The Blue, the Gray, the Red, and the Gory: The National Museum of CivilWar Medicine

November 25, 2012 — I’m not a Civil War buff, but I do like me a good medical museum. So, standing in front of the storefront façade of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, my balk was whether this was going to be a good medical museum.

“Good” is a relevant term, of course, but there are two things I look for in a medical museum: Terrifying implements of healing and grisly examples of biology gone wrong. I was about to see whether a town like Frederick could show me such wonders.

Frederick’s an old stomping ground of mine and a strange town in general. It has long been the unofficial gateway to Western Maryland, the panhandle-type strip of “out there” land sandwiched between Pennsylvania and West Virginia and which would probably be more comfortable as part of either state.

Over time, this town historically derided as “Fredneck” really began to come into its own as people began to realize it was just 30 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. ‘s beltway. As a result, Frederick has become a much more relevant locale to one of the most globally relevant locales in the entire world.

Frederick features a quaint downtown full of old buildings tenanted by boutique shops and restaurants. And squeezed among those shops is a display window that at one time probably exhibited artsy jewelry or retro clothing. Today, it’s a mannequin diorama of a battlefield nurse attending a wounded Union soldier.

Now, I don’t have to tell you that mannequins can be really cool or a large red flag. Either they’re great for some small-museum atmosphere or an excuse for a lack of exhibits. And a pair of glass doors was all that was keeping me from discovering which.

Located in the space of an early 19th century furniture shop/mortuary home, the National Civil War Museum at 48 East Patrick Street is the headquarters of a trio of Civil War sites that also include the Pry House Field Hospital Museum at the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland, and Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office in Washington, DC.

When we walked into the museum, the place was relatively well-attended. Of course, we were there on Frosty Friday, Frederick’s downtown holiday event, so the town was full of revelers and wassailers and Christmas shoppers who didn’t mind a brief detour into amputation kits and musket ball wounds.

It only cost $7.50 to get in, and the people behind the gift shop counter went out of their way to make sure I wasn’t eligible for a list of discounts. Apparently, I just don’t live a life worthy of discount.

They directed us to the elevator and told us the best way to experience the museum is to start on the second floor and then work our way back down. Besides just making sense as a general exit strategy, it was soon apparent that it was also a “save the best for last” strategy.

See, the first few exhibits didn’t bode too well for my personal criteria. It had some artifacts around medical schools of the period, veterinary medicine, some clothes and basic medical bags and instruments of the era. The first diorama we encountered was of, well, people standing in line…either signing up for the war effort or earning their medical diploma, I don’t remember.

But then we went down a series of ramps that really made the place seem a lot larger than it was. All the walls were covered in Civil War murals, the dioramas become larger and more detailed…and the artifacts got a lot grislier.

Like multiple versions of the aforementioned amputation kits, pictures of piles of medically severed limbs and men in top hats dissecting medical school cadavers, artifacts from graves, bone fragments that included a portion of skull—all labeled with the names of the soldiers whose skeletons they were once a part of, dioramas of amputations and embalming practices. Even stuff I’d never heard of…like a holding coffin.

The holding coffin was a specially designed casket equipped with metal pans for holding ice to preserve the corpses inside for their wakes. The one they had on display looked like some kind of giant puzzle box, a contraption that I would have guessed was meant to do more violent things to cadavers then gently preserve them for their loved ones.

After spending about two to three times longer than we thought we would in the museum, we finally made our way past the last exhibit--an overview of modern battlefield medicine--and back out into the beautiful world of sterilization, surgical steel, and anesthesia that many of those Civil War doctors made possible.

Obviously, in the end, I found the National Museum of Civil War Medicine to be well worth the time and money. The curators and designers did a good job of creating a small-town museum feel stocked with big-time-museum-quality artifacts.

I mean, they had an antique wax model of a gangrenous arm in a jar of murky fluid and a Civil-War-ear sheepskin condom for protection against syphilis. You could just balance those on a aluminum trash can in a dirty alley, and I’d of been happy to have visited.