Tags: civil war | military medicine | battlefield surgeons | smithsonian

Unearthed Civil War Limb Pit Shows Surgeon's Tough Choices

Unearthed Civil War Limb Pit Shows Surgeon's Tough Choices
The Civil War may have ended over 150 years ago, but for the past six years, parts of it have been coming back to life at the Abingdon Civil War Weekend on the nine acres of the Muster Grounds in Virginia. (Earl Neikirk/AP)

By    |   Wednesday, 20 June 2018 09:39 PM

Experts at the Smithsonian National Museum on Wednesday said a pit of human remains excavated from a Civil War battlefield site in Virginia in 2015 offer tremendous insight into Civil War medicine and how surgeons operated on Union soldiers during the Second Battle of Bull Run in August of 1862.

The remains, discovered in 2014 by a utility crew digging at the Manassas National Battlefield Park, mark the first-ever discovery of an intact battlefield surgeon's pit from the Civil War. 

The National Park Service, which runs the battlefield site, partnered with forensic experts at the Smithsonian National Museum to study the 11 partial limbs – 10 leg bones and one arm bone – and two nearly complete set of soldiers' remains. 

"These surgeons had to work very quickly and make really difficult decisions without great supplies or resources," Katie Liming, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, told The New York Times. "These two almost-full sets of remains, buried fairly hastily, tell us that surgeons probably saw these men and said, 'There’s nothing we can do.'"

The partial remains show grievous wounds and amputation cuts, and anthropologists from the Smithsonian believe surgeons buried the limbs after performing amputations. But the surgeons at Bull Run were skilled.

"You can read how the doctor's positioned and how he's cutting through the bone, and what pace he's using in different locations," said Doug Owsley, the museum's head physical anthropologist. "These were done by an experienced surgeon. This was not novice work.

"So much of our focus has been on the battle itself. This provides insight into what happened after the battle, as surgeons rushed in to try to save lives," Brandon Bies, the superintendent of the battlefield park, told the Times. "We're looking directly at their decisions about who to save and who not to save. It's unprecedented."

The two full skeletons found will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery later this year. 

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Smithsonian National Museum experts say a pit of human remains excavated from a Civil War battlefield site in Virginia in 2015 offer tremendous insight into Civil War medicine and how surgeons operated on Union soldiers during the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862.
civil war, military medicine, battlefield surgeons, smithsonian
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2018-39-20
Wednesday, 20 June 2018 09:39 PM
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