6 great inventions from the Civil War

The massive number of casualties and injuries created during these battles necessitated some quick, creative ideas... some of which we still have today.

  • The war resulted in more than 600,000 deaths.
  • About 500,000 were wounded.
  • The war created a massive need for inventions of various kinds and led to rapid advancement in medicine

There were several things newly invented during the Civil War that became keys to saving lives, as well as taking them. The Gatling Gun and repeating rifles, both invented just before or during the war, became quite effective at slaughter, as well as producing wounded men in unprecedented numbers.

Because such a devastating and massive war usually generates rapid advancement along medical fronts, inventions and new discoveries came fast and furious during those four years.

1. Rapid amputations

Minié Ball examples. These were made for and carried by soldiers from the North (the 3 rings at the bottom of each; Confederate bullets had just 2). Image source: Wikimedia Commons

There was a reason amputations were streamlined during the war — and it was not because the surgeons and other medical staff were not capable. In 1840, a new kind of bullet was invented; the Minié Ball, named for its inventor.

This was 0.58 caliber — slightly smaller than the end of an adult human thumb. Due to their usage in rifled barrels, this bullet dramatically increased the accuracy of weapons of the time, as well as their damage. Rapid amputations were "invented" and practiced during the Civil War partly because of the sheer number of casualties and the need for the injured to be quickly stabilized. But the primary reason was because that very same Minié Ball caused such fragmentation and shattering of bone, ligaments, muscle, and flesh, that if amputation were not performed, then complications such as gangrene and infection — followed by death — were certain.

The solution? Cut the limb off well above the damaged area.

Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion on the banks of the Rappahannock, used as a hospital since the battle — seems to have received only the worst cases. Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart. — Walt Whitman

2. Anesthesia inhaler

The "Murphy" Inhaler, late 1850s. Image source: Antique Scientifica

With that many surgeries going on at once, pretty much constantly during most battles, there had to be a way to mercifully knock these people out while their limbs were amputated. Chloroform and ether were invented just 15 years before the war began, and they had not been deployed for use on battlefields involving mass casualties yet.

When available, chloroform was the go-to on Civil War battlefields, because ether was extremely flammable. It was usually applied via cotton balls, handkerchief, etc. This, however, wasted much of the precious drug.

The invention that saved a lot of soldiers from excruciating pain (something on the order of 95 percent of those who endured surgery for such wounds) was the anesthesia inhaler, invented just before the war and deployed as the field hospitals began to have an extreme need. These enabled medical staff to rapidly give chloroform to multiple soldiers with as little waste as possible. And, still to this day, a modern variant of that invention is used (with newer, superior intoxicants) before and during surgeries.

3. The ambulance-to-emergency-room system

The "Moses" Ambulance Wagon and Tent. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

One of the early high-casualty battles of the Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas, as it's known to Southerners), which began on July 21, 1861. The soldiers who ended up being hurled into the fight had no idea what to expect; many of the Union forces were 90-day volunteers that President Abraham Lincoln had sought after Fort Sumter fell to Confederates. There were many gatherings of people watching the fight; expecting nothing as severe as what was to come, some bystanders — including a few dozen senators, and enterprising people selling pies and other food — setup picnic blankets and watched. But when the horror unfolded, many of them got in their carriages and headed back from whence they came.

Fleeing with those non-soldiers, however, were most of the private ambulances hired to help out; they'd never seen such carnage, and this experience terrified them, causing them to flee just as they were needed.

A few days later, when the full extent of the back-and-forth was over, there were 3,000 casualties on the Union side and about half of that on the Confederate side. Many lay dying for hours on the fields, since the concept of quickly ferrying the wounded to field hospitals was not yet invented — and all of the private ambulances hired had skedaddled.

The Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, Jonathan Letterman, got to work immediately after Bull Run, and devised an ingenious "ambulance-to-E.R." system involving the use of existing soldiers and medical staff that is still basically in use today. By the time of the Battle of Antietam in September, it was fully deployed, with 50 ambulances containing a driver and two stretcher-bearers each, to quickly get the injured to field hospitals.

