Manassas Battlefield 'Limb Pit' Provides Glimpse Of Overlooked Civil War History : Shots - Health News Scientists have been analyzing bones first uncovered by a utility crew digging at the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia. The remains provide insights into surgery during the Civil War.
NPR logo

Civil War Battlefield 'Limb Pit' Reveals Work Of Combat Surgeons

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/620394034/621744121" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Civil War Battlefield 'Limb Pit' Reveals Work Of Combat Surgeons

Civil War Battlefield 'Limb Pit' Reveals Work Of Combat Surgeons

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/620394034/621744121" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. At a Civil War battlefield in Virginia, scientists have unearthed a pit of human bones. These are the amputated limbs of wounded soldiers. NPR's Christopher Joyce was one of just a few journalists given access to these bones. And, as he reports, they reveal the tragedy of battle, the agony of survivors and the trials of early combat surgeons.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: At the visitor's center in Manassas, muskets stand in glass cases alongside mannequins in uniform. A map shows troop movements and battlefield tactics, the usual kind of Civil War exhibit. But one item alludes to what happened after battle. It's a surgeon's kit with numerous saws.

BRANDON BIES: We have saws for removing limbs. We have saws for cutting into head wounds, for cutting off fingers.

JOYCE: Archaeologist Brandon Bies is superintendent of the National Park Service's Manassas site. Saws like these were used here in some of the first field hospitals for soldiers.

BIES: If you can imagine sitting with a horrific wound of your own and hearing the moans and seeing a growing pile of limbs from the surgeon and knowing that your term was coming. I can't possibly imagine what that would have been like.

JOYCE: Except he can - because in 2014, Bies excavated a unique burial site. It was a pit of limbs uncovered accidentally by utility workers. At first, they found bone fragments. They sent them to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History to some of the world's best anthropologists. At the museum's forensic lab in Washington, D.C., bones lie on tables under fluorescent lights. Kari Bruwelheide holds up a reconstructed section of a thigh bone.

KARI BRUWELHEIDE: And what was apparent when we put all these little pieces together was this very even cut edge.

JOYCE: Like a neatly sawed tree branch. They found 11 amputated limbs. All but one were parts of legs. And there were also two almost-complete skeletons, apparently soldiers buried along with the discarded limbs. These were casualties from the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862. They were likely wounded during a charge up to a ridge called the Deep Cut held by thousands of Confederates. Bies takes me there.

BIES: As they start to get closer, within 300 yards, 400 yards, they start to receive rifle fire and musket fire, and men are dropping left and right.

JOYCE: Shot with muskets like the Enfield that Bies has brought. He prepares a blank charge.

BIES: Pour that black powder...

JOYCE: Down into the barrel.

BIES: Ram cartridge.

JOYCE: He cocks the hammer.

BIES: Prime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSKET FIRING)

JOYCE: Some of the wounded lay for days before surgeons arrived.

BIES: Over a hundred-thousand soldiers had trampled, shot, exploded, eaten, burned everything. Every single house, barn, was occupied by wounded soldiers, and the surgeons had very little to work with.

JOYCE: Many soldiers had been hit by a new kind of bullet, a soft, heavy projectile called a Minie ball. At the Smithsonian, chief physical anthropologist Doug Owsley shows me a bone with the kind of wound a Minie ball would cause.

DOUG OWSLEY: You can see that this right femur, high up it's got a fracture up in the upper thigh.

JOYCE: It's shattered. Looks shattered to me.

OWSLEY: It's shattered, and it's a horrific fracture of that leg.

JOYCE: Antibiotics were unknown. Owsley says surgeons had to amputate to save lives. During the entire Civil War, they performed tens of thousands of amputations.

OWSLEY: When you start researching that, you find out what a horrible situation everybody was in.

JOYCE: Owsley says the surgeons at Bull Run were skilled, though. Tiny striations on the cuts show that they sawed swiftly but expertly. Bruwelheide and Owsley say the limb pit is the first ever excavated from a Civil War battlefield.

BRUWELHEIDE: You think you know everything about the Civil War, but then you have a project like this that opens up a whole new area of history, aftermaths of battles.

OWSLEY: It's so much a part of what actually happened during the Civil War as the only way they could really deal with these types of limb fractures, but you never see it. And here it is right in front of us.

JOYCE: The research team may be able to identify some of these soldiers. Owsley says the surgeons recorded patients' names along with the wounds and where they amputated. That might allow the team to match names with bones and perhaps even find out what happened to those who survived.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.