We Just Found the First-Ever Surgeon's 'Limb Pit' From the Civil War

Thursday, 21 June 2018 - 1:46PM
Medical Tech
Thursday, 21 June 2018 - 1:46PM
We Just Found the First-Ever Surgeon's 'Limb Pit' From the Civil War
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Image credit: Public Domain/Wikipedia Creative Commons

When archaeologists found the site of a barbarian massacre in Denmark last month, we were ready to give that the trophy for Most Gory Archaeological Discovery of the Year.


Today, we regret to inform the barbarians that we've been forced to rethink our decision. Archaeologists excavating a site in Manassas National Battlefield Park have announced that they have just found the first-ever intact "limb pit" used by Civil War surgeons to dump amputated body parts.


The pit contained 11 limbs and two complete skeletons, who were apparently Union soldiers consigned to death by the battlefield surgeons when they realized they couldn't save them.

Despite the grisly nature of the discovery, it's a rare opportunity to study medical practices from the period, as well as get a clearer picture of what it was like to be a wounded soldier.


According to Brandon Bies, the superintendent of the park:


"So much of our focus has been on the battle itself. This provides insight into what happened after the battle, as surgeons rushed in to try to save lives. We're looking directly at their decisions about who to save and who not to save. It's unprecedented."

The two intact skeletons are believed to be casualties of the Second Battle of Bull Run, which occurred between Aug 28, 1862 – Aug 30, 1862.


The skeletons revealed a surprising amount of information about their life before the battle; isotope analysis of their bones even told researchers about their specific diets. Scientists said data showed that they had both consumed water and food from the northern United States.



According to Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist:


"We use chemistry and forensics to tell their gender, their age, where they're from, what happened. Just like you can read a book, we can read a skeleton."

The historical and anthropological value of the "limb pit" is tremendous, but at heart, it represents one of the darkest facets of the Civil War: its staggering toll on an entire generation of men and women in the United States.


Studies show that a total of at least 620,000 soldiers from the Union and Confederate armies lost their lives during the four years America waged the Civil War.


According to Katie Liming, a representative for the National Park Service:


"These surgeons had to work very quickly and make really difficult decisions without great supplies or resources. These two almost-full sets of remains, buried fairly hastily, tell us that surgeons probably saw these men and said, 'There's nothing we can do.' "

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