About a dozen people gathered in a half circle around the surgical table set up on the carpeted floor of the Kenosha Civil War Museum during Sunday’s snowy afternoon.
Joining them was the 17th Corps Field Hospital, the largest such medical unit in the Midwest, with re-enactors who play the roles of doctors, surgeons and nurses who were about to operate on the “victim,” a life-size replica of an injured soldier who laid upon the table.
The demonstration was part of the museum’s “Medical Weekend” presented by the corps, which has been educating the public for about a decade on the role of medicine during the Civil War.
As Kris Cooper, who plays a nurse, explained how ether and chloroform were used to put the patient to sleep in preparation for surgery, “surgeon” Bill Wetzbarger looked at the bandage that had been applied to the bleeding soldier’s battle wound.
“Anesthesia had been around for about 20 years,” Wetzbarger said, explaining that it took as long as 12 minutes until a patient was knocked out so the operation could proceed.
Cooper said a person was fully under anesthesia when the eyelids no longer fluttered.
“He’s under, doctor,” she said.
With Bob Johnson, a retired teacher and the hospital’s chief steward, handing Wetzbarger a pair of scissors, the surgeon cut away at the field dressing.
“There’s definitely something in there. Man, that’s in there,” said Wetzbarger, who in real life is a registered nurse, reaching into the victim’s leg and pulling out a two-inch-long piece of artillery shrapnel. “He’s lucky he’s got a leg. Usually, that’ll take your leg right off, but he must’ve been far enough away.”
The bone remained intact, a stroke of fortune given that limbs with bones shattered beyond repair would almost always result in amputation, according to the re-enactors. Instead of sewing up the patient’s leg, they packed and re-bandaged the wound to allow it to drain, they said.
In the simulation, while the patient survived the surgery, it was a heart attack that killed him. Enter “embalming surgeon” Scott Paulson, who explained how the body was embalmed using three needles, including one at the shoulder to feed the embalming fluid and another inserted into a major vein in the leg to allow for blood drainage. No actual fluids were pumped or drained in the demonstration.
“The third needle ... anybody know what the third needle is used for?” said Paulson, who is an accountant by trade. “Certain organs in the body tend to build up gas. You must pierce the organ to allow the gas to escape.”
Into the cavity went sawdust to absorb any remaining liquids, he said, and then the body was clothed and sent home to the family.
During a short question-and-answer session, a question that most in the audience had on their mind was how — or even if — surgical implements and bandages were sanitized. Bandages were often washed and reused. Tools not so much, according to Wetzbarger, who explained why.
“We washed the instruments only when they got so sticky we couldn’t hold them any longer or when the knives became dull,” he said.
During the Civil War, the term “sanitized” wasn’t part of their lexicon.
“We didn’t even know there were germs yet,” Wetzbarger said. “We didn’t know there were germs until two years after the war, and it took them another 60 years to come up with penicillin.”
Among the things that grew from the medical response during the Civil War still used today are triage, or the prioritizing of which of the wounded or sick needed the most urgent care, and the use of iodine, which was used to wash hands and on wounds.
“They didn’t know why it worked, but they knew it did. It did something where they didn’t have a lot of pus (infection) in the wound, post (operation),” he said.
In addition to simulated surgical demonstrations, the three-day event featured various exhibits that included the tools, implements, herbs and elixirs found in the roving battlefield hospitals, funeral practices and even fortunetelling.
The weekend also featured a presentation on Dr. Sarah Ann Chadwick, the first female surgeon and assistant surgeon of the Civil War. A presentation on the role of Native Americans during the war planned for Sunday was canceled due to weather.