Another fantastic Disunion article, though not one for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. There are some fascinating facts and anecdotes in here, including the higher probability of Confederate generals than Confederate soldiers needing treatment, and the impressive speed with which amputations were performed. As the author points out, the legacy of the war was evident for decades afterwards in its limbless veterans.
Because surgeons preferred to operate outdoors where lighting and ventilation were better, thousands of soldiers witnessed amputations firsthand. Passers-by and even wounded men waiting their turn watched as surgeons sawed off arms and legs and tossed them onto ever growing piles. The poet Walt Whitman witnessed such a scene when he visited Fredericksburg in search of his wounded brother. “One of the first things that met my eyes in camp,” he wrote, “was a heap of feet, arms, legs, etc., under a tree in front of a hospital.” Indeed, after the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, Union surgeons performed almost 500 amputations.
Early in the war surgeons earned the nickname “Saw-bones” because they seemed eager to amputate. This eagerness stemmed not from overzealousness but from the knowledge that infections developed quickly in mangled flesh, and amputation was the most effective way to prevent it. Those limbs removed within 48 hours of injury were called primary amputations, and those removed after 48 hours were called secondary amputations. The mortality rate for primary amputations was about 25 percent; that for secondary amputations was twice as high, thanks to the fact that most secondary amputations were performed after gangrene or blood poisoning developed in the wound. Surgeons learned that amputating the limb after it became infected actually caused the infection to spread, and patients frequently died. Thus, the patient was much more likely to survive if a primary amputation was performed before infection set in.