National Museum of Civil War Medicine
"More arms and legs were cut off during the Civil War than in any other war in our history," says the "Ammunition and Amputations" display at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. That's a problem when it comes to broad audience appeal, admitted David Price, the museum's executive director. "So many people say, 'Good grief, I don't want to hear that story,'" he said. "'It's all about saws and butchering.'"
The museum asks visitors to see beyond the bloody operations, crude plastic surgeries, predatory embalmers, and, um, piles of human limbs produced by Civil War medicine. It notes that amputating bullet-smashed arms and legs saved countless lives in the days before antibiotics and sterilization. It makes the case that lessons learned about mass casualties during the Civil War are still followed today. "Every time there's a disaster response on TV," said David, "you're seeing Civil War medicine play out in front of you."
The most famous amputation in the museum is its "Antietam Arm," a dun-colored mummified human limb that left the rest of its body on September 17, 1862, during the battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the war. "It was probably blown off by an artillery shell," said David. The arm's display notes that farmers plowing the battlefield turned up human remains for years, although it was rare to find bones still covered with flesh and skin.
"The Arm of the Unknown Soldier," as it was once called, was donated to the museum in 2012. The Smithsonian then subjected the arm, with its claw-like fingers and ropey tendons, to two years of tests. The results? Not much: all that could be determined was that the arm belonged to a teenage Caucasian male, probably a Yankee.
The museum is proud of its relic, but discreetly displays it in a dead-end off the main gallery so it can be avoided by squeamish school groups. "I'm not sure who else would want it," said David, "but no one's a better fit for it than us."
Another medical advance that came out of the Civil War was mass embalming. The museum has a life-size diorama of Dr. Richard Burr, who abandoned sawing limbs from live soldiers for the more lucrative profession of pumping chemicals into dead ones. "Many of the laws later put in place to regulate embalming were because of his bad behavior," said David, describing how Dr. Burr would stand on the edge of battlefields pre-selling soldiers an embalming, a local burial, and a wooden headstone. "After they were buried," said David, "he would retrieve the headstone in the night, sand it down, and repaint it for the next customer."
The museum and Dr. Burr have an intimate connection, because the museum building was the notorious doctor's embalming station when the tide of battle flowed back and forth through town. "A lot of dead people came through here," said David. "Unrestful souls. It's definitely the most haunted building in Frederick."
David, who seemed like a no-nonsense guy, described ghosts that have appeared on the museum's CCTV cameras, and others with the unsettling ability to walk through walls. The museum is so haunted, he said, that it offers special October tours where the staff simply describes their personal ghost experiences in every room. "Some visitors," said David, "have come to us upset that we didn't inform them we were haunted," prompted by encounters ranging from phantom specters to taps on the shoulder and finger flicks on the ear. "It's happened on more than several occasions."
Maybe it's just a ghost's way of saying, "Hey, that's my arm! Look at my arm!"