Remembering the war that changed the nation

The Civil War’s 150th anniversary has special meaning to these DMU faculty.

Blame a fourth -year rotation in Pennsylvania for the reason you can occasionally find Roy Lidtke, D.P.M.’91, C.Ped., FACFAOM, in a full wool uniform under the summer sun. And blame service in the Army for the fact that Kendall Reed, D.O., FACOS, FACS, has a similar uniform displayed in his office.

“My interest in the Civil War began during my residency in surgery in the mid-1970s. I was in the Army and got interested in the history of surgery,” says Reed, dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine. “Modern military medicine basically began in the Civil War.”

During his Pennsylvania rotation, Lidtke, clinical associate professor in the College of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery, visited some of the state’s many Civil War battlefields. At the time, his wife, Alicia, became engrossed by filmmaker Ken Burns’ 1990 PBS documentary about the war. Later, back in Iowa, they observed a Civil War reenactment; that led to Alicia’s sewing her spouse a wool uniform, using fabric made by the same factory that produced it during the war.

Now, typically a couple times a year, Lidtke dons the vest, frock coat, slouch hat, sash and boots of a military physician and heads to the “battlefield.”

“What I like most are the friends you meet, the camaraderie – sitting around the fire, singing period songs with my group,” he says. “Then there are the magical moments when there’s nothing modern around. You get transported back fast, when you can imagine what it was really like.”

What is unimaginable is the carnage of the four-year conflict. The approximately 625,000 lives lost in the Civil War exceed the number of American soldiers who have died in all the other wars America has fought in since, combined. The huge numbers of soldiers and casualties, says Frank Freemon, M.D., in Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War, “represented…a gigantic petri dish.”

“Many of the major advances in today’s medicine are a direct result of lessons learned in wartime,” Reed says. “As tragic as it is for the lives lost, at the end of the day we come out better.”

Infectious diseases killed two-thirds of the soldiers who died in the Civil War. Despite its battlefield horrors – for example, the coneshaped “minié balls” used as bullets ravaged flesh and bone in ways that practically guaranteed amputation – American medicine at the time did not understand what caused infections or the spread of disease. Dysentery, malaria, typhoid fever, measles and wound infections were just some of the soldiers’ grim realities.

“They had no idea what bacteria was. Cleanliness was not emphasized,” Lidtke says. “Some doctors felt that pus was a natural part of healing. You hear stories, in fact, that if a soldier’s wound did not produce pus, the doctor would apply some from another wounded soldier.”

Military leaders did learn from a horrific error in the first major Civil War battle, the so-called First Bull Run near Manassas, VA. Sixty years earlier Dominique-Jean Larrey, Napoleon Bonaparte’s chief medical officer, had impressed upon his boss the importance of transportation for wounded soldiers, “but we ignored that,” Reed says. ”

After the [First Bull Run] battle, the carnage was incredible,” he adds. “There was a 20-mile stretch of road with a mass of people trying to get to a hospital. That’s a long way to walk, particularly if half your leg has been blown off.”

Military leaders came to recognize the need for mobile, well-equipped hospitals to provide medical treatment as quickly as possible to injured soldiers. “That’s just one example of how military medicine has had an impact on today’s soldier,” Reed says.

Library displays bring war realities to life

Bullet extractor

A wooden stethoscope, bullet extractors, medical kits and an unpleasantlooking tooth key – used to wrench out rotting teeth – are among the items Roy Lidtke and Kendall Reed loaned to the DMU Library to commemorate the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. The items are on display with some of the library’s medical journals from the period.

The DMU Library also will mark the war’s anniversary with a traveling exhibit from the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, titled “Life and Limb — the Toll of the Civil War,” on display from Oct. 3 to Nov. 12. The exhibit explores the experiences of injured soldiers during the conflict and as disabled veterans in the years afterward.

Library displays are free and open to the public, with viewing hours Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The library is located on the second floor of the DMU Student Education Center, 3300 Grand Ave.

Scroll to Top