Victoria Miller, assistant librarian at York County Heritage Trust, said a surgeon would wipe his bloody instrument on his apron before moving to the next patient. They didn't sterilize their instruments.
The dire implication of any wound led soldiers to call the surgeons "sawbones."
A new trust exhibit - Sawbones to Saviours: Civil War Medicine at Penn Common - shares information about how medicine was practiced and evolved as a result of the war.
Around that time, doctors started studying germ theory and how antiseptics improved healing. Dr. Henry Palmer, the chief surgeon at the hospital at Penn Common in York, believed in a more holistic approach to healing, which involved treating the whole body rather than amputating arms and legs.
He encouraged recovering soldiers in York to move around the hospital, which had blacksmith and carpenter shops, and a garden for soldiers.
"They weren't just lying around in bed," Miller said. "It really helped the soldiers' recovery time."
The military transferred Palmer - who was commissioned surgeon of the 7th Wisconsin Infantry in 1861 - to York when the hospital opened in June 1862.
Miller said Palmer was a pioneer in the war and in medicine. The U.S. Army General Hospital, York - now Penn Park - had a 2 percent casualty rate, compared with the national average of 8 percent. More than 14,000 soldiers were treated in York; 193 died.
"The Civil War actually brought our country out of the dark ages of medicine," she said. "All the things we know today - it's nice to see something good come out of something so bad."
The exhibit also features artifacts and information from the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, including a Confederate straight jacket, a wooden leg and a surgical kit. The trust also found a diorama of the hospital made by York College students in the 1980s.
Miller said the collection fuses the story of Penn Common with what was happening in medicine and war nationwide.
She said former staff member Jean Hershner's discovery of Palmer's papers in 2010 in Wisconsin sparked the idea for the exhibit.
Miller said many local people don't know the story of the former hospital at Penn Common and that many people have Civil War ancestry.
"I hope they see they can connect with it a little bit," she said.
- Leigh Zaleski,
If you go
WHAT: Sawbones to Saviours: Civil War Medicine at Penn Common
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays until Oct. 31
WHERE: York County Heritage Trust, 250 E. Market St., York
DETAILS: Visit www.york
heritage.org or call 717-848-1587