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War and Military History

Why were there so many amputations in the Civil War?


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September 05, 2009 5:20PM

Weapons of war had progressed to the point that injuries to the bone would fracture it into many little pieces, seldom a clean break. Doctors did not have either the skill or the time to reconstruct the bones. And any attempting to reconstruct them increased the likelihood of infection and death. Doctors discovered that if they cut off the injured limbs that the person would be much more likely to survive. And in other cases, the wounded had been exposed to the elements and battlefield for days prior to being brought in for treatment. In those cases gangrene and infection may have already set in. Most of the muzzle loading rifles used were .58 caliber. During early 1800's, gun powder was not very powerful. In order to have more knock-down power, the size of the bullet was made larger. This made the bullet travel slow but they struck with a lot of energy. These slow, large bullets tend to fracture bones. Whereas, high-speed, small bullets will penetrate without fracturing. Bigger bullets tend to have a higher probability of hitting more bones. Also, these bullets were made from pure Lead (not a lead alloy like modern guns). The soft lead would deform and flatten out, causing more internal damage or a larger exit wound. The medical technology at that time could not repair these fractured limbs so they had to be amputated---as stated above. The wounds produced by these bullets also cause more infection. The bullets traveled slow and therefore did not heat up---which would kill some of the bacteria on them. They were also known to tear clothing material and pull pieces of it into the wound. Really nasty. it is when part of the body has been taken off for several reasons. 240,000 British soldiers suffered total or partial leg or arm amputations as a result of war wounds. Most of these men were fitted with artificial limbs