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Civil War Medical Treatment Spotlighted In Gettysburg's New Seminary Ridge Museum

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The Huffington Post
The Huffington Post

When you think about the American Civil War, you might picture thousands of casualties out on the battlefield. But have you ever thought about the aftermath of treating the wounded, and what it would have been like for those soldiers and the people who cared for them?

In the three short days from July 1-3 in 1863, of the 165,000 soldiers who arrived to fight in Gettysburg, 51,000 ended up dead, wounded, missing or captured -- the largest number of casualties in any U.S. battle.

The new Seminary Ridge Museum at Gettysburg, which opened its doors to the public on July 1 in commemoration of the battle's 150th anniversary, highlights the untold stories of the people who tended to the wounded.

"Frequently devoid of supplies or robbed of their surgical instruments by the enemy, medical practitioners had to improvise and experiment in order to save soldiers' lives," said Rev. Michael Cooper-White, President of the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg, and coincidentally enough, my Dad.

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Gettysburg Museum Medical Artifacts
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The museum building, constructed in 1832 for students at the Gettysburg Seminary, was used as a field hospital during the Civil War. Its most iconic feature is its cupola, from which Union General John Buford surveyed the Confederates approaching before battle began. The building was restored and turned into an educational museum as a joint collaboration between the Seminary and the Adams County Historical Society.

Several medical artifacts, including surgeon tools and embalming kits, are on display on the museum's third floor. Human mannequins in bloody, life-like exhibits illustrate how medical practitioners would have used these tools to treat 600 wounded soldiers -- both Union and Confederate -- at the hospital through September of 1863.

Medicine during the Civil War may have been crude -- it's a bit frightening to look at the saws in surgeon kits and imagine them being used on an arm or a leg -- but it paved the way for important medical advancements, like improved prosthetics, better pain management, and the triage system, as reported by Discovery News.

But the museum is about a lot more than cool artifacts and gruesome scenes. It uses photographs and first hand accounts to tell the stories of individual soldiers and healers who passed through the building. How did nurses, like Gettysburg wife Sarah Broadhead, react when they arrived to clean and bandage the soldiers' wounds?

"Worse horrors met my eyes on descending to the basement of the building. Men, wounded in three and four places, not able to help themselves the least bit, lay almost swimming in water..." Broadhead wrote in her privately published The Diary of a Lady of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from June 15 to July 15, 1863.

Another exhibit tells the story of Lt. Col. George McFarland, whose leg was amputated on July 3rd, and who was the last patient to leave the Seminary hospital on September 16th.

Visitors can hear from the Ziegler family -- including 13 year old Lydia and 10 year old Hugh -- who resided in the building and assisted in caring for the soldiers in the field hospital.

And although not there during the time of the battle, Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne attended Seminary in the building from 1835 to 1837. He was born a free man in South Carolina and became the first African-American college president.

The museum educates and unveils untold stories of the past, but it also emphasizes the role of history in informing the future. Back in the 19th Century, Americans fought over political and moral debates, and the exhibits encourage visitors to consider what injustices remain in the world today. A wall poses this question: "What do you think is the unfinished work of freedom?" A pad of sticky-notes sits beside it, and anyone can post their opinion.

What would you post there?

Top photo: Civil War re-enactor at Gettysburg impersonates Major H.H. McGuire, surgeon.