Editors' pick

National Museum of Civil War Medicine

History Museum
National Museum of Civil War Medicine photo
Ricky Carioto - The Washington Post

Editorial Review

An Old-Fashioned Cure for Boredom
By Cheryl Kenny
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 10, 2003

"THE MORE BLOOD, the better," said the man in the gray Confederate uniform. In fact, he explained with a grin, his professional reputation hinged upon having large amounts of blood and gore splattered across his apron.

Such was the life of a Civil War surgeon, as portrayed in a living history presentation at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine on a recent Sunday afternoon.

The museum, laid out in a compact three-story building in historic downtown Frederick, offers a peek into the art of medicine during the Civil War. Among its more than 1,500 artifacts are a 30-pound battlefield stretcher, a saw used for amputations and an artificial leg made of wood. Its exhibits address some of the gritty and practical issues of the war, such as why the leading cause of soldiers' deaths was not bullets but disease (poor diet and filthy camp conditions led to dysentery and worse), and why veterinary medicine was so essential (it took 72 horses to move just one six-cannon artillery battery and its ammunition to the battlefield).

This is not a high-tech place. Most of the nine galleries feature a scene from medicine-related Civil War life using murals, museum-quality mannequins and artifacts. Periodically, a short audio tape runs to accompany the scene, allowing visitors to hear the reenacted voices of recruits answering enlistment questions, for example, or an army camp surgeon conferring with sick soldiers. If you're looking for IMAX, you won't find it here. But that doesn't mean there isn't some pretty interesting stuff.

On the self-guided tour, my two middle-school sons and I followed the lives of Civil War doctors and their support personnel as the museum intended, in a generally chronological order. We began with an exhibit on 1860s medical schools, continued through army camp life, battlefield evacuation and combat medical care, then ended with burial.

One of the primary galleries highlights the medical concerns of a typical army camp. In addition to checking out the only known surviving surgeon's tent from the Civil War, we learned about an often-prescribed "little blue pill" that contained elemental mercury. A later exhibit, the clear favorite of my sons, included the short biography and photo of a Civil War veteran who suffered extensive facial deformities because of mercury poisoning.

The galleries featuring treatment of the wounded at field dressing stations, field hospitals and pavilion hospitals drew interest from my group. Also popular was the final gallery, which includes an exhibit on embalming and an old coffin. Embalming increased in popularity during the Civil War, as families sought return of a loved one's body for burial.

"Children seem to be more interested in the gory exhibits," noted Terry Reimer, the museum's director of research. "The embalming exhibit has become big with kids, especially high schoolers."

Some of the galleries include discovery stations, hands-on areas geared toward kids. One of them, located in the medical evacuation gallery, includes questions and answers about the more than 1 million horses used during the war. This interested my 12-year-old enough to offer me a quiz: How many gallons a day does a horse drink? A whopping 15.

A new discovery station is planned for the army camp gallery later this year, said Reimer. That station will allow visitors to handle reproductions of some of the heavy, everyday items that Civil War soldiers had to carry.

During our tour, a volunteer docent dressed as a Union Army hospital steward periodically visited the galleries to answer questions or note unusual facts. His commentary greatly enhanced our visit, and we wished he could have accompanied us through the entire tour. Reimer said docents usually work the floors on weekdays except Wednesdays. They are less available on weekends, but the museum is stepping up efforts to recruit more weekend docents, Reimer said. Docent-led tours are available to groups with two weeks advance booking.

At least twice a month, the museum offers a special weekend activity. Such programs range from "The Battlefield Embalmer: Preserving the Civil War Dead" later this month, with a display of 19th-century coffins, to a "Museums by Candlelight" holiday open house, featuring Civil War carols and reproduction musical instruments.

Reimer said the museum is recommended for children in grades 5 and over.

She suggested that before visiting the museum, children and parents visit the museum's Web site to get an overview of the exhibits.