4. Plastic surgery

National Museum of Health and Medicine

Private William H. Nimbs

Before the U. S. Civil War, reconstructive plastic surgery, especially of the face, didn't really exist — it had been theorized in the medical journal known as The Lancet in 1837, and before that, facial reconstruction was limited to taking skin flaps and bone from other parts of the body to form facial features. But with over 10,000 cases of gunshot and cannon shrapnel wounds to the faces of various soldiers during the war, the need for something to at least partially reconstruct facial features was pretty dire. That put it high on the priority list.

Of course, with it being more or less experimental in nature and very much in need of research and testing, it couldn't be deployed for very many of those 10,000; indeed, it was successfully performed on only about 30 former soldiers or officers.

5. Embalming

1865: President Lincoln's funeral train in Philadelphia near the start of its 13 day 1,600 mile journey from Washington to Springfield. Image source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The act of "arterial" embalming the dead — replacing their blood with chemicals to preserve the body long enough to get through services and burial — had been invented in France about 25 years before the Civil War.

But it took until the end of the war for it to really catch on in the United States; the casualties from the war itself were partly why. Up until that time, a family member dying usually meant the body would not be preserved, but would rather decompose within a few days or a week. This meant funeral services happened quickly, by necessity. And even then, the body was frequently surrounded in candles and other masking scents.

Most of the over 600,000 soldiers who died during the entire war were either put into mass graves or left where they lay in the fields and trenches. Only those with wealthy families had their bodies retrieved for services back home — and even then, all of those arrangements had to be made quickly, or the bodies would be too decomposed for even recognition. The science of embalming was still relatively new, so various experiments in the practice were conducted on deceased soldiers; indeed, 40,000 of the 600,000 dead were embalmed during the entire 4-year period. It was "catching on."

Fast forward to the end of the war, when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. His body was quickly embalmed, and then placed on a funeral train that worked its way across the country to Illinois.

Even then, the new process wasn't effective enough to keep the body preserved for the entire two-week trip. While people near the early train stops marveled that his appearance was so life-like — they even tried to reach out and touch him — near the end of the funeral train stops, Lincoln's face appeared hollow and gaunt. It was time for him to be lowered into the family burial plot.

Still, the experience of seeing and hearing about Lincoln's funeral train's visit to 180 cities made the concept of embalming the dead a permanent part of U.S. culture.

6. Hinged prosthetic limbs

The original Hanger Limb. Image source: Virginia Historical Society

Because amputations of the leg were considered worse than those of the arm due to the social impact as well as the ability to work on the farm and in factories, the lack of a prosthesis for either leg was becoming a big problem for soldiers returning home missing a lower limb.

One Confederate Virginia soldier, James Edward Hanger, was wounded early in the war, during the Battle of Philippi. When he returned home, his leg amputated just below the left hip, he disappeared into isolation — his family assuming he was depressed and didn't want anyone to see him in the state he was in. This was true, however, Hanger approached that isolation from a creative and nuanced angle: His missing leg was a problem to solve.

I cannot look back upon those days in the hospital without a shudder. No one can know what such a loss means unless he has suffered a similar catastrophe. In the twinkling of an eye, life's fondest hopes seemed dead. I was the prey of despair. What could the world hold for a maimed, crippled man!

Up until that time, leg replacements were simple devices, usually "peg" legs, stiff and definitely not something that would enable someone to have a gait that was at all normal.

He created not just the first jointed leg prosthetic out of barrel staves, rubber, joints, nails, and hinges, but a revolution in an industry that was about to explode. The "Hanger Limb" went from being a creation out of necessity to an industry that won a state grant to mass produce them in Virginia, and then after the war, a U. S. patent, and factories were setup in major cities across the world, making the limbs commonplace and effective for amputees of the Civil War as well as all other wars since.

Indeed, today Hanger, Inc. remains the largest maker of prosthetics in the world.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.