Civil War History Programs with the Resident Associates Program
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Vol. 10

Smithsonian Features Civil War Images from National Museum of Health & Medicine

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 7, Number 10

A new exhibit at the world famous Smithsonian National Museum of American History, The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, features 44 images of Civil War soldiers. The images are on loan from a much-lesser known museum, the National Museum of Health and Medicine on the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC. The images are from the Otis Historical Archives, and exhibit how war, specifically the Civil War, has shaped American history.

The photos from this specialized museum focus on how the medical aspects impacted Civil War soldiers, mostly amputees and wounded survivors of the bloodiest war in American history. The images, displayed on a cloth mural, show the graphic and painful results of battle, such as facial mutilation, loss of limbs, and permanent bullet wounds. "The goal of this part of the exhibit was to show the human side of combat and its lingering effect on people's lives after the war," said David Allison, Ph.D., project director and chief curator of the exhibit.

The mural is placed adjacent to a large tree stump that was removed from a battlefield in Spotsylvania, Virginia. The ferocity of the hailstorm coming from Union rifles literally severed the 22-inch oak, and took the lives of 2000 soldiers. The location of the mutilated tree stump adjacent to the collage of injured soldiers creates an arresting image that further demonstrates the heavy toll of war on both humans and the environment.

The photos used in the collage was drawn from the museum's Otis Historical Archives. This extensive collection includes manuscripts, documents, archives, films, prints, slides, paintings, photographs, illustrations, and institutional records related to military health and medicine.

The National Museum of Health and Medicine has its own permanent Civil War exhibit entitled, To Bind Up the Nation's Wounds: Medicine During the Civil War. The display tells the story through the eyes of surgeons as well as the sick and wounded. Included here is the museum's most famous artifact, the bullet that killed President Abraham Lincoln and the probe used during the autopsy on the night of his assassination. Also on display are surgical tools used by Civil War doctors, photographs of amputees, and the leg bone of Major General Daniel Sickles, which he visited regularly after losing it at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Reprinted from Flesh & Bones, a publication of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, June/July 2005. For more information about the museum, call 202-782-2200 or visit their website at