The Preservation of Civil War Medicine

Major John H. Brinton was probably the only Civil War surgeon who had a dead soldier exhumed so he could amputate a part of his leg.

It was for medical science.

Brinton, one of the Union Army’s most highly regarded “sawbones,” was the first curator of the Army Medical Museum, which opened in Washington D.C. in 1862. While in the field searching for potential exhibits, he heard about “a remarkable injury of a lower extremity,” according to the book, Personal Memoirs of John H. Brinton, Major and Surgeon U.S.V. [United States Volunteers], 1861- 1865.

Museum exhibit

The injured soldier had succumbed to his wounds. His buddies had buried him.

“For some reason or other, the specimen was worth having, but his comrades had announced their determination to prevent the doctors from having it,” Brinton, who earned a medical degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and completed postgraduate work in Paris and Vienna before the war, explained in his memoirs.

Brinton, who died in 1907 at age 75, had been General Ulysses S. Grant’s medical director. He figured he could talk the soldiers into exhuming their fallen friend.

“… I visited his mess mates, explained my object, dwelt upon the glory of a patriot having part of his body at least under the special guard of his country, spoke of the desire of the surgeon general to have that bone, with all such similar arguments I could adduce.”

The soldiers were agreeable.

“…In a body they marched out and dug up the body,” Brinton wrote. “I gravely extracted the bone and carried it off carefully; the spokesman of the party remarking gravely ‘that John would have given it to me himself, had he been able to express his opinion.’”

John H. Brinton
John H. Brinton’s personal memoirs are revered as some of the best recorded accounts from the Civil War.
Image: National Library of Medicine.


Brinton showed a keen sense of humor elsewhere in his autobiography, which historians consider to be one of the best reminiscences from America’s bloodiest conflict.

For instance, he talked about visitors to the museum — now the National Museum of Health and Medicine — which was supposed to be a study center for army doctors. But the exhibits of bullet and shell-shattered bones and other mangled body parts attracted the curious, if not the morbid, among capital city citizens.

“Then, too, it often happened that officers and soldiers who had lost a limb by amputation would come to look up its resting place, in some sense its last resting place,” he explained.

Brinton recalled a florid-faced officer — a colonel, he thought, with a slight limp — observed peering intently into a glass case. He was looking for a leg bone with certain number.

“He evidently found what he wanted, and suddenly turning to a buxom-looking young woman at the other end of the room, he called to her in great glee, ‘Come, here, Julia, come here, here it is, my leg … and nicely fixed up, too.’”

The daughter also inspected her father’s missing body part “with very much interest and apparent satisfaction,” Brinton wrote. “It was indeed, a nice, white shiny, varnishy preparation. I thought at the time that it would be very doubtful if the gentleman’s remaining bones would ever make so creditable an appearance.”


Another time, a private appeared, but not just to visit his severed limb. He demanded it back, “noisily and pertinaciously,” Brinton wrote.

The amputee “was deaf to reason, and was only silenced by the question of the curator, ‘For how long did you enlist, for three years or the war?’” Brinton remembered. “’For the war,’” the vet replied.

“‘The United States government is entitled to all of you, until the expiration of the specific time,’” Brinton quoted the curator. “‘I dare not give a part of you up before. Come, then, and you can have the rest of you, but not before.’ He went away silently, wiser, but not convinced.”

Brinton concluded, “So you see that even dry bones may be regarded from different points of view. Remember Mr. Dickens’s immortal friends ‘Mr. Wegg,’ and ‘Mr. Venus.’” Both are characters in Charles Dickens’ famous novel, “Our Mutual Friend”. Wegg is an amputee who wants his severed leg back. Venus, his partner in blackmail, is a double-crossing taxidermist who also makes skeletons. Unknown to Wegg, he has Wegg’s leg.


Brinton also wrote that bones and other specimens came to the museum from many different field hospitals. They “demanded a large supply of alcohol” for preservation, he remembered.

Hence, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered that all booze confiscated by the District of Columbia provost marshal “should be turned over to the Museum for anatomical purposes,” Brinton wrote. “As a result of this order, an enormous amount of alcoholic beverages was poured into the museum, everything from champagne to the commonest rum. Our side lot was piled with kegs, bottles, demijohns and cases, to say nothing of an infinite variety of tins, made so as to fit unperceived on the body, and thus permit the wearer to smuggle liquor into camp.”

Brinton put a hospital steward named Shafhert in charge of the contraband.

“When the whiskey was strong enough for preservation purposes, he kept it in package,” Brinton wrote, adding that less potent liquors were fortified in the museum’s still.

The contraption “… under Schafhert’s watchful care, ran incessantly, and furnished the museum with a large amount of very fair alcohol, not only for putting up our specimens, but for furnishing the various depots in the Army where fresh specimens were being collected, so that they could be kept from decomposition, and reach the museum in good condition. Our still was a success; occasionally it blew up, but never did any active harm. It was also used for the redistillation of sulphuric ether for cleaning bones, but this was a somewhat risky process.”

Lesson learned

Much of the alcohol went into barrels for rail shipment to the depots. Inexplicably, some of the barrels began leaking in transit.

It was discovered that some of the guards and railroad crews were tapping into the barrels, sampling the freight and imperfectly plugging the bore holes.

“… So I determined to take the matter in hand,” Brinton wrote. “A tempting and attractive barrel was selected, and filled with a fair article of whiskey. Into this I placed some tartar emetic … Shortly afterwards I had occasion to pass over the road when I found from the various officers that a day or two previously a good many of the employees of the railroad had suffered from some stomach disturbance, nausea and vomiting. They said it was the water, of course. I had not put in too much tartar and emetic, just enough to act. After this, the barrels of the Army museum were religiously respected, and ceased to leak.”

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