The duties and activities of a military surgeon were very broad. Primarily, surgeons cared for and treated wounded men, often from both armies. This encompassed doing first aid, surgical procedures, amputations, and organizing the transportation of the wounded to general hospitals. Though Civil War surgeons often have a reputation for performing unnecessary amputations, this was most likely not the case. Although surgeons did perform operations practically all day after a major battle, Dr. Jonathan Letterman of the Army of the Potomac stated that he actually believed the “knife [was] not used enough,” and that surgeons were too conservative.5 An explanation for the large numbers of amputations can be found in examining the weapons used to fight the war. Rifled muskets were a new technology employed in the Civil War. The wounds from these muskets shattered bones, so the best option for the recovery of the soldier was often amputation of the limb.6
Surgeons also had other miscellaneous duties apart from caring for the wounded. Surgeons were in charge of organizing, equipping, and supplying hospitals. They maintained vast systems of records. Surgeons determined the best locations for their hospitals and first aid stations, and directed their subordinates in creating these. In addition to all of these, they inspected each man before they joined the military service, determined the number of nurses that would work in each hospital, established the water quality at a campsite, practiced embalming, and even tattooed army deserters.
Surgeons did enjoy special privileges for being medical staff. They were not permitted to be prisoners of war for the majority of the Civil War. This law meant that surgeons were free to care for the wounded without disruption and without the fear of being captured. Surgeons were also generally deeply respected, and their opinions were highly valued, even on non-medical matters.
The duties of the Confederate surgeons were extremely similar to those of Union surgeons. If anything, Southern surgeons had to take on more responsibility, since they did not have a Sanitary Commission to assist them. Since the majority of Confederate medical and official records were destroyed during the burning of Richmond near the close of the war, much less is known about Confederate surgeons than is known about Union surgeons and their duties.6