Civil War at Philadelphia’s Mütter: Shattered Bodies, Shallow Graves

Bones of Civil War soldiers embedded with bullets
The Mütter Museum‘s exhibit included wound and surgical specimens from dead soldiers that were used in the Union Army’s frantic effort to quickly train thousands of battlefield doctors. Notice the bullet embedded in the third vertebra as well as the bullets in the other two bones that demonstrate the effects of various kinds of Confederate ordnance.

The U.S. Civil War isn’t something many people associate with Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum — the famed 160 year old institution housing a collection of medical specimens, anatomical oddities, and clinical instruments dating to the early 19th century. But the Civil War was a time of extraordinary transformation for the field of American medicine as the Union war to end slavery produced unprecedented numbers of dead and wounded soldiers. It was a daunting clinical challenge that drove revolutionary changes in the way military doctors were trained and medical care was delivered on the battlefield and beyond.

The Mütter’s now removed Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia exhibit looked back at that period that became the crucible from which modern medicine emerged.

Mütter Museum entrance sign
The Mütter Museum is part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest private medical society. The college and its historic building are both a tourist attraction as well as an active scientific forum, educational facility, and medical library.
Union Army medical specimen of a shattered Union soldier bone.
Specimens of actual bullets and the bones they shattered served as visual training aids for Army medical students during the Civil War.
Wound made by a Minié ball in the Civil War
The “Minié ball” created devastating damage. Made of soft lead it was 5/8th inch in diameter. A Minié entered this skull and ripped an exit hole through the other side.
Display of bullets and shattered Civil War bones
The weapons of both sides were the most deadly ever used up to that time. Unlike muskets of earlier eras that had short ranges, 1860’s rifles and munitions could be accurate to 500 yards. Many bullets didn’t just puncture an arm or leg, they tore it off.
Mohamed Abdirisak of Indiana University learns about Civil War burial practices
Mohamed Abdirisak of Indiana University learns about Civil War burial practices. Dead soldiers were often quickly interred in shallow battlefield graves and dug up later to be shipped home or to proper military cemeteries. Civil War arm prosthesis.
Civil War Union Army embalmer at work.
Safa Browne, a University of Pennsylvania public health professional, explores the embalming display. Itinerant embalmers followed the Union troops from battlefield to battlefield.
U.S. Color Troops display at the Mütter museum.
Noting that members of U.S. Colored Troop units died in higher numbers than Union Army white soldiers, the Mütter’s Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits display takes a special interest in African Americans’ role in the Civil War. Perusing one of the displays is Khalida Saalim of Georgetown University.
The Civil War sparked rapid developments in prostheses
The same industrial ingenuity that devised many the weapons of the Union Army also invented new kinds of prostheses for the Union Army’s large number of amputees.

Total Civil War dead and doctors
The exact figure is elusive, but it’s estimated that nearly a million people — soldiers and civilians alike — were killed during the four-year conflict that raged across thousands of miles. When the war began in 1861, the Union Army had only 113 doctors. By the end, in 1865, there were 12,000.