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Marrow of Tragedy. The Health Crisis of the American Civil War

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Title: Marrow of Tragedy; The Health Crisis of the American Civil War

Author: Margaret Humphreys

Publisher: Johns Hopkins Press

Reviewer: Paul Watson, head of child development and PSHE, Marshland High School

What was it like?

This book by Margaret Humphries details how, in her opinion the Civil War was the greatest health disaster the United States has ever experienced, killing more than a million Americans and leaving many others invalided or grieving. She clearly and interestingly details for the reader, how Union and Confederate governments scrambled to provide doctoring and nursing, supplies, and shelter for those felled by warfare or disease, demonstrating that both sides were poorly prepared to care for wounded and sick soldiers as the war began.

The book is interesting, telling the stories to readers of how, during the war soldiers suffered from measles, dysentery, and pneumonia and needed both preventive and curative food and medicine. It is poignant to hear how family members—especially women—and governments mounted organised support efforts, while army doctors learned to standardise medical thought and practice.

What were the highlights? 

I found the book interesting and informative, enjoying the fact that there was no glamorisation of war, or bias for either side. The focus of the book was on the care given to troops, nursing styles and the advancement of women’s roles and responsibility. It was interesting to read about the stark contrast in the two sides, with resources in the north helping to return soldiers to battle, while Confederate soldiers suffered hunger and other privations, causing them to heal more slowly, when they healed at all. In telling the stories of soldiers, families, physicians, nurses, and administrators, historian Margaret Humphreys concludes that medical science was not as limited at the beginning of the war as has been portrayed. Medicine and public health clearly advanced during the war—and continued to do so after military hostilities ceased, giving good detailed accounts of why she thinks this could be the case.

Strengths & weaknesses:

This is a well written book that generally flows well, with interesting facts. There are a few contemporary sketches, drawings and photos, which really enhance the stories and facts that are being told. I did at times however, find that some of the sentence construction and grammar left me having to read the lines a couple of times, to fully get the point. Perhaps this was a slight US to UK translation issue (perhaps it was just me!).   

Who should read it?

Anyone with an interest in US Civil War history would find this interesting, as I am sure anyone else who likes to read for pleasure.

Marrow of Tragedy. The Health Crisis of the American Civil War

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