This Civil War 150th anniversary exhibit runs through 2013 and
features original images and artifacts from the presidential library
and museum's collections, supplemented by unique artifacts from the
Illinois State Military Museum, 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 Carbondale and the Old State
Capitol State Historic Site.
Visitors can see an original Civil
War hospital flag; a field stretcher; a door used as a surgical
table; original weapons; a tree trunk from the Battle of Chickamauga
with an embedded artillery shell; various medical and surgical
tools, including an amputation kit; a crude leg prosthesis; a drum
carried by a wounded soldier; and original letters, journals,
drawings, clinical photographs and medical records.
"Northerners and Southerners shared similar weapons, military
training and medical knowledge at the beginning of the Civil War,"
said Eileen Mackevich, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library and Museum. "Both sides also shared a lack of
preparedness for the human carnage that modern warfare would create.
This new exhibit shows in very graphic and human terms the wounds
and illnesses suffered by soldiers and the herculean task of
providing medical care to the sick and wounded."
The experiences of actual soldiers are prevalent throughout the
exhibit, including quotes and photographs, lending a human touch to
the horror of war. Some of the images come from original medical
files and graphically depict the effects of deadly weapons and even
deadlier germs on the bodies of Union and Confederate soldiers.
The exhibit opens with the weapons that caused the wounds during
the Civil War, including guns, ammunition, artillery and edged
weapons. This section also deals with the increased effectiveness of
the weapons and how a carefully trained soldier could create havoc
while using them.
Union Capt. John C. Van Dozer wrote in 1863 about a Confederate
sharpshooter his unit encountered: "One mile up the river from
Mason's house, one fellow, using a Mississippi rifle, killed
everything he shot at, man, horse, or mule; he killed 3 men and
wounded 2, and killed about a dozen mules."
Wounds caused by the various weapons and treatment for those
injuries are described in a section that includes gunshot wounds,
amputations, artificial limbs and anesthesia. Several soldier
stories illustrate this section, including this quote from Union
soldier David R. Gregg in an 1864 letter to his wife, Sarah Gregg:
"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
Diseases, infections and treatments are examined in a section
that deals with colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis, measles,
smallpox (which afflicted Abraham Lincoln around the time of the
Gettysburg Address), sexually transmitted diseases, malaria, scurvy,
typhoid (which killed the Lincolns' son Willie in the White House),
diarrhea and dysentery.
Chronic diarrhea and dysentery were the leading causes of death
by disease during the Civil War. Intestinal diseases so concerned
commanders on both sides that they issued orders such as these from
U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles 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 addition of the drainage of this
vast accumulation of men and cattle to the vegetable matter
abounding in the river would obviously render the use of its water
as a drink productive of diarrhea and other bowel disorders. Fleet
Surgeon Wood recommends that the use of its water as a drink be
The medical personnel who provided treatment to the sick and
wounded are profiled in the exhibit. There were just 113 military
doctors in the prewar Union army; by the end of the Civil War, the
Union had more than 12,000 and the Confederacy 3,200.
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Most nurses were male, but a female nurse, famed author Louisa
May Alcott, wrote in her "Hospital Sketches" about recovering
soldiers who because of nursing shortages were pressed into duty to
care for their comrades: "I should like to enter my protest against
employing convalescents as attendants, instead of strong, properly
trained, and cheerful men. ... Here it was a source of constant
trouble and confusion, these feeble, ignorant men trying to sweep,
scrub, lift, and wait upon their sicker comrades. One, with a
diseased heart, was expected to run up and down stairs, carry heavy
trays, and move helpless men; he tried it, and grew rapidly worse
than when he first came; and, when he was ordered out to march away
to the convalescent hospital, fell, in a sort of fit, before he
turned the corner, and was brought back to die."
Well-known figures such as poet Walt Whitman, whose experiences
will be described in the exhibit, provided comfort to the wounded
and dying in military hospitals.
The field and general hospitals developed to treat the huge
numbers of sick and wounded soldiers are featured in the exhibit.
Although both sides of the conflict kept adding more hospitals, they
could not keep up with the demand, as evidenced by this excerpt from
a letter written by Asher Miller of the 74th Illinois Infantry in
1863: "Just imagine the Court House at Rockford Stripped of its
benches and filled with wounded 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."
Transporting the wounded from the battlefield fell upon the
ambulance corps. There were only 50 ambulances available at the
start of the war, and just about everything on wheels was used when
the casualties started to mount. The riding was so rough with some
conveyances that the soldiers called them "gutbusters."
Some were driven by less than reliable civilians, as written by
Union Medical Inspector Richard H. Coolidge in 1862 after the Second
Battle of Bull Run: "Very few [civilian ambulance drivers] would
assist in placing the wounded in their ambulances; still fewer could
be induced to assist in feeding them or giving them water. Some were
drunk; many were insubordinate; others, when detected with
provisions or stores, would not surrender them until compelled by
The exhibit also features the efforts to raise money to help
provide treatment for soldiers of both sides. These efforts included
modest to large "sanitary fairs." Abraham Lincoln attended the fairs
in Washington D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia, and he donated a
copy of his Gettysburg Address to be sold at the New York City fair
with a copy of Edward Everett's Gettysburg speech. The Everett
speech sold at the fair is displayed in the exhibit.
"To Kill and to Heal: Weapons and Medicine of the Civil War"
opens about a month after the 150th anniversary of the Battle of
Shiloh, the first Civil War battle with massive casualties on a
scale that indicated what the remaining years of the war would
Glenna Schroeder-Lein is the curator, and she worked closely with
an exhibits team consisting of John Malinak, Michael Casey, Carla
Smith, Katie Grant, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
Foundation, staff from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency,
and numerous community groups, institutions and individuals to
create the exhibit.
Paid admission to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is
required to view the exhibit. Admission prices are $12 for adults,
$9 for senior citizens and $6 for children. A special admission rate
of $5 is available to those who want to visit only the new exhibit.
For more information, visit
[Text from file received from
the Illinois Historic