Battle of Monocacy leaves behind legacy of hospitals, unknown casualty count
Surviving the battlefield was the first of many struggles Civil War soldiers faced after the Battle of Monocacy.
Disease and amputated limbs haunted those injured in “the Civil War Battle That Saved Washington,” but these soldiers had an advantage others in the war did not: Frederick.
“Frederick was the center of the Civil War,” said Terry Reimer, the director of research at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
The Union founded General Hospital No. 1 in Frederick, which would later play a critical role in caring for the soldiers after the Battle of Monocacy because of its sanitary conditions and vital location, according to Reimer’s book about Frederick hospitals during the Civil War, “One Vast Hospital.”
“Rockville, from the nature of the soil, being less easily drained, and from being less protected against the prevailing winds in winter, will be likely to furnish a greater number of typhoid-fever cases and diseases of the respiratory organs,” wrote Gen. S. Williams on Nov. 20, 1861, published in “One Vast Hospital.”
“Frederick promises immunity from these.”
In September 1862, surgeons, nurses and wounded soldiers began to fill the new hospital, which was overlooking the field where the Battle of Monocacy would later take place, according to Reimer. Over the course of three years, more than 30,000 patients would be treated at General Hospital No. 1, including those wounded in the Battle of Monocacy, according to Reimer.
“(The Battle of) Monocacy was a little different because it had a fully functioning, fully staffed hospital nearby,” Reimer said.
Before the Civil War, there was no system for evacuating the wounded from conflict zones, nor did military hospitals exist, Reimer wrote in “One Vast Hospital.” However, advances in medical knowledge and technology called for an established routine.
Medical personnel carried wounded soldiers off the battlefield to makeshift field dressing stations, regardless of which side they fought for, to stabilize their condition. After medical personnel had stopped the bleeding and administered morphine and whiskey to ease the pain, the soldier would return to battle or be moved to a field hospital via ambulance or stretcher for further treatment, Reimer wrote in her book about Civil War medicine, “Divided by Conflict, United by Compassion.”
If the wound was severe and the limb could not be saved, doctors surgically removed limbs at the field hospitals, typically administering chloroform or ether as anesthesia.
“The sooner the amputation, the better the patient would be,” Reimer said.
After the amputations, the patient was brought to a hospital to recover. More than 95 percent of amputations occurred at field hospitals, with arms and legs being the most commonly amputated limbs due to the damage caused by Minie balls, the ammunition for most weaponry used in the Civil War, Reimer said.
“If surgeons today were faced with Minie balls, they probably would’ve amputated the same amount,” Reimer said. “They ripped apart flesh and bone.”
However, most amputations after the Battle of Monocacy took place at General Hospital No. 1 instead of the field hospitals because the general hospital was less than a mile away.
With roughly 60,000 amputations taking place during the Civil War, the Union and Confederacy each founded their own organizations for providing soldiers with prosthetic limbs, which ranged from “a peg leg to really advanced molded wood,” Reimer said. At first, amputees received assistance when acquiring their new limbs, but toward the end of the war, the organizations paid soldiers for limb replacements at $50 for an arm and $75 for a leg.
Despite medical advancements in treatment and sanitation, the weaponry advanced beyond that of the ancient warfare tactics used in the Civil War, causing significant injuries.
“Men were marching in close formations, but the weaponry moved 10 times faster,” Reimer said. “(That’s) why we had manslaughter.”
Most soldiers killed in battle during the Civil War were placed in temporary graves until families or friends could send for their bodies. Surgeons embalmed anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 bodies during the war, and the unclaimed bodies were later placed in national cemeteries, Reimer wrote in “Divided by Conflict, United by Compassion.”
“The national cemetery system came about because of the Civil War,” Reimer said.
However, the number of casualties from the Battle of Monocacy remains largely unknown, with records putting the casualty rate between 2,152 and 2,240. The Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War, Volume VII, lists 90 Union soldiers having been killed while 579 were wounded and 1,290 went missing, but says only that 400 Confederate soldiers were wounded. Another book states a more comprehensive list with 130 Union soldiers killed, 560 wounded and 700 taken prisoner, while 200 Confederate soldiers were killed and 650 wounded.
“It’s difficult to find solid numbers,” said Robert Slawson, a volunteer at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. “They didn’t worship figures the way we do today.”
General Hospital No. 1 closed in 1865, and the land was sold to the Frederick County Agricultural Society and later to the state of Maryland. Today, the Maryland School for the Deaf stands where the Civil War hospital previously treated thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers.
“What did last was the idea that a hospital was somewhere you go to get well,” Reimer said.