museums and archives, teaching

Field trip!

I took my Civil War in American Lit class to Frederick, MD, over the weekend, to visit the National Civil War Medicine Museum and to take a walking tour of local Civil War sites. Frederick, it turns out, was not only the town closest to Antietam, the battle that claimed the largest number of casualties in a single day– 20,000 killed, wounded, or missing–but also sits on what used to be two major crossroads: the old National Road running from Baltimore to points west, and what is now Court St., which ran from the Shenandoah Valley to Pennsylvania. Our wonderful tour guide, Betsy Estilow, Professor Emerita of Biology from Hood College (located in Frederick), joked that you knew it was summer in Frederick in the years 1860-1865 because there were either Union or Confederate troops– or both– in town.

Professor Estilow talks about the intersection of Market St. and Patrick St. in downtown Frederick, once a national crossroads between major north-south and east-west routes.
Professor Estilow talks about the intersection of Market St. and Patrick St. in downtown Frederick, once a national crossroads between major north-south and east-west routes.

As a major town (then having a population of about 8000) near the action, Frederick was picked to be a hospital site as early as 1861. After the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, nearly every single church, school, and government building in town was turned into makeshift surgeries, recovery wards, and morgues. One witness wrote that Frederick had been turned into “one vast hospital.” So it makes sense that the city is the site of the National Civil War Medicine Museum. The museum, incidentally, happens to be housed in one of the first embalming “studios.” (Modern embalming techniques were one by-product of the immense number of Civil War deaths and the need to transport bodies by horse and train all over the country.) Here’s a shot from the museum, showing Betsy in action:

Tour guide Betsy Estilon describes life-- and death-- in camp, while class members peruse the exhibits. The tent in the background belonged to a Civil-War doctor and is one of the Museum's most important possessions.
Tour guide Betsy Estilow describes life– and death– in camp, while class members peruse the exhibits. The tent in the background belonged to a Civil-War doctor and is one of the most important items in the museum’s collection.

It turns out that more than half of the deaths in the Civil War resulted from disease, not battlefield injuries. Many believe that the diseases that killed the most soldiers was gangrene that set in from badly done amputations and the inability to control infections (the use of antibiotics to fight infection did not begin until after the war).

However, Betsy insisted that the majority came from diseases contracted in camp. Of the 1500 days of the war, she said, only 60 actually involved battle. So being in camp, and later, in prison, with poor sanitary conditions, poor nutrition, and what she called “immunologically naive” soldiers (i.e., those who hadn’t been exposed to many diseases, having come from the wholesome, unpopulated regions west of the Eastern seaboard) resulted in the vast majority of sickness, and eventually, death. The war’s major killers? More than the minié ball or the cannon, it was dysentery, typhoid, malaria; even measles.

The museum was full of great artifacts. Here are a few (though I must admit I neglected to photograph some of the more gruesome artifacts, including the mummified human arm, the torture-devices-cum-dental tools, and various tourniquets, saws, and such):

Clara Barton's folding trunk bed. The poles were used to support mosquito netting, needed to prevent malaria.
Clara Barton’s folding trunk bed. The poles were used to support mosquito netting, needed to prevent malaria.
Medics in the field had to carry all their supplies and equipment with them. Surprising how small this satchel is.
Medics in the field had to carry all their supplies and equipment with them. Surprising how small this satchel is.
We've seen these! Harper's Weekly was one of the main sources of reading material in camp.
Harper’s Weekly was one of the main sources of reading material in camp. Coincidentally, I had just brought my own personal copies of 1850s-era Harper’s Weekly to class to show them what Civil-War-era magazines looked like.
A diorama showing an amputation in progress. The table holding the figure is also from the war, and another prized possession in the museum's collection.
A diorama showing an amputation in progress. The table holding the figure was also used in the war (those are actual blood stains in the bottom right corner of the image), and another important piece in the museum’s collection.

Other fun facts of Civil War medicine:

  • The American Red Cross had its beginnings in the war.
  • So did the concept of ambulances to quickly transport people to hospitals.
  • 15% of those whose legs were amputated at the hip (thus severing several major veins and arteries) survived!
  • Nurses were so desperately needed that some prostitutes were given the choice between jail time/fines and hospital service.
  • Civil War hospitals had a mortality rate of only 8%, comparable to modern-day hospitals.

After lunch, Betsy and another docent, Mike Hoffman (who is a professor at the Army War College, served in the JAG, and also worked for the Red Cross for years) took us for a tour of downtown Frederick. Before we left, I graced the class with a very, ahem, dramatic reading of Frederick’s own claim to Civil War literature, a patriotic ballad by John Greenleaf Whittier titled “Barbara Freitchie.”

Professor Cole reading "Barbara Freitchie" and enthralling the class.
Professor Cole enthralling students with her performance of “Barbara Freitchie.” Photo by Jessica Ciampa (Thanks, Jessica!)

In the poem, the 90-something Barbara Freitchie, a staunch Unionist, refuses to be daunted by Confederates who keep taking down her flag. A real woman named Barbara Freitchie lived about 3 blocks from where we were standing, but apparently was probably not the woman who actually kept putting up the Union flag when the Confederates tried to take it down. Whittier, it seems, decided to conflate the real defender of the flag and a well-known local character. So it is Barbara who lives on.

Here are some other shots from the walking tour:

City Hall was burned to the ground in 1861 and replaced by this building during the Civil War.
City Hall was burned to the ground in 1861 and replaced by this building during the Civil War.
Controversial monument to Roger Taney, Head Justice of the Supreme Court and author of the Dred Scott decision (1857).
Controversial monument to Roger Taney, Head Justice of the Supreme Court and author of the Dred Scott decision (1857). (Also brother-in-law to Frederick’s better-known hometown boy, Francis Scott Key. Who owned slaves. Do they tell you that when you learn about “The Star-Spangled Banner” in school?)
A plaque commemmorating Dred and Harriet Scott that now stands next to the Taney statue, erected in 2009.
A plaque commemorating Dred and Harriet Scott that now stands next to the Taney statue, erected in 2009.

It was a very full day. But full in a good way. I got to know the students better, and they got to walk the streets traversed by Grant, Lee, and Jackson, as well as the thousands of soldiers and civilians caught up in the war who are the main subject of our course. That alone made it worth the trip– but what really made it special was that we all got to see how the town has lived with the war ever since.

While the town is full of monuments, museums, and markers, what was really striking to me was how invisible much of the history was. Without Betsy to show us sites and explain what happened, we would have just walked by. Thank goodness for Betsy, and all the public historians out there!

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