Deadly Diseases: A Fate Worse than Dying on the Battlefield

by Elise Stevens Wilson


Cannons blasted and bayonets tore through flesh in America’s worst war, the American Civil War. This war was gruesome for many different reasons. It tore the country apart and created divides that exist to this day.

One of the more ghastly aspects of the war concerned medical practices. Being wounded and sent to the hospital was as much a death sentence as being sent to the front lines. Medical equipment was bulky and hard to move. It was a lower priority than ammunition and food, so the doctors rarely had what they needed. At the time, people had little to no understanding of how bacteria spread so surgeon’s tools were used on multiple patients with a simple cleansing with water between uses, and wounds were packed with filthy rags that encouraged the wounds to fester. Surgeries were crude and resulted in astonishing pain as anesthesia was rarely used, and painkillers were basically non-existent. Lastly, there was a severe lack of well-trained personnel. Soldiers were grateful for the thousands of female volunteer nurses and members of the Sanitary Commission. Needless to say, the state of medicine in the Civil War was deplorable, and for many people today, unimaginable. Records clearly show that more people died of diseases than in actual battles or of field wounds.

Overview of the Lesson

In this two-to-three-day lesson students will examine firsthand accounts of nurses, doctors, war correspondents, and members of the Sanitary Commission. First, a PowerPoint presentation will help the teacher to give a background to Civil War medicine. A journal entry accompanies this so that students can place themselves in the Civil War. Students will then read a handout in groups and put together a project to present to the rest of the class. There are opportunities to expand this lesson into a research project.


  • Students should be able to describe the practice of medicine and the important role diseases played during the Civil War.
  • Students should be able to research more on Civil War medicine and present their findings.


Day One

(45–60 minute class)

  1. Use the Civil War Medicine PowerPoint to provide the students a background to what they will be learning. This should be an interactive lecture. Ask them questions and use the pictures in the PowerPoint to aid in discussion. (10 minutes)
  2. The last slide in the PowerPoint is a prompt for a journal. Students should be given time to write in their journals or notebooks. (10 minutes)
  3. Assign students to groups of two or three and allow them to share their journal entries with one another. If time permits, allow some students to share with the entire class. (10-15 minutes)
  4. Assign students to groups of three or four. Give each group one of the firsthand account documents (a correspondent, the Sanitary Commission, surgeons, nurses in the South and Dorthea Dix, nurses in the North, and surgeons and gangrene). Each group should have a different document, but there should be enough for every member to have a copy. Instruct students that they should read the document together and underline all the words or phrases that describe what the medical conditions were like. (15–25 minutes)

Day Two

(45–60 minute classes)

Tell students that they are going to create a poster that must be visually pleasing, include at least two relevant pictures (hand drawn or from the Internet); at least one quote from the document that best represents the entire document; at least four interesting facts about medical conditions, practices, or diseases; at least two new vocabulary words with their definitions; and at least one non-medical fact about the Civil War. It might be best to assign specific tasks to each group member. (If you have many computers available, you may want to allow students to make a PowerPoint presentation instead of a poster.)

To extend this project, ask students to research the main topic of the document or the groups from which their authors came. Each document is labeled at the top with the appropriate research topic. You can instruct the students to use the websites found under Materials to complete their research, or students can conduct independent research.

Day Three

(45–60 minute classes)

This is an optional day. Allow students 3-5 minutes to present their projects. Instruct students that when they are not presenting they should write down one or two new things that they learned. (45–60 minutes)


Students can write a letter to the author of the document they read and respond to the authors’ accounts of the Civil War.

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