Thursday, December 3, 2015

Civil War Medicine: Analyzing Historical Images

After a few days of introducing the Civil War with my students and talking about some of the early battles, I like to have students complete an activity to explore Civil War Medicine. In this lesson I give students several images from the Library of Congress that depict Civil War Medicine and a journal of a Civil War soldier that describes a field hospital. Students use these resources to help develop a picture of what treatment was like for Civil War Soldiers as well to help them generate questions about what that treatment was like.

If you have not seen the Analyzing Primary Sources (Images) Training Tutorial via Library of Congress it is a great starting point for teachers looking for ways to help students analyze images and how to use the vast resources of images through the Library of Congress. There are lots of useful suggestions and helpful hints for teachers starting out with using primary source images with students.

My Analysis Grid for Image Analysis 
The Library of Congress also has a very useful Primary Source Analysis Tool that is good to use for image analysis. I have taken a few modifications with this template for this particular assignment to help students focus in on a few specific analytical areas of thought.

A goal for this assignment is to help students closely examine images and begin to create inferences from these images to begin to create an understanding of battlefield medicine. We want students to generate questions they may have from these images to help further their curiosity in this topic and seek out those answers to their questions.

The Library of Congress Civil War Collection is a great resource to find images for this activity. If you search "medical aspects" will give you over a hundred images and you can further refine your search if you are looking for specific areas within Civil War Medicine.

Here are three of my favorite images to use from this collection for this assignment.

The Blue and the Gray by Henry Steele Commager
 To go along with the images, I also include a Union soldier's diary entry where he tells of his visit to a field hospital during the Wilderness Campaign.  This account is in one of my favorite series of books  The Blue and the Gray: Volume 1 and Volume 2 edited by Henry Steele  Commager. This is a great book of numerous journals, diaries, and official records from the Civil War. I have found this book a great treasure trove of soldier and civilian accounts of the Civil War (as you can tell with the numerous sticky notes coming out of my books).

After students have looked at the images and journal entry, we discuss our results together as a class. We look at what observations they have made and what questions they have about the soldier's medical treatment. Usually students focus on the large number of wounded soldiers and of course on amputations of the wounded soldiers limbs.

Following our discussion we than check our findings and see if we can answer some of our questions with these video resources.

Civil War Medicine in 4 Minutes via The Civil War Trust
This is a great overview of Civil War Medicine that helps talk about the complexity of Civil War Medicine. The message in this video is great because it helps explain why amputations were so common and that the Civil War Medicine is not as barbaric as it tends to be portrayed.

Civil War 360: The Gruesome reality of Civil War Medicine via Smithsonian Channel
This is another good brief overview of Civil War Medicine that looks at many of the tools used by the doctors of this era.

National Museum of Civil War Medicine
This has a lot of why Civil War Medicine was important (even for today's soldiers which makes for a great connection to present day) and also debunks several myths people have about Civil War Medicine (i.e. Did Soldiers Literally Bite The Bullet?")

Clara Barton National Historic Site (Virtual Tour of her Home)
This is also a great resource to look at the role women nurses had on the Civil War, including Clara Barton.

***NEW 2017***

I learned about this fantastic database of resources titled Civil War Washington at a Teacher Fellowship in Washington D.C. June 2017.  There are lots of resources there but one I want to highlight that fits nicely with this lesson on Civil War Medicine are the Medical Cases. You can search for specific types of medical cases with their search tool (i.e. "Gunshot wounds" "amputation" "dysentery"). These are written by doctors and can be very graphic so be prepared and prepare students before using this database.

Also check out their images of Washington D.C. Hospitals. If you are interested in other primary source documents around the Civil War and Washington D.C. particularly check out some of their other resources.


This is a lesson that I usually do not have to worry about lack of student interest and typically generates lots of great small group discussions among students.

What type of Primary Source Activities do you do with your students during your study of The Civil War? I would love to hear about them in the comments section below.