Being a soldier in the Revolutionary War was risky business, and not just because of the battles. If the war itself did not kill a soldier, seeking medical treatment for a wound or illness might. Statistics show that a soldier had a 98 percent chance of survival on the battlefield but only a 75 percent chance in a hospital. Thankfully, modern medicine has come a long way, but just what did soldiers during the Revolutionary War have to look forward to if they needed medical help?
To practice medicine today, doctors undergo years of intense study and training. However, that was not the case in colonial America. People could call themselves doctors and begin practicing medicine after just a few years of apprenticing with another doctor. Medicine of the time was practiced based on theories rather than on real scientific knowledge. Many doctors believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of the humors, which were blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Because of this belief, doctors often prescribed bloodletting or medicine to induce vomiting or bowel movements to restore the balance.
To seek treatment for any serious ailment, a soldier would have had to go to a hospital of sorts. Military regiments had a surgeon on staff to care for the men, so the soldier's first stop would be with the surgeon. During battles, the surgeon could be found in a makeshift or "flying" hospital that consisted of a tent, an operating table, and some medical equipment. If the surgeon could not treat the soldier, he might be sent to a hospital. Many regimental hospitals were in nearby houses, while general hospitals for more in-depth treatment were sometimes set up in barns, churches, or other public buildings. The conditions were often cramped, which resulted in the rapid spread of contagious illnesses and infections.
Supplies during the Revolutionary War were incredibly sparse. That was in part because most medicine had previously been brought in from England by ship, but since the Americans were fighting the English, that source was eliminated. This problem was alleviated by an alliance with the French in 1778, who then provided medicine and other supplies to America.
Even if a doctor could get his hands on some medicine for his patients, the options were still limited. Doctors used opiates as painkillers, but anesthetics had not been invented yet. Other common medicines included mercury compounds, lavender spirits, and cream of tartar.
Woe to the soldier who required surgery after being wounded on the battlefield! The conditions in "flying" hospitals were deplorable. Not only was the operating room simply a table in a tent, but there was little thought given to keeping the table and tools clean. In fact, wounds were sometimes cleaned using plain water from a bucket, and the used water would be saved to clean out the next soldier's wounds as well.
If a soldier was shot with a musket ball, which had a diameter of about three-fourths of an inch, the damage was devastating, and he would most certainly require a visit to the surgeon. Since there was no anesthesia at the time, the soldier was strapped to the table to keep him restrained while the musket ball was dug from his body using tools that probably had not been washed after being used to treat the last soldier. If the musket ball struck a bone, the damage was usually so bad that the only option was amputation, which was also performed right there in the makeshift hospital tent. Patients were strapped down and given something to bite down on, like a piece of wood or some leather, to keep them from biting off their own tongues as they endured the agony. Of course, none of this did anything to dull the pain; if the doctor and the other patients in the tent were lucky, the man's screams would stop when he passed out. If the patient survived, he was given opiates for his pain, but the infection caused by unsanitary conditions was frequently the cause of death.
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