The minie ball, a new bullet for a new Civil War, was an evil chunk of soft lead that expanded after firing to fit the rifle barrel — and then tumbled through a soldier's body, causing wounds that required amputations.
Despite the surgeons' skills, they did a poor job of keeping their instruments clean and rarely used anesthetics.
The heroism and suffering, with a special emphasis on Illinoisans, is evident in "To Kill and to Heal: Weapons and Medicine of the Civil War," running through 2013 at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.
Two-thirds of the mortalities in America's most deadly war were caused by disease; letters from soldiers in the exhibit mention heat, flies and smoky campfires as contributing to the toll.
Glenna Schroeder-Lein is the curator of "To Kill and to Heal," and wrote the book on the subject, "The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine," which she used in part for the exhibits.
She is also the manuscripts librarian for the museum and library complex and has found a wealth of original source material that preserves the speech and thought of the era, including idiosyncratic punctuation and spelling. Schroeder-Lein said she worked with a team of experts in finding the actual words of Civil War soldiers.
In 1864, Union soldier David R. Gregg wrote to his wife, Sarah: "It is the awfulest Sight you Ever Saw our Men are Wounded in Evry part of them that I Can describe from the Crown to the Sole of the foot."
There is a single letter in the collection, Schroeder-Lein said, from one Asher Miller of the 74th Illinois Infantry, but it speaks volumes.
The Rockford native joined the 74th Illinois Infantry as a musician.
Miller describes a hospital as "men as thick as they could lay then the whole yard covered with hospital tents full of wounded and you would have but a faint Idea of the horrors of War. our Building which is a large Sized planters house with the tents was said at one time to contain eight hundred men."
He describes a minie ball wound:
"A Minnie ball tears a great hole so that you could run your thumb right down in the wound."
Doctors probed for bullets with a porcelain-tipped instrument on which lead could rub off.
Schroeder-Lein said some men were better off left on the battlefield or delayed for surgery because maggots did a better job of cleaning infected wounds than the surgeons did.
Two years after the war ended and Lincoln was assassinated, Joseph Lister began to advocate for using a mild antiseptic, carbolic acid, on surgical instruments and in wounds. (His name is preserved in Listerine.)
Before and during the era of the Crimean and Civil wars, Schroeder-Lein said, physicians assumed miasmas, or foul air from swamps and ponds, caused disease.
They didn't recognize that mosquitoes spread malaria but did "the right thing for the wrong reason" and moved patients away from the sources of miasmas and thus mosquitoes.
Even water was an antagonist. U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote in 1862:
"The water of the James River is turbid and objectionable for drinking. It is the only sewer for an army of 90,000 or 100,000 men encamped upon its banks, as well as the great number of naval and other vessels scattered over its surface."
The most devoted health workers sought out clean water for cleansing and for drinking.
Some doctors and nurses, especially women nurses, who were in the minority, did recognize the value of clean clothes, linens and instruments in the Civil War — women because they were brought up with a general notion of cleanliness, the curator said.
Some of the better-educated surgeons had acquired part of their medical education in Europe, Schroeder-Lein said.
There they heard of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician who died in 1865. He had urged doctors to wash their hands between delivering babies. Many doctors, however, felt insulted at the very suggestion.
And soldiers sickened themselves as well. One case Schroeder-Lein describes is self-immunization against smallpox.
There was something of an epidemic at the time, and the president himself was not immune from it.
Schroeder-Lein said Lincoln's headache shortly after delivering the Gettysburg Address may have been an early sign of smallpox.
He was formally diagnosed with a minor case of it, and the news was distributed along the telegraph wires. She said the case may have been worse but downplayed to ease the worries of a nation that already had enough problems.
Instead of weakened virus, soldiers used virulent smallpox as well as scabs — possibly from syphilis — in attempts to follow the order to protect themselves.
A yellow hospital flag with a green H marked medical units; however, it was no certain protection against attack, the curator said.
(The flag in the exhibit was lent by former Christie doctor John Schmale).
The wounded patients had gumption, at least those who were lucky enough to survive the first treatments.
McLean County resident Capt. Lewis Ijams was wounded with a ball in 1864, passing between his spine and right hip and perforating the intestines.
Ijams, thought a lost cause, escaped from a Confederate hospital and trudged 70 miles on crutches over the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky.
Materials in the exhibit come from the Springfield collection, supplemented by artifacts from the Illinois State Military Museum, The Museum of the Confederacy, Rush University Medical Center Archives, Fort Sumter National Historic Site, Nancy Ross Chapter of the DAR from Pittsfield, University Museum of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and the Old State Capitol State Historic Site.
If you go
What: "To Kill and to Heal: Weapons and Medicine of the Civil War," a special exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (through the exhibit's expected closing date of Nov. 20, 2013)
Where: 212 N. Sixth St., Springfield
Tickets: Adults $12; seniors (62 and up) $9; children (5-15) $6; military (ID required) $7; students (ID required) $9; children under 5 and members have no charge (may be purchased at the door or by calling call the box office at 558-8934)
More information: http://www.alplm.org/
Check out the video on YouTube: youtu.be/RDylXcmJvPI