Surgical Equipment

During the Civil War, access to good medical supplies was very limited. Many Northern surgeons were only able to carry a very basic instrument kit, known as a “surgeon’s companion.”6 They were unable to obtain much of the medicine and supplies that they were accustomed to using during their civil practices, largely because of paperwork and other technical difficulties. Their access to quality instruments and vaccinations was limited as well. The assistance that the military received from the Sanitary Commission greatly increased their supplies and materials—from medicine to food and blankets.


A "surgeon's companion"

A “surgeon’s companion”


Confederate surgeons were also very limited in their supplies, perhaps more so than surgeons in the Union army. Two Confederate surgeons from Texas testified that their army did not take very good care of their wounded men, failing to supply proper food, water, and surgical supplies.3 The Confederate army also did not have a central organization such as the Sanitary Commission to furnish supplies where the army was lacking. Their access to medicine was so scarce that they carried out attempts to smuggle it in from the North by sewing it into the dresses of Southern women.6 Medical instruments provided by the military were also limited, and surgeons often had to rely on their instruments from their home practices. The one advantage the South had in the area of materials was their access to cotton. Cotton could be used to make high-quality, effective bandages.6


In addition to simply lacking access to supplies, surgeons had access to supplies that were unfamiliar to them or of poor quality. Surgeons did not use anesthetics often because they were unfamiliar with their use. Chloroform was probably the most common anesthetic, and it was only fourteen years old at the time of the Civil War.4 The transportation that the surgeons relied on to send their wounded to hospitals was also very poor. The sick and wounded were packed together closely, resulting in more men dying from disease than died from battle.