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Civil War Amputation Sets 101

by Laura Collum (12/04/08).

This is the interior view of a multi-layered surgical set by Mathews showing large and small saws, both types of tourniquets, knives, etc. Of interest to Civil War collectors is the bullet forceps—or foreign body forceps—next to the tourniquets.

One hundred-forty-six years ago, in December of 1862, 72,000 Confederate and 106,000 Union soldiers clashed in what is now called the Fredericksburg Campaign. When it was over, Fredericksburg was still in Confederate hands and 5,200 Confederate and 12,700 Union soldiers were injured or killed.

Disease killed more men on both sides of the war than anything else. Of the 600,000-plus fatalities suffered on both sides during the Civil War, only one-third died from wounds inflicted during battle. Amputations were the most common surgical procedure performed. If a man was wounded in an extremity, removing it was the best way to save his life. That is why you see so many amputation sets or kits at Civil War shows.

Amputation sets consist, in their most basic form, of a large bone saw, a set of knives, tissue forceps, rongeur, tenaculum, scalpels and tourniquet in a fabric-lined box. More elaborate kits will include smaller saws, such as metacarpal saws, chain saw, bistuouries, foreign matter probes, surgical scissors, etc. The instruments of this era had ebony or even ivory handles. Gutta percha handles are rare. The handles were often checkered to provide a firm grip. Germs were known but not really believed to be the cause of patients’ problems at this time, so instruments were not designed to be sterilized. (Instruments with wood handles were still in medical catalogues well into the 20th century due to the conservative nature of the medical profession.) However, all-metal instruments made their entrance in the 1870’s and, in my opinion, made them less interesting to collect.

The boxes the instruments are housed in are made of mahogany, oak or walnut, and often have brass strapping and corners for strength. They are lined in velveteen or chamois, with purple or red being the most common colors used. The colors often faded to green, tan or pink. The instruments are fitted into slots or shaped holes and held down with brass fasteners or fabric-covered wood. They also had trays that lifted out to expose more instruments underneath. Most of the instruments in a kit are marked with the maker’s name, unless the instrument is too small. Sometimes you will find a kit with some instruments by other makers. Makers often have a label inside the box with the name and address. This is of interest to collectors because the address will help date the kit.

This is a set of amputation knives by Favre, a French maker. Note the checkered handles.

There are three scalpels in this set by Favre.

Here is a close-up view of the makers mark on a scalpel by Favre.

Tenaculum was used to carefully grasp the arteries during amputations. They were also used to move other tissue.

The most famous American surgical instrument maker is Tiemann, which was in business from 1826 to 1900. Other makers include Hernstein, Snowdon, Gemrig, Leach and Green, and others. Collectible European makers include Mathieu, Maw, Charriere, Evans and others.

What can be of greatest interest to the collector is the brass plaque on top of the box. It could have the name of the surgeon engraved on it. Research will reveal who the surgeon was, what army, and when served. The Union and Confederate Armies also issued kits and labeled them as such “Medical Department USA,” or better yet, “CSA.” You might also see a kit presented to a surgeon from a grateful town or group after the war with this information on the plaque.

Prices for amputation sets start at about $1,200 for a very basic kit and go up depending on condition, maker and provenance. The Mathews set in the first photo sold for $4,800 at a Civil War show in 2007. It had two trays and lots of instruments, and only a couple of minor instruments were missing. The bullet forceps helped sell the set. If this set were ID’d to having belonged to a Union surgeon or Medical Department, approximate value would be $6,500.

As a general rule of thumb, a Confederate set can bring twice, perhaps three times the amount for an equivalent Union set. A presentation set has interest too. A customer called me a couple of years ago and asked if a complete set presented after the war to a Navy surgeon from Charleston, S.C. by a women’s group (I can’t remember what they were called), also from Charleston, was worth $7,000. I told him to pay it and run!

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