Heart February 11, 2020 at 8:57 am

    Wouldnt that arm contain dormant smallpox bacilli?

  • Reply Maria Torres February 11, 2020 at 6:42 pm

    Thank you for this excellent video! Who says there is nothing to learn from YouTube?! You can learn a lot, if you do the right choices! Best regards fro Lisbon Portugal.

  • Reply picassogilamonster February 12, 2020 at 12:25 am

    We will never learn

  • Reply Donna Reid February 12, 2020 at 1:04 am

    Friends of mine had their wedding reception at the college years ago…it was such a treat to be able to go through the museum after hours. Makes one very grateful. Plus it’s one of my favorite buildings in Philly.

  • Reply SCuba Do February 12, 2020 at 3:15 am

    There's not enough history taught about our country's civil war. Ken Burns has a great docuseries on Netflix. It covers everything but not as in depth on the medical side as this does.

  • Reply Just Having Fun February 12, 2020 at 5:42 am

    Excellent presentation. I'm intrigued to learn more. I once visited Civil War reenaction and they had a medical tent set up with some instruments. Chilling.

  • Reply Rodney Bidmade February 12, 2020 at 12:24 pm

    Thankyou for this video, From Australia

  • Reply Diadem Glow February 12, 2020 at 6:38 pm

    So hard to watch, and yet this is our history.

  • Reply GaslitWorld f. Melissa B February 12, 2020 at 10:18 pm

    Massive human suffering usually brings about medical knowledge and practice breakthroughs. I still hate thinking that it's necessary, but seems like it's true.

  • Reply Patsy Chattley February 13, 2020 at 12:49 am

    Fascinating video, I learned a lot.

  • Reply IntoTheAbyss OfTheUnknown February 13, 2020 at 2:31 am

    War is Hell. Thank God if you survive. Like mostly everything else in life, death doesn't discriminate.

  • Reply IntoTheAbyss OfTheUnknown February 13, 2020 at 2:34 am

    Sorry but, all I want to do is lance that cyst between the presenter's 👀s. I can't hep

  • Reply Joan Pashinsky-Greve February 13, 2020 at 5:10 pm

    Wow that was pretty cool learned a lot 👌

  • Reply Multiscan0001 February 14, 2020 at 2:14 am

    The soldier’s ancestors probably came from the Netherlands. His name ‘Huidekoper’ is using the following two words: Huid(en) and Koper. Meaning skin(s) and buyer. Translated to English the name would be something like Henry Skinbuyer or Skinsbuyer.

  • Reply Kristen Blount February 14, 2020 at 4:23 am

    There is an actor named Silas Weir Mitchell (Monroe from the tv series Grimm) and I wonder if he is related to the doctor S. Weir Mitchell. That is a pretty uncommon name & they definitely look like they could be related. 🤔

  • Reply Anneke Reijman February 14, 2020 at 6:28 pm

    Huidekoper is volgens mij een puur Nederlandse naam

  • Reply Chava Goldberg February 15, 2020 at 5:12 am

    Loved this ty

  • Reply Miriam Bucholtz February 15, 2020 at 5:14 am

    My great-grandfather survived having been imprisoned in Andersonville. I understand that he was permanently disabled from it.

  • Reply jc curran February 15, 2020 at 8:22 am

    Wow! I really like learning new facts (such as where the term "Phantom Pain" was coined). I never realized how both personal, historical and warm this beloved museum can be. The Lecturer is also a "gifted speaker". With his soft touching tones, I almost felt like I was sitting with him before a fireplace in a large parlor in with velvet arm chairs immediately after the Civil War. This gentleman is relating all the "new scientific", but amazing things we learned about humanity as a result of the Civil War which advanced America for the better. Between his voice and the imagined quiet hounds resting by the fireplace while we enjoy our brandy (in large rounded yes-warm-bygod-
    warm) sniffer glasses, II missed Walt Whitman's connection to the Mutter Museum! Gotta go back and redo the video to "recap"… but first another brandy and perhaps a walk for the hounds. Also, in being Politically Correct (PC) in my day dream, I will forgo the Cigars and ashtrays. Do Meet me at the Mutter! I always loved the place! Best and Warm (like the Brandy) wishes to all!


  • Reply Donna Turnipseed February 16, 2020 at 2:19 am


  • Reply Carolyn Purser February 17, 2020 at 5:28 am

    Fascinating. Gives a much better understanding of medicine in that era.

  • Reply Victoria Tucker February 17, 2020 at 9:43 am

    This is fascinating!

  • Reply Donna Jackson February 18, 2020 at 1:42 am

    I just Loved this video!! I learned more truth about medical procedures, for the wounded, in the Civil War, than I have in my entire life.
    People love to take the most gruesome, and hardcore, images, of this war, and run with it. We never see a wounded, Civil War soldier, in the movies, being treated with any kind of warmth, humanity, or respect. They always, without fail, depict the patient taking a couple of good, swings of whiskey, and biting down on the same stick, as the last 100 guys, while several, men hold him down, as the doctor says, and hacks away, at one of his limbs.
    It was very, refreshing, to hear the truth about the subject. The war was horrendous, and men suffered terrible, injuries, and it makes me feel a little bit better for these men, knowing that they were treated much better, and much more humane, than I had previously been aware of.
    I would also like to add, that I would absolutely, Love, to visit this museum!! I've learned quite a lot about it, in just the last couple of days. I hope that I can make it happen!!

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