PERSPECTIVE: Civil War exhibit in library challenges myths

By David Thomas
Department of History

Some of what passes for common knowledge about the Civil War is not knowledge at all.

We “know” that Civil War doctors performed thousands of amputations, many of them unnecessary, without any anesthesia beyond a shot of whiskey and a bullet clamped between the soldier’s teeth.

This is actually not the case.

In fact, nearly all surgeries were supervised fairly conservatively and performed with anesthesia.

In early November, the Emma Waters Summar Library will bring to the Union campus an exhibit from the U. S. National Library of Medicine.

Entitled “Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries:  African Americans in Civil War Medicine,” this exhibit promises to challenge what we know about the war.

The Civil War transformed the place of African Americans in this country by abolishing slavery.

Similarly, the war transformed the practice of medicine, as medical personnel raced to create a battlefield and emergency medical system that could accommodate thousands of wounded.

African Americans, trained as doctors and nurses, pushed the boundaries on both fronts, moving into medical positions normally held only by whites, while helping to advance the transformation of the medical profession.

This exhibit tells the story of some of these men and women.

William Powell, trained in England, worked as a surgeon at the Contraband Hospital in Washington, D. C.  Alexander Augusta received his medical training in Canada because no medical school in the U. S. accepted blacks.

He, too, worked as a surgeon at the Contraband Hospital and broke a color barrier prohibiting black medical leadership when he became surgeon-in-charge.

Later in the war, he mustered in with the 7th Infantry as their regimental surgeon.

Suzie King Taylor, born a slave, attended to the wounded as a nurse.

After the war, she published her memoirs, the only known memoirs of an African American nurse from the Civil War.

Charlotte Forten, a free woman and a northerner, traveled south during the war to serve as a nurse for wounded troops and to teach former slaves.

Their stories are joined by those of other African Americans who worked to heal the terrible wounds and illnesses of war and contributed their part in the effort to extend liberty to all Americans.

The Civil War was a war to restore the Union and end slavery.

The exhibit from the National Library of Medicine tells a little-known part of that history, introducing us to the contributions of African American doctors and nurses during that war.

The exhibit will be on campus November 2 through December 14.

David Thomas is a professor of history.

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