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Scandinavian Journal of Pain

Official Journal of the Scandinavian Association for the Study of Pain

Editor-in-Chief: Breivik, Harald

4 Issues per year

CiteScore 2017: 0.84

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2017: 0.401
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2017: 0.452

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Volume 4, Issue 4

In praise of anesthesia: Two case studies of pain and suffering during major surgical procedures with and without anesthesia in the United States Civil War-1861–65

Maurice S. Albin
  • Corresponding author
  • David Chestnut, M.D., Section on the History of Anesthesia, Department of Anesthesiology, University of Alabama School of Medicine at Birmingham, JT 845, 619 19th Street South, Birmingham, AL 35294, USA
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Published Online: 2013-10-01 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sjpain.2013.07.028



The United States Civil War (1861–1865) pitted the more populous industrialized North (Union) against the mainly agricultural slaveholding South (Confederacy). This conflict cost an enormous number of lives, with recent estimates mentioning a total mortality greater than 700,000 combatants [1]. Although sulfuric ether (ETH) and chloroform (CHL) were available since Morton’s use of the former in 1846 and the employment of the latter in 1847, and even though inhalational agents were used in Crimean war (1853–1856) and the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the United States Civil War gave military surgeons on both sides the opportunity to experience the use of these two agents because of the large number of casualties.


Research of historic archives illustrates the dramatic control of surgical pain made possible with introduction of two general anesthetic and analgesic drugs in 1846 and 1847.


An appreciation of the importance of anesthesia during surgical procedures can be noted in the poignant and at times hair raising cases of two left arm amputations carried out under appalling circumstances during the United States Civil War. In the first-case the amputation was delayed for nearly five days after the wounding of Private Winchell who served in an elite sharpshooter brigade and was captured by the Confederate Army during battle. The amputation was performed without anesthesia and the voice of the Private himself narrates his dreadful experience. The postoperative course was incredible as he received no analgesia and survived a delirious comatose state lying on the ground in the intense summer heat.

Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was a famous ascetic Confederate General who helped defeat the Union forces at the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. In the ensuing near-darkness, Jackson was fired upon by his own friendly troops where he suffered multiple gunshot wounds on his right hand as well as a ball in the upper humerus of the left arm similar to that of Private Winchell. Transported to a field hospital about thirty miles away, the evacuation was carried out under artillery fire and the General dropped from the stretcher at least twice before arriving at the field hospital. There, a team of surgeons operated on “Stonewall”, using open drop chloroform, the surgery taking 50 min, anesthesia times of one hour with General Jackson awake and speaking with clarity shortly after the termination of the anesthesia. A brief explanation of the use of anesthetics in the military environment during the Crimean, Mexican American and the United States Civil War is also presented.

Conclusion and implications

Two case stories illustrate the profound improvement in surgical pain made possible with ether and chloroform only 160 years ago. Surgeons and patients nowadays have no ideas what these most important improvements in modern medicine means, unless “reliving” the true hell of pain surgery was before ether and chloroform.

Keywords: Pain; Anesthetics; Amputations; United States Civil War; Pain relief; Surgery


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About the article

Tel.: +1 2059965143; fax: +1 2059965368

Received: 2013-07-24

Accepted: 2013-07-28

Published Online: 2013-10-01

Published in Print: 2013-10-01

Conflict of interestNone declared.

Citation Information: Scandinavian Journal of Pain, Volume 4, Issue 4, Pages 243–246, ISSN (Online) 1877-8879, ISSN (Print) 1877-8860, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sjpain.2013.07.028.

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