Civil War Medicine in Savannah

A visual engaging exhibit featuring Civil War Surgery and Phamacology now on display at the Heritage Classroom at the Massie Heritage Center

Many are thankful for the often quick relief of modern day medicine, but most don’t take heed to its gruesome origins. Currently on display at the Massie Heritage Center is a Civil War Medicine and Pharmaceutical exhibition that displays what it was like to receive medical treatment in the 18-19th centuries.

The exhibition, curated by Massie Heritage Center Curator and Director Steven Smith highlights when Massie was seized and converted into a Union Hospital in 1865.

“The historical background is that when Sherman arrived in Savannah in December, shortly after that in January of 1865, he seized Massie and turned it into a hospital,” Smith said.

“He had over 60,000 troops with him, it was the coldest winter in recorded history here in coastal Georgia. He needed some medical services and resources, so he seized Massie and several other buildings throughout the town.” - Steven Smith, Massie Heritage Center

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According to the curator, the exhibition features many important institutions, and is divided into categories including Civil War pharmaceuticals, Civil War surgery, and Savannah in the Civil War.

Smith shared that back then, there was no anesthesia, but surgeons used plenty of stomach-turning tools to revive casualty soldiers.

“Just the appearance of these instruments is very frightening and goury in a way,” Steven said. “One instrument is the capital knife— a long very intimidating looking knife that was curved. They would amputate a leg with that— it was for large limbs— then they would have to saw through the bone,” Smith said.

Though many of the methods were gruesome, Smith implies there was a method to the madness.

“They didn’t know about germs in the 1860s, but by the 1880s germ theory was the norm. Once they started to figure out that germs are the root of all illness and sickness that’s when modern medicine really started to take off, and they started to treat people in a more sanctuary process,” Smith said. “It’s referred to as the ‘Age of Agony’ but it actually was the first step in the process of modern medicine, because they were still using the scientific process. It was a lot better than some of the more superstitious methods that were used in earlier times.”

Though medicinal practices have advanced, Smith says we’re not a far cry from the healing methods used in the 18-19th century.

“Take into consideration that they use the same instruments today, but you don’t know it because you’re well under with modern anaesthetic,” Smith said.

Smith recalled working in an 18th-century Colonial Fort historic site in Darrien, GA, saying he had a friend teach him how to educate on and present 18th-century medicine. Smith said when he began working for Massie and found out they were seized as a hospital, he could not wait to put a full medical exhibit on display about it.

“The only problem is, you can’t find these resources on aisle three at Target,” Steven chuckled. “You’ve got to track them down, and it can take years and years and years to do that.” Smith said of his friend, Scott Hodges, who often surfaced as General James Oglethorpe at the Georgia Day Parade, “he had terminal cancer so he wanted us to have his medical kit so we could carry on his legacy of that type of program and instruction.”

Smith said when Hodges passed, Massie received something that was invaluable to them that would be used as a very informative exhibit.

In light of Hodges who always dressed up to give the medicine presentation, Smith decided that he will dress up as he leads the presentation as a union surgeon officer.

About The Author

Brandy Simpkins

Brandy Simpkins is the community/ event journalist for Connect Savannah. Simpkins is a born and raised Savannahian and an alumna of Savannah Savannah State University where she received her B.A. in English Language & Literature. Simpkins enjoys writing more than anything else in the world. She is a curious journalist,...
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