The two primary anesthetics available during the Civil War were chloroform and ether. Of the two, chloroform evolved as the preferred choice.

Both ether and chloroform had been in use for a few years prior to the outbreak of the war.

Chloroform came to be the preferred anesthetic because of its faster action, non flammability and smaller bulk. A major drawback of chloroform was its characteristic of being fatal if the patient was allowed to overdose.

The administering of chloroform was accomplished by dripping it onto a sponge or cotton cloth that was held so as to allow the patient to inhale the vapors. Once anesthetized, the sponge or cloth was removed to allow for the “free admixture of atmospheric air.” Such “admixture” undoubtedly reduced the death rate of this anesthetic.

Chloroform, at times, was extremely scarce in the Confederate hospitals. This scarcity was the mother of invention; an inverted funnel lined with cotton became an inhaler that concentrated the vapors, whereby less chloroform was used for each patient.

Following surgery the patient was moved to a recovery area. Here the patient was fanned in the face to force more fresh air in his lungs. Some were wiped with rags of cold water, and when available, ammonia was passed under their noses to bring them back to consciousness.

Another point concerning chloroform is that there was less risk of the attending surgeon and staff being overcome by its vapors while performing surgery!

Confederate Medical Director Hunter Holmes McGuire asserted that although chloroform was administered over 28,000 times in his corps “no death was ever ascribed to its use.”

* Dr. Samuel Guthrie of Sackets, New York. was the first to distill chloride of lime with alcohol in a copper still in 1831. He called it Chloric Either. soon to be named “Chloroform.”


DOCTORS IN BLUE: by George Worthington Adams