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To Kill and to Heal Exhibit

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December 1, 2012

212 N. Sixth St
Springfield, IL 62701
217-782-5764

TIME: 9am-5pm

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The deadliest weapon of the Civil War was one that nobody could see, killing two soldiers for every one felled by gunfire. The extraordinary casualties caused by that invisible killer, disease; the conventional weapons used to create slaughter on an unprecedented scale; horrific injuries suffered on the battlefield; and the heroic efforts of medical personnel to treat soldiers on both sides are described in detail in “To Kill and to Heal: Weapons and Medicine of the Civil War,” a new exhibit that opens May 11 at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield.

This Civil War 150th anniversary exhibit runs through 2013 and features original images and artifacts from the Presidential Library and Museum’s collections supplemented by unique artifacts from the Illinois State Military Museum, The Museum of the Confederacy, Rush University Medical Center Archives, Fort Sumter National Historic Site, Nancy Ross Chapter of the DAR from Pittsfield, University Museum of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and the Old State Capitol State Historic Site.  Visitors can see an original Civil War hospital flag; a field stretcher; a door used as a surgical table; original weapons; a tree trunk from the Battle of Chickamauga with an embedded artillery shell; various medical and surgical tools, including an amputation kit; a crude leg prosthesis; a drum carried by a wounded soldier; and original letters, journals, drawings, clinical photographs and medical records.        

            “Northerners and Southerners shared similar weapons, military training, and medical knowledge at the beginning of the Civil War,” said Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Executive Director Eileen Mackevich.  “Both sides also shared a lack of preparedness for the human carnage that modern warfare would create.  This new exhibit shows in very graphic and human terms the wounds and illnesses suffered by soldiers and the herculean task of providing medical care to the sick and wounded.”     

The experiences of actual soldiers are prevalent throughout the exhibit, including quotes and photographs, lending a human touch to the horror of war.  Some of the images come from original medical files and graphically depict the effects of deadly weapons and even deadlier germs on the bodies of Union and Confederate soldiers.    

The exhibit opens with the weapons that caused the wounds during the Civil War, including guns, ammunition, artillery and edged weapons.  This section also deals with the increased effectiveness of the weapons, and how carefully trained soldiers could create havoc while using them.  Union Captain John C. Van Dozer wrote in 1863 about a Confederate sharpshooter his unit encountered:  “One mile up the river from Mason’s house, one fellow, using a Mississippi rifle, killed everything he shot at, man, horse, or mule; he killed 3 men and wounded 2, and killed about a dozen mules.”

Wounds caused by the various weapons and treatment for those injuries are described in a section that includes gun shot wounds, amputations, artificial limbs and anesthesia.  Several soldier stories illustrate this section, including this quote from Union soldier David R. Gregg in an 1864 letter to his wife, Sarah Gregg:  “it is the awfulest Sight you Ever Saw our Men are Wounded in Evry part of them that I Can describe from the Crown to the Sole of the foot.” 

Diseases, infections and treatments are examined in a section that deals with colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis, measles, smallpox (which afflicted Abraham Lincoln around the time of the Gettysburg Address), sexually transmitted diseases, malaria, scurvy, typhoid (which killed the Lincolns’ son Willie in the White House), diarrhea, and dysentery.  Chronic diarrhea and dysentery were the leading causes of death by disease during the Civil War.  Intestinal diseases so concerned commanders on both sides that they issued orders such as these from U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in 1862:  “The water of the James River…is turbid and objectionable for drinking.  It is the only sewer for an army of 90,000 or 100,000 men encamped upon its banks, as well as the great number of naval and other vessels scattered over its surface.  The addition of the drainage of this vast accumulation of men and cattle to the vegetable matter abounding in the river would obviously render the use of its water as a drink productive of diarrhea and other bowel disorders.  Fleet Surgeon Wood recommends that the use of its water as a drink be interdicted.” 

The medical personnel who provided treatment to the sick and wounded are profiled in the exhibit.  There were just 113 military doctors in the prewar Union army; by the end of the Civil War, the Union had more than 12,000 and the Confederacy 3,200.  Most nurses were male, but a female nurse, famed author Louisa May Alcott, wrote in her Hospital Sketches about recovering soldiers who because of nursing shortages were pressed into duty to care for their comrades:   “I should like to enter my protest against employing convalescents as attendants, instead of strong, properly trained, and cheerful men...here it was a source of constant trouble and confusion, these feeble, ignorant men trying to sweep, scrub, lift, and wait upon their sicker comrades. One, with a diseased heart, was expected to run up and down stairs, carry heavy trays, and move helpless men; he tried it, and grew rapidly worse than when he first came; and, when he was ordered out to march away to the convalescent hospital, fell, in a sort of fit, before he turned the corner, and was brought back to die.”  Well-known figures such as poet Walt Whitman, whose experiences will be described in the exhibit, provided comfort to the wounded and dying in military hospitals. 

 The field and general hospitals developed to treat the huge numbers of sick and wounded soldiers are featured in the exhibit.  Although both sides of the conflict kept adding more hospitals, they could not keep up with the demand, as evidenced by this excerpt from a letter written by Asher Miller of the 74th Illinois Infantry in 1863:  “Just imagine the Court House at Rockford Stripped of its benches and filled with wounded men as thick as they could lay then the whole yard covered with hospital tents full of wounded and you would have but a faint Idea of the horrors of War.  our Building which is a large Sized planters house with the tents was said at one time to contain eight hundred men.” 

Transporting the wounded from the battlefield fell upon the ambulance corps.  There were only 50 ambulances available at the start of the war, and just about everything on wheels was used when the casualties started to mount.  Some were so rough riding that the soldiers called them “gutbusters.”  Others were driven by less than reliable civilians, as written by Union Medical Inspector Richard H. Coolidge in 1862 after the Second Battle of Bull Run:  “Very few [civilian ambulance drivers] would assist in placing the wounded in their ambulances; still fewer could be induced to assist in feeding them or giving them water.  Some were drunk; many were insubordinate; others, when detected with provisions or stores, would not surrender them until compelled by physical force.” 

The exhibit also features the efforts to raise money to help provide treatment for soldiers of both sides.  These efforts included modest to large “sanitary fairs.”  Abraham Lincoln attended the fairs in Washington DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and donated a copy of his Gettysburg Address to be sold with a copy of Edward Everett’s Gettysburg speech at the New York City fair.  The Everett speech sold at the fair is displayed in the exhibit.   

“To Kill and to Heal: Weapons and Medicine of the Civil War” opens about a month after the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, the first Civil War battle with massive casualties on a scale that indicated what the remaining years of the war would bring. Glenna Schroeder-Lein is the curator, and she worked closely with an exhibits team consisting of John Malinak, Michael Casey, Carla Smith, Katie Grant, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, staff from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and numerous community groups, institutions, and individuals to create the exhibit.    

Paid admission to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is required to view the exhibit.  Admission prices are $12 for adults, $9 for senior citizens, and $6 for children.  A special admission rate of $5 is available to those who want to visit only the new exhibit. For more information, visit www.presidentlincoln.org

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