Candid photos of Civil War battlefield injuries


On April 1, 1865, Alfred Lane was shot in the hip during the Civil War Battle of Hatcher's Run, Virginia. He died about a month and a half later, after the wound became gangrenous.This photo, and the description of the patient, come from a series of images posted to Flickr by Mike Rhode, archivist at the National Museum of Health and Medicine—which began its existence during the Civil War as the Army Medical Museum. The photos get a lot more graphic than this—both in terms of wounds, and general nudity—but it's an amazing collection that's mostly never been seen by the general public before, and which offers a rare, un-edited peek into the casualties of both war and early medicine. Both contributed to the death of people like Alfred Lane. From the University of Toledo Libraries ...

Amputation of a wounded arm or leg was the most common operation, due largely to the .58 calibre Minie ball ammunition used during the war. This heavy conical-shaped bullet of soft lead distorted on impact causing large, gaping wounds filled with dirt and pieces of clothing. Its heavy weight shattered any bone it contacted. Because of the severity of the wounds and the overwhelming case load, surgeons usually elected for fast and easy amputation over trying to remove the bullet and save the limb.

Early in the war it became obvious that disease would be the greatest killer. Two soldiers died of disease (dysentery, diarrhea, typhoid, and malaria) for every one killed in battle. Soldiers from small rural areas suffered from childhood diseases such as measles and mumps because they lacked immunity. Outbreaks of these "camp and campaign" diseases were caused by overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the field.

The gangrene, ironically, probably came from an infection Lane picked up in the Hospital, itself.

The full photo set on Flickr

How bullets were removed during the Civil War.

Thanks to merrileeiam for Submitterating the photos!

Image: Some rights reserved by otisarchives1


  1. Ugg – I’m almost afraid to look at the photo set, but I probably will. I was just going through some stuff from when I was a kid and found a handful of Minie’s and other Civil War era ammo I got on a childhood trip to the Civil War Trail – both fired and unfired. If you have any knowledge of modern arms and ammunition you will be shocked to hold one of these bullets – they are huge! These days we rely more on velocity and less less on projectile mass to get a favorable killing equation.

  2. Ah! So sad! I looked at that picture and thought “damn, that’s one lucky guy.”

    Why haven’t we as a species learned our lesson yet? On a side note, and I ask this sincerely, why was America the only country in the world that needed a war to abolish slavery?

    1. Afraid that’s not quite right, old chap.

      The type specimen for this sort of war is the Haitian Revolution, which turned the richest place on earth into, well, Haiti.

      Slave revolts were a regular occurrence throughout Latin America. And escaped slaves set up independent enclaves in Mexico, Jamaica, and elsewhere; the fugitive nation of Palmares lasted for generations in the Brazilian hinterlands before Portugal managed to destroy it.

      The Brits fought a number of punitive actions against slave traders on the African coast.

      For the sake of brevity, I’ll omit discussion of uprisings against colonial slavery, notably the Congo, slave rebellions in Islamic nations such as the Zanj Rebellion, actions to recover Christian slaves such as the British 1816 bombardment of Tripoli, or slave rebellions in antiquity such as the one led by Spartacus.

    2. Zyodei,

      The entire issue is extremely complex when it comes to slavery and the root causes of the US Civil War. There was Abolition, yes, but there was also the aspect about slavery being blocked in the western expansion, and whether states rights superseded the federal gov’t or not. There’s also the issue that when Northern state began industrialization, it tended towards becoming a Free State.

      I recommend reading the Wikipedia entry Origins of the American Civil War as a starting place. Shelves and shelves of books have been written exploring this very topic.

      1. “The entire issue is extremely complex” but, luckily, can be boiled down to SLAVERY. States rights regarding slavery, economic issues regarding slavery, cultural differences evolving out of slavery, competitive disadvantages resulting from slavery, Southern isolation and political decline because of slavery.

        Executive summary: IT WAS F—ING SLAVERY.

    3. As long as there’s someone out there who’s decided that the only way to get their point across is to kill someone else, dying horribly will remain a risk.

      Isn’t being mortal fun!

      1. Beat you to it! :)

        As for those whose ancestors fought for their homes: well, I hate to say it, but your poor farm boys got suckered by The Man. Don’t feel bad. They weren’t the first or last to fight for a rich man’s rights.

    4. “why was America the only country in the world that needed a war to abolish slavery?”

      Who said it did? Slavery had already died off in the north, and arguably would have died off in the south too within a few decades. Lincoln from 1962:

      “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

      1. “died off in the north”? You’re confusing some facts there. While I suppose it existed in the north, slavery was hardly a cultural institution or critical to the economy of the north.

