Monday, April 23, 2012

Charles B. Johnson: What He Saw

Charles Beneulyn Johnson saw a lot while serving in the medical department of the 130th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Some of what he saw he describes in his books written long after the US Civil War. Writing during a time of medical advancement, he relates instances that fall under the “If we had only known” heading. Dirty medical instruments, poor sanitation of camps, bad food, bad water and of course enemy missiles, led to the deaths of thousands of soldiers, Union and Confederate. The following are but two episodes he describes in the book “Muskets and Medicine”.

This can be filed under the “Boys will be boys” heading. Early during the Siege of Vicksburg, a young Ohio soldier seeking to alleviate the boredom he and his regiment was enduring while waiting to advance, found some loose powder. “He ran it along in a little trail, covered this with dust, and tried to fire it. As it did not ignite, he was stooping over with his face close to the ground when the charge took fire. His face was badly burned, and later was attacked with erysipelas, from which death resulted.” [1] Erysipelas is a condition caused by bacteria and attacks the outer layer of skin and presents itself as reddening of the skin around a wound and it may enter the system from something as minor as an insect bite and the more damaged the area the greater the likelihood of infection. [2] The area around Vicksburg would have been a fine place indeed to have this condition develop.

Also at Vicksburg, on May 22, the captain of company F, 130TH Illinois, William M. Colby, was mortally wounded. A bullet had entered his brain, and he arrived at the field hospital in a coma. “The first thing our surgeon did was to run his index finger its full length into the wound; and this without even ordinary hand washing. Next he introduced a dirty bullet probe.” [3] Colby died a few days later. Johnson does not fault the surgeon, for as he says, “These facts are narrated to show the frightful handicap Civil War surgery was under from a lack of knowledge of asepsis and antisepsis...” and it was no reflection on the surgeon or his skill. He was doing the best he could with what he had and what he knew.

Yes, Johnson saw a lot during his three years service, and although he would not be wounded by bullets he was felled by chronic dysentery, a malady that would follow him for the rest of his life.

It was the lot that fell to the soldiers of both sides. Bad water, bad food, bad sanitation, and bad medical practices took the greatest toll on their lives. Some would survive all of this and the bloody battlefield, but none would ever completely heal.


  1. Muskets and Medicine, or Army Life in the Sixties, Johnson, Charles Beneulyn, 1917, Page 105
  2. Erysipelas, Davis, Loretta MD, January 11, 2010 Medscape Reference, Retrieved from retrieved April 23, 2012
  3. Johnson, page 132

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