A small-waisted, demure-looking dress is on display at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. I can imagine the woman who wore it. Her movements were quick and light, her voice soothing, her hair neatly gathered in a bun.
But she was overwhelmed by circumstance, this woman. Her dress is spattered with blood. She was a Civil War nurse working in Frederick, Maryland, a city also overwhelmed as successsive waves of casualties poured in from nearby battles.
This poignant artifact is one of over 3,000 objects in the museum, which houses everything from a surgeon’s tent to chloroform inhalers. The displays are set up roughly chronologically, beginning with soldiers’ recruitment, then progressing through their experience in camp life. Things turn a little darker as the exhibit progresses, with the subsequent rooms detailing what happened when soldiers were wounded – how they were evacuated, taken to a field dressing station, then to a field hospital for surgery, and finally a pavilion hospital for longer-term care.
The museum does an outstanding job of detailing and recreating this. Most rooms contain a central tableau, such as a surgeon and his assistants preparing to perform an amputation. As the visitor enters the room, a recorded conversation between the participants begins, adding a human dimension to the static exhibit.
The wartime experience of Private Peleg Bradford, a simple Maine country boy, illustrates the patient’s point of view. Extracts from his letters home recounting his war experiences are featured in each room. Bradford, who was hospitalized several times during the war for various illnesses and ultimately lost a leg after being shot in the knee, was a blunt and clear-eyed critic of the soldier’s lot. "I should advise you to stay at home and let the war & sea go to hel for theair is plaises a man can make more than to go to sea or war eather," he wrote to his brothers, advising them not to enlist.
It is fitting that this museum is in Frederick, which witnessed three invasions, 38 skirmishes, and two major battles. Over 6,000 wounded poured into the town after the Battle of Antietam, and the town became, in the words of one reporter, "one vast hospital." Thirty-eight local buildings, including nine churches, were converted to hospitals.
More than 600,000 soldiers died during the war, twice as many from disease as in combat. Frequently working under horrid conditions, the doctors, nurses, and other caregivers did the best they could. Advances such as the establishment of an ambulance corps, recruiting women to act as nurses in hospitals, and the first widespread use of anesthesia made the lot of the wounded men more bearable. The triumphs and tragedies of the "real war," as Whitman called it, are splendidly documented in this unusual museum.
Admission is $6.50 adults, $4.50 children; hours are 10-5 Monday-Saturday, 11-5 Sunday.
July 11, 2002
From journal Frederick, Maryland: Bridging Past and Present