Massie Heritage Center presentation highlights Savannah's role in post-Civil War medicine

Although the Civil War mostly gets credit for the fight to end slavery and reshaping the American federal goverment, the war has another, often overlooked legacy—starting a new era in modern medicine. 

Those looking to relive what it was like to receive medical treatments during this time can get an educated glimpse on Thurs., Sept., 16, when The Massie Heritage Center will present a living history of 19th century medical interpretation.

The presentation, led by Massie Heritage Center curator and director Steven Smith, will start by highlighting the role Massie served in the war when it was seized and converted into a Union hospital in 1865. 

“When General Sherman arrived in Savannah in December of 1864, it was the coldest winter in recorded history at that time. He had over 60,000 troops with him and a lot of sick soldiers that needed medical treatment,” Smith said. “In response, he seized several buildings throughout the city. One of them was Massie, which he converted into a Union hospital shortly after January of 1865.” 

With the seizure and conversion, wounded Union soldiers were able to receive medical care in the city and hospitals became places of healing rather than places to go die, as they were widely considered before the war. 

Due to the sheer number of wounded patients the surgeons had to care for, surgical techniques and the management of traumatic wounds improved dramatically. Smith explained specialization became more commonplace, and great strides were made in modern medicine. 

“Plastic surgery, neurosurgery, and prosthetics developed in part because of the war,” he said. “The introduction of women into the nursing profession also had a great impact on medical care at the time as well as general anesthesia being widely used, which helped it become acceptable to the public.” 

Smith also said that germs weren’t discussed in the 1860s, but by the 1880s they were more commonly acknowledged. “Once medical professionals 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 way. It was actually the first step in the process of modern medicine, because they were still using the scientific process.” 

Massie’s living history presentation will primarily consist of reproductions of medical items with interpretations about how they used the surgical instruments and medicines in the time period. Smith said they are carrying on the tradition for a gentleman named Scott Hodges who passed away in February. 

Hodges was a career reenactor and locals may know him as the gentleman that played General Oglethorpe at the Georgia Day Parade. 

“All the items that we will present are reproductions that were acquired over .a period of 15 or 20 years by Scott. He wanted his legacy of historical medical interpretation to be carried on at Massie’s so he sold us this kit,” said Smith.

The presentation will start at 6 p.m. and will be divided into categories including Civil War pharmaceuticals, Civil War surgery, and Savannah in the Civil War. Seating will be limited and masks and social distancing will be required. To RSVP or for more information call 912-395-5070.

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