Surgeons treat wounds, amputate limbs at Cedar Creek

By Ryan Cornell

MIDDLETOWN — Jagged bones jut out from a pile of amputated arms and legs. Stubs of flesh poke through a mound of rags. Bloody body parts sit, stuffed into wooden crates.

Sometimes the worst carnage lay not on the battlefield but in the field hospitals.

While a majority of soldiers at Cedar Creek this weekend reenacted the combat and movements of several Civil War battles, another camp of reenactors demonstrated the medical techniques circa 1864.

Wayne Waite, a reenactor from Verona, New York, pretended to operate on the body splayed out on the table in front of him.

The dummy, which was missing its left eye and a chunk of palm from its hand, looked like it had “seen” better days.

With his vast collection of 1860s-era medical tools, pills and potions, Waite showed visitors how a surgeon would’ve sedated the patient and treated him.

Although doctors at the time had yet to learn about the process of sterilization, he said many tools are still used in operating rooms today, such as bonesaws.

He said he was at last year’s reenactment for the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg when a modern-day surgeon approached him after one of his demonstrations.

“She said, ‘We still use those bonesaws,’ and I asked, ‘For what?'” Waite recounted. “She goes, ‘We use the buzzsaws, the new ones, but they get halfway through and they jam. We have one of these [bonesaws] next to the table and we grab it and finish the cut.’

“That’s why I do this, because I would never read that in a book,” he added. “I had to hear that from somebody out there, and that’s why I do these demonstrations.”

He said some of the soldiers from farms up north had never seen infections and diseases such as smallpox, and were seeing them in their camps for the first time.

“They get scared,” Waite said. “They’re away from home, they’re 18, 17, 16 years old, they get wounded, then they hear all these stories from the guys waiting outside the hospital: ‘Wait ’til you see the doctor, wait ’til you see those surgical instruments.’

“I’ve heard stories where they come in with a pistol and stick it right in the surgeon’s face and say, ‘You’re not gonna take my leg off, doc.’ The surgeon will just say, “Well, then you’re gonna die, you make the decision.’ They finally change their minds and say, ‘Go ahead and take it off,’ and most of them were glad to get it off.”

Waite said he started reenacting in the infantry about 20 years ago, but it wasn’t until he injured his leg and was unable to go out onto the field that he discovered how much he enjoyed reenacting as a surgeon.

“If I could do this every weekend, I would,” he said. “I just really love this, and I’m always getting more information. I have almost 300 Civil War books at home, 40 or 50 of them on medical and I’m always reading.”

Another surgeon with a full arsenal of medical tools at his disposal, reenactor Lou Stickles was representing the 47th New York regimental hospital, a “sample of the original MASH,” he said.

He said their field hospital was set up to handle about eight people at a time, but would get about 200 to 300 casualties during the war.

“The doctors would be working around the clock,” he said, “and it was meatball surgery. You kept taking arms and legs off, and you would bring them in on a stretcher, lay them out and cut away.”

Stickles, who hails from Marco Island, Florida, said Civil War surgeons could amputate a leg, from start to finish, in about 12 minutes.

He said one of the positive results of the war was that surgeons came away with a better grasp of human anatomy and physiology.

“They had no concept of germs,” he said. “The same rag would be used for 50 other wounded men, your instruments were dirty, your hands were dirty, people just didn’t understand.

“We like to call it, medicine before germs were invented.”

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com