        “would arguably have died off in the south” – that argument was had. It did.

  3. If you can find it, Joel Peter Witkin’s Masterpieces of Medical Photography
    (Selections from the Burns Archive) has a great selection of Civil War photographs…

    1. Dr. Burns is working on a new book on the photographs of Dr. Reed Bontecou which should be very interesting. He has pictures the museum does not have, and has done a lot of research on Dr. Bontecou.

  4. Goodness gracious. Pvt. Lane spent nearly two months in hospital and wound up dying from gangrene. Nowadays, sanitary conditions, a wad of gauze, and some antibiotics would have allowed a soft tissue wound like that to heal in the amount of time it took him to die from the same wound in 1865. That’s terribly sad.

  5. One more grim reminder of the cost of war. MASH was one of my favorite TV shows, as long as I didn’t let myself think too much about the overt insanity of alternately sending young people off to try to kill as many of the young people on the “other side” as possible, and frantically trying to save the lives of these same young people, when the “other side” shot first. As long as rich, powerful men can sit behind a desk and order the death of thousands, nothing will change.

  6. 1. It was slavery, period. Or state’s rights — to have slaves. What passed for South Carolina’s declaration of independence from the North read in part:

    Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution: they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

    2. The flickr set includes a picture of a slave whose inguinal hernia was left untreated by his new master, who purchased him for $150.

    3. The pictures are all posed, not candid, but they are (somewhat) graphic.

  7. Familiar with the battle of Hatcher’s run. My wife’s relatives fought in that battle for the CSA. The eldest brother was wounded and captured. Being poor North Carolina farm boys they obviously did not fight to protect slavery. Slavery was a significant issue but to state it was the cause and reason for the Civil war is far too simplistic.

    1. Anonymous, I’m sure no one is accusing your wife’s relatives of personally supporting slavery. When we talk about the causes of the Civil War, we’re talking about why the Confederate *states* decided to secede, which can be very different from why individual soldiers fought for those states once the war started. But the reverse is also true. The fact that an individual Confederate soldier did not mean to support slavery does not change the fact that the Confederate states, as political entities, meant to defend slavery when they seceded. The latter is clear historical fact.

  8. One of the pathologists in early 1980s or late 1970s filmed the impact of various firearms on a model human (femur or thigh bone set in a gelatine block). This is worth locating to show how the early firearms to the modern (1980) did very different damage to the human body and how battlefield medicine has changed.

    The other revelation is how treatment of veterans has or hasn’t so much changed. After war care seems to always be well-behind what one would expect given the injuries predicted/encountered.

    My relatives did not own slaves and would have been appalled at the suggestion. nevertheless, they fought and were wounded for their homes.

    1. “Terminal Ballistics of Antique and Modern Firearms” by Bruce Ragsdale, at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, an outgrowth of the Medical Museum. If a copy isn’t already on I can have one transferred and uploaded after the holidays.

  9. Looking at that image in it’s highest resolution format at the Flickr account, it appears to be a drawing or painting, not a photograph.

    1. Which image? The hernia? That’s a photograph, it’s just done with Civil War photographic technology which means the original negative is 3″ x 4″ but printed using photographic salts on rough paper.

  10. My Great Grand-Father and Great Grand-Uncle fought in the Civil War, with a NYC Regiment; Union Troop. My GGF lied about his age to get in, and my GGU saw serious battle, especially at the end of the war, in the south. He died very young, but after the war. I’ve never found his death certificate, so I don’t know the cause. It may have been Yellow Fever according to oral family history. The war impacted both. My GGF had been struck in the face with a bullet, although his photos hid this. He suffered from ‘rheumatismus’ his entire life from injuries. My GGF worked in the field helping the medics of the day, during the war. He had been promoted, but eventually took a demotion back down to private. It was better to see the dead, rather than see the tortured survivors, it would seem. These photos explain why.

    Thanks, I appreciate history and vintage photos.

    1. That war left deep traces through families and communities. The Depression came earlier to the rural south and children growing up then, with cornmeal and field greens for food, had living grandfathers whose physical wounds were visible. Evidently my mother’s grandfather liked to wave goodbye to the grandkids with his limbless pant leg.

      Makes one wonder how anyone copes with atrocity.

      1. Very sad and graphic. War is no prettier now, though, is it? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    1. Thank you. Let us know when Ragsdale video is up too, please. I miss the old Army Pathology museum on the mall.

    1. You’re taking 21st century notions and applying them retroactively. These soldiers had their names published in the Medical and Surgical History, along with woodcuts of their images. The technology didn’t exist to reproduce the images as photographs or else they would have. If you check out letters from the soldiers, they ask for copies of the pictures for their families.

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