US Medical Department

Prides itself in its ability to depict life during the 1860’s with realism and authenticity.

The Medical Unit not only re-enacts some of the activities of the surgeons, doctors, nurses and stewards, but holds exhibition equipment to help the public learn about the medical and surgical practices of the period.

It is always keen to develop these aspects, and actively encourages people from both medical and non-medical backgrounds to take part in what is a genuinely enjoyable pastime.

The US Medical Department at the start of the war in 1861 consisted of the Surgeon General, 30 surgeons and 83 assistant surgeons. There were also an unspecified number of hospital stewards who helped the surgeons in their duties.

The Department had been run for a number of years by Dr Lawson, who was in his 80’s at the outbreak of the conflict. The department had been run on the basis of minimum cost, and was not prepared for the needs of an army fighting the first of the modern wars.

The US Department was additionally depleted by the loss of 3 surgeons and 29 assistant surgeons who joined the Confederate States, to establish the Confederate Medical Department.

However, despite this unpromising start, the US Medical Department grew into a service which dealt some 6,000,000 casualties, and employed a total of around 12,000 doctors, who were either commissioned officers, or were under contract for varying periods during the conflict. Support staff included hospital stewards, ward masters, nurses, cooks and laundresses.

Amongst these were some 3,200 female nurses, who were mainly stationed at general hospitals, although some nurses (notably those from the Religious Orders) were based in field hospitals, or on board ship, so were near the battle fronts.


The general treatment of injuries and disease had not changed significantly for almost 200 years, and as yet there was no widespread concept of the link between dirt and microbial infection. However, during the Crimea, Florence Nightingale was convinced of the link between dirt, poor food and disease, and Lister demonstrated that the use of carbolic sprays improved infection suppression. The results of better nutrition and cleanliness led to the death rate falling from 42% to 2% of all troops reaching hospital. Despite this, and other European evidence, most of the medical establishment in the Americas did not subscribe to these views, and even the practice of simply hygienic practices, such as hand washing before and after touching a patient did not become common practice for many years.


Most limbs which included complicated open fractures were amputated, and the surgeons were renowned for their speed and efficiency in this area. Some surgeons were able to carry out very successful resectioning of long bones, but most would not operate on penetrating belly or chest wounds, particularly in the
field. Complications of surgical cases included the development of infection and gangrene, but in general survival rates were good. Anaesthesia had been used routinely in operations since 1846, and was given in the form of Ether (primarily in the North) or Chloroform (preferred in the South) although Nitrous Oxide was preferred by dentists.


More men died of disease than conflict injuries during this period, with contagious diseases such as measles and chest infections claiming many thousands of lives. Poor living conditions and poor food lowered immune systems, and contributed to additional suffering and death from dysentery, malaria, and fevers. The majority of medical treatments were based on traditional and herbal medicines, with many doctors making up their own prescriptions, although some interesting ingredients, such as Mercury, lead and other heavy metals were used for certain conditions. However, by the end of the conflict drug companies had developed methods of mass production of certain standard medications in response to the volume of medications needed to treat large numbers of the sick, both military and civilian.

Medical Unit In action

Joining Us

Anyone interested in the medical field as a Health Care Professional or a member of the public cannot fail to be fascinated by the way in which medicine has developed, and SOSKAN gives you not only the opportunity to research this, but to re-live it as well! Our medical team exhibits, researches and teaches the public about 1860’s medicine, using actual and replica equipment and instruments. Members can make up medicines, practice using certain equipment (such as splints and bandages) and implement casualty simulation techniques to recreate actual injuries and treatments. The team also goes out onto the field of battle at shows, to look after the reenactors who may have trips and falls, cuts and bruises and other genuine problems during the week-end. If you would like further information please contact us by email.