Blood and Germs: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease (Medical Fiascoes)

Blood and Germs: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease (Medical Fiascoes)
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Release Date
October 13, 2020
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Acclaimed author Gail Jarrow, recipient of a 2019 Robert F. Sibert Honor Award, explores the science and grisly history of U.S. Civil War medicine, using actual medical cases and first-person accounts by soldiers, doctors, and nurses.

The Civil War took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and left countless others with disabling wounds and chronic illnesses. Bullets and artillery shells shattered soldiers' bodies, while microbes and parasites killed twice as many men as did the battles. Yet from this tragic four-year conflict came innovations that enhanced medical care in the United States. With striking detail, this nonfiction book reveals battlefield rescues, surgical techniques, medicines, and patient care, celebrating the men and women of both the North and South who volunteered to save lives.

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The Civil War, Down and Dirty
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Learning Value
One of the enduring conundrums of readers advisory I have is this: how do I get books about war to students without glorifying it? There are some students with an insatiable to desire to vicariously experience war, but even eleven year olds need to know that War is Not Good.

This book is perfect.

Jarrow, whose Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary, Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat, Bubonic Panic: When Plague Invaded America and The Poison Eaters all show impressive writing on medical topics, narrows on what is to me the most fascinating fact about the Civil War: sickness claimed more lives than violence. Diarrhea was one of the most common killers. Nothing takes the glory away from dying for one's country more than a discussion of the number of diseases that could cause this outcome.

This is serious business. The Civil War affected so many families, and in addition to the fatalities among soldiers, there were men who came back in extremely poor health due to a huge number of causes. Jarrow used military records to try to break down the administration of health services, the statistics about various diseases, and to highlight individuals who died because of the war. She does mention that there are far more extant records of the Union forces, but that ratios are probably similar in the Confederate cases.
Good Points
I found it surprising that neither army seemed to have made plans for taking care of soldiers who were ill or injured. Granted, this was during a time where doctor's credentials were not as regulated, and also when there was no formal training of nurses, but basic hygiene was not really addressed. Latrines caused widespread disease, as did lice and lack of clean water. The vast majority of the nursing seems to have been carried out by societies comprised of women volunteers. It was also interesting that some of the soldiers were more susceptible to diseases because they came from small towns or rural settings, so had no immunity built up from being in crowds.

This book is nicely organized, and well designed, with plentiful period photographs and illustrations. Famous figures, such as Clara Barton, are highlighted, but there are lesser known luminaries, like Mary Livermore, who fought for more sanitary conditions in military hospitals, as well. The end notes are very complete, there is a really informative timeline, and the glossary of terms is helpful as well.

Readers who want heroic tales of combat might be disappointed in this, but the cover will draw them in, and they will read at least half of the book before they realize that they are deep into a discussion about scurvy. Students who want to research the Civil War for a history project will find this an invaluable resource about innovations in medicine, technology, and practices that came out of this time period. This is an essential book for middle school and high schools, especially when the Civil War is part of the curriculum.
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