Doctors fought diseases as well as injuries

WARREN – Small pox and other diseases were as much killers of men during the Civil War as the fighting between members of the Confederate and the Union armies, according to Peter D’Onofrio, a re-enactor who portrays former Ohio Surgeon General Robert Nelson Barr.

”Many people fighting in the war, especially those from more rural areas, were not previously exposed to childhood diseases. The diseases swept through their camps,” D’Onofrio told an audience of about three dozen Sunday at the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library.

D’Onofrio, who addressed the crowd as Barr from a point of view that was one year after the end of the Civil War, described the improvement of doctors and the growth of the medical establishment in the North every year that the war between states was fought.

D’Onofrio said the Union army’s medical facilities improved dramatically when William Alexander Hammond was promoted to Surgeon General by President Abraham Lincoln.

Hammond, working with Jonathan Letterman, raised the requirements of the medical corps and increased the number of hospitals.

Prior to changes made by Hammond, doctors often were volunteers who only treated soldiers inside their units. Also, doctors, especially those in combat zones, did not know about the importance of hygiene when treating their patients.

”He (Hammond) also required physicians to keep detailed records of their treatments of soldiers,” said D’Onofrio.

It was Hammond and Letterman who successfully pushed for a permanent military corps, hospitals and centralized places where medications would be sent from to the field. Also created during the war was an ambulance corps, which made better the transportation of the wounded from the battlefield.

”During the first battle of Bull Run, none of the wounded made it from the battlefield back to Washington D.C.,” said D’Onofrio. ”It was a 27-mile distance. Ambulances were totally unsatisfactory. They were on two wheels and many of the drivers abandoned them.”

The second Battle of Bull Run wasn’t better, because it was found that some of the ambulance drivers were robbing the patients they were carrying.

It was during the Civil War that the first Army nurse corps was created under Dorothea Dix, who was initially in charge of the appointment of all nurses. Her manner, though, put her at odds with commanders.

”Dix’s screening method required the applicants to be unattractive,” he said. ”None of you ladies would fit her requirements.”

It was later found that nuns were worked very well with surgeons, because they were trained to follow instructions.

”Women nurses, it was found, were strong morale builders,” said D’Onofrio. ”It is estimated that 4,000 women served in the Union hospitals. We do not know the number of women who served in Confederate Hospitals because the records were destroyed when Atlanta was burned as the Confederates retreated.”