History Stories

Doctors treating the wounded likely had to quickly decide if soldiers were worth saving.

Severed limbs and two almost-complete skeletons have been unearthed in a shallow burial pit in Manassas, the Virginia city where about 15,000 Union soldiers died at the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862. The bones, which belonged to Northern fighters, illuminate the grim, life-or-death realities of the Civil War battlefield.

After the battle, medics would have encountered men with grisly injuries, some of whom had been lying outside with their wounds for days. Doctors quickly had to determine who could be saved and who couldn’t. The severed limbs found in Manassas are from amputations of soldiers who had a chance of survival. But the wounds in one of the skeletons suggest that doctors chose not to operate on him.

That particular soldier had been shot in the butt. The bullet fractured his upper femur bone, which then shattered inside his leg when he tried to retreat. Researchers didn’t find any trouser buttons on his remains, suggesting that he survived the initial wound.

This upper femur bone was badly fractured by a bullet. (Photograph courtesy the National Museum of Natural History)

This upper femur bone was badly fractured by a bullet. (Photograph courtesy the National Museum of Natural History)

“What probably happened is, he’s still alive, and the surgeon had the pants cut off,” said Doug Owsley, lead physical anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History, in an interview with Smithsonian. Based on the severity of the soldier’s injuries, he suspects the surgeon “looked at this and said, ‘Oh, buddy,’ and just set him aside.” The doctor likely thought the wound was too high and messy for amputation.

What’s amazing to Owsley about the severed limbs is they were so cleanly cut. Civil War surgery has a pretty bad reputation—a study published this year actually revealed that Inca Empire physicians were much better at skull surgery than Civil War doctors—but there were still physicians who did good work.

“Some of these amputations were probably done in less than 10 minutes,” Owsley told Smithsonian. “You can read how the doctor’s positioned and how he’s cutting through the bone, and what pace he’s using in different locations. These were done by an experienced surgeon. This was not novice work.”

A view of the cut surface on a femur from a leg amputation. (Photograph courtesy the National Museum of Natural History)

A view of the cut surface on a femur from a leg amputation. (Photograph courtesy the National Museum of Natural History)

Owsley and his colleague Kari Bruwelheide, a physical and forensic anthropologist, both think the surgeon could have been Benjamin Howard, a skilled doctor who also treated injured soldiers at Antietam, the deadliest single day of fighting in U.S. military history.

Manassas National Battlefield Park will incorporate details from this new research into its historical interpretation of the Second Battle of Bull Run. In addition, it is sending the two skeletons to Arlington National Cemetery for burial, now that researchers have identified them as fallen soldiers.

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