A little Civil War museum in Frederick, Md., focused entirely on medical care in a war that produced more than combat 618,000 deaths, nearly 225,000 fatalities from disease and 1.5 million casualties, is well worth visiting. It tells an often-untold story of keeping soldiers alive under adverse conditions.
Amputations were common (most surgeries), performed at field hospitals. Anesthesia alleviated the pain of basic surgeries. Morphine was a frequently used painkiller. Stretcher-bearers were musicians who had little reason to entertain.
The National Museum of Civil War Medicine does not glorify war. It portrays medical practitioners intent on coping with the results of cannon balls, rifle fire and bayonets. To say they were unsung heroes would be a gross understatement.
Operating conditions were rudimentary. Field expediency was mandatory.
Located near to Antietam and Gettysburg, the museum uses realistic figures of soldiers, doctors and assistants and displays medical equipment like a saw. Once a visitor understands that gleefulness is not part of the presentation, the well-designed exhibits are revealing reminders of the angst and agony of war.
What the museum’s single-subject collection of exhibits does not show amply was treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Syndrome (PTSD)—not because it did not exist. It did. It lacked a universally accepted medical identifier, such as “shell-shocked,” a term widely used during World War II and likely earlier.
However, “emotional toll” was acknowledged at the museum.
One might ask how a museum portrays disabling mental illness directly attributable to the terror of combat. I have no answer. But I would hope that a modern-day museum focused on sophisticated medical treatment would address the psychological impact of war.
A video game it isn’t.
Readers may conjecture that I deliberately posited a stalking horse to illustrate my interest in, and concern about PTSD. Possibly. It does not disappear easily. It lingers and languishes.
For many, it lasts a lifetime. It is an invisible wound that scars the soul and affects marriages and job performance.
What happened to Civil War veterans who withstood artillery barrages without the protection of foxholes and sandbags and witnessed human destruction? Did they become addicted to morphine? Did they opt for the medicinal effect of alcohol? Did they commit suicide?
A friend wrote a book about his gruesome experiences in the Viet Nam war. He attributed his broken marriage and win-at-all-costs approach to his successful business career as a direct result of PTSD.
Afflicted with depression, he underwent significant therapy. He was fortunate he could afford intense emotional support. Not everyone can, depending on the Veterans Administration (VA) for critical treatment. I have heard favorable stories about the VA’s care of veterans suffering from PTSD.
If a museum offers more than a neutral or sanitized feeling, then it must tackle difficult subjects. It must enable the visiting public—and researchers—to learn the positive and negative aspects of a fraught subject. War will never disappear, unfortunately. Peace is forever elusive.
Emotional combat wounds caused by exposure to death and maiming follow most people beyond their military discharge. No amount of gratitude and awards vanquishes the impact of war.
Veterans need our empathy; they also deserve the best possible care offered by the U.S. government. PTSD has attracted serious and salutary attention during the past 25 years. Thankfully so.
The National Museum of Civil War Medicine is a gem. It is a necessary part of the military-museum landscape. It also begs the question: how does a museum address the invisible wounds that hurt for a lifetime?
It must convey a clear and unmistakable message that deadly combat yields physical distress, as well as emotional damage. While time is a healer, the medical experts, senior military officers and troops (used generically) must be accountable for honesty, as well as treatment. Denial is not an option.
God bless our veterans and their families.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.