Posted in American Civil War, American Civil War Medicine, History of Medicine

American Civil War Medicine – Part 3 – Minié Ball Injuries

click here.Southern Skirmish Association (So.Sk.An) – Skirmish at The American Museum in Britain, Bath 2011

The standard Civil War issue rifle, was the Springfield Model 1861, a musket shoulder arm that used the percussion lock system.  Weighing approximately 9 pounds, sporting a 40 inch long barrel,  muzzle-loading, .58 Caliber, shooting a 480 grain conical, soft lead Minié ball.  The Minié ball bullet derives its name from the gentleman who invented it, French gunsmith Claude Etienne Minié (1804-1879).   The Springfield rifle was an extremely powerful weapon and the Minié ball had a greater range than the traditional round musket ball.  The Minié was effective at 1,000 yards, deadly at 300.  Introduced into The American Civil War in 1862 by the North and carried by the Union Infantry in the eastern theatre.  Confederate soldiers in the South also used the weapon later on in the conflict, initially as a result of seizing the rifles and ammunitions as spoils of war, but in time they began to manufacture the Minié ball bullet themselves.

Ammunition Display owned by members of So.Sk.An. Examples of the deadly Minié ball bullet are shown

The Minié ball inflicted horrendous injuries, challenging even the most experienced Army Surgeon.  Upon impact the conoidal balls lost their shape, penetrating the victim’s body causing extensive fissuring, splintering of bone, lacerations and destruction of internal organs.  The velocity of the Minié was such that it would carry with it pieces of skin and clothing into the wound itself.  Death from an untreated infected entry wound was often inevitable.  A direct hit to the chest, torso, head and stomach was seen as the soldier’s death sentence.

The Minié ball was responsible for the high number of amputations in The American Civil War.  The removal of the shattered limb was counter to contemporary guidelines practiced by non-battlefield Surgeons in mid 19th-century America.   Physicians were taught to follow the principles of ‘conservative therapeutics’ when faced with severely damaged limbs.  Conservative therapeutics meant preservation of the body at all costs and saving diseased limbs whenever possible, only performing mutilation as a last resort.  However, the Minié ball ignited infection from the moment of impact, with bacterium immediately transported into the wound by way of the torn pieces of skin and clothing.  The battlefield Surgeon had no choice but remove the limb to prevent certain death.  The mindset of the Army Surgeon became ‘life is better than a limb’.

Left of the image the deadly Minié ball bullet, on the right the round musket ball. Part of an exhibition of medical instruments by So.Sk.An.

One of the reasons why bullet injuries to the upper part of the solider’s torso were common is as a result of battlefield formations.  Traditional formations meant that soldiers would stand shoulder-to-shoulder, many suffered multiple wounds as their line of defense met attack.  Gunshot wounds to the face – particularly the eyelids – neck and head were commonplace.  Reviewing contemporary medical journals has revealed the extent of the devastation inflicted by the Minié ball.  In 1864, a 29-year-old soldier was wounded in the head, the bullet entered half an inch above the frontoparietal suture, and two inches to the right of the median line, penetrating the brain and lodging there.  The brain began to ooze mass in a haphazard manner.  The patient was so distressed he could not take food or medicine and become very weak, listless, shouting in pain whilst at the same time his eyes were open and staring,  4 days later he began to  experience frequent and violent convulsions.  Cold applications were applied to the wound, and half a grain of Calomel mixed with a quarter grain of opium were administered.  He subsequently became incontinent, delirious and paralysed down one side.  On the 8th day his symptoms improved but 6 days later he passed away.  The autopsy revealed that a bullet had torn its way through the right lobe of the cerebrum and remained lodged against the meninges for the duration of what must have been a harrowing and excruciatingly slow death.  It was also discovered that the skull had sustained a fracture, 6 inches in length and nearly 2 inches wide, the right cerebrum was decomposed and the middle meniugeal artery sloughed through.

In another case, the Minié ball had entered the mouth of a soldier, passed through the tongue and no exit wound could be found.  The patient appeared fine for 6 days but on the 7th suffered a fatal haemorrhage.  The autopsy revealed that the bullet had lodged in the upper surface of the transverse process of the atlas, having perforated in its course the external and internal carotid arteries.

On a lighter note, I cannot write about the Minié ball without addressing the legend of the ‘Minié ball pregnancy’.  In the American Medical Weekly (7th November 1874) a doctor recounts a most unusual tale from over 10 years ago when  a Confederate soldier, during the Battle of Raymond Mississippi in 1863, had received a Minié ball hit directly into his tibia.  The bullet had ricocheted through his scrotum and subsequently penetrated the abdomen of a 17-year-old girl living in a nearby farmhouse.  The young girl had been treated by the doctor who noticed in the coming weeks that her stomach begun to swell.  A medical examination by him confirmed that although her virginity had not been compromised she was indeed pregnant.  She later gave birth to a baby boy and the doctor concluded that the young maiden must have been impregnated by sperm on the stray Minié ball bullet.  In order to hush the doubters he also claimed that he had gone on to surgically remove said bullet, from the baby boy’s own scrotum following the birth.   However, on 21st November 1874 the same doctor printed a retraction of his story claiming that it had all been just a little bit of ‘contemplated fun’.  The devastation caused by the Minié ball bullet, as you can see from the case studies cited above, was certainly nothing to joke about and the doctor in question was quite rightly chastised for his japers.

To find out more about The Southern Skirmish Association click here.


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