Tangle Of Remains In First Discovered Civil War Surgical Burial Pit Reveals The Gruesome Reality Of Battlefield Medicine

Field technician Erin Godwin excavates an amputated limb at Manassas National Battlefield Park. Kate D. Sherwood, Smithsonian Institution.

Aliyah Kovner 22 Jun 2018, 00:15

In late August of 1862, the second year of the American Civil War, a large Union army led by Major General John Pope was camped near a tributary of the Potomac River in Manassas, northern Virginia, when they were attacked by Confederate forces commanded by Stonewall Jackson. The ensuing two-day clash, named the Second Battle of Bull Run or Second Battle of Manassas, left an estimated 1,305 Confederate and 1,716 Union men dead, with many thousands more captured or wounded on each side.

Now, more than 150 years later, we are gaining fresh insight into the surgical techniques that army doctors employed to treat the multitudes of severely injured soldiers, such as those at Bull Run, while bullets and cannonballs were still flying nearby.

As reported by the National Park Service (NPS) this week, a burial pit containing two near-complete skeletons and a jumble of 11 arms and legs has spurred a whirlwind of research since it was first discovered, unexpectedly, at the site of the conflict in 2014.

All 11 limbs out for examination at the Smithsonian lab. NPS Photo/Nathan King

The findings are the only known examples of Civil War surgical remains, according to the NPS and Smithsonian Institute archaeologists in charge of the investigation. After a careful excavation, the stash of bones and surrounding material were relocated from the Manassas National Battlefield Park to the Smithsonian’s state-of-the-art National Museum of Natural History laboratory for thorough physical and chemical analyses.

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