Monday, August 27, 2012

Author Question: Civil War Dead House

I'm so pleased to be hosting author Jocelyn Green this week. She e-mailed me a feasibility question and I managed to rope her into writing a few posts about the medical aspects of the Civil War!

I know...I'm a tricky girl.

Jocelyn has graciously agreed to give away a signed copy of her novel Wedded to War. Just leave a comment in the comments section that includes your e-mail address on any of her posts this week and you'll be eligible to win-- though you must live in the USA. Drawing will be Saturday, September 1, 2012 at midnight. Winner announced here on Sunday, Sept 2, 2012!

Now, let's get on to some exciting stuff!

Jocelyn Asks:

Hi Jordyn: I’m a Civil War novelist and working on my second book in the Heroines Behind the Lines series right now. (My first, Wedded to War, is about pioneering nurses for the Union Army and just released July 1 from River North, an imprint of Moody.) I’ve got a couple questions for you!
1) I read an account by Capt. O.H. Miller of the 59th GA which said he was basically called a lost cause (after an injury at Gettysburg) and “They ordered me to the dead-house where I remained fifteen days.” My question to you is: HOW in the world would he have been able to survive that? Can we believe his first-person statement? I did read in another book an account of a soldier who was left in a field for three days surviving by eating the maggots out of his puddle of blood. (I’m so sorry, that’s gross.) So, I suppose if Capt. Miller was in a dead-house, there would have been plenty of maggots to eat. What do you think? Any insights on this? It seems unbelievable, but I WANT to believe it because I want to use it in my novel!

2) I need one of my main characters to suffer from temporary amnesia from an injury at Gettysburg. What kind of a wound would produce this? I want him to regain his memory in about a month’s time (two weeks minimum).

Jordyn Says:

Hmmm.... okay question #1. Being in the dead house for just over two weeks. According to my research, the dead house is the morgue so there wouldn’t be any provision of food and water. The problem will be this... does he have access to water? If he has something to drink it's probably reasonable to say he could have survived but with NOTHING to drink-- dehydration will kill you in a few days-- around one to three depending on the elements your body is in. So, if you want to use this in your ms—you’ll need to at least have him drinking something. But, he can't just be lying there without fluids for 15 days and not die. I do find that particularly unbelievable.
Here's a previous post that discusses aspects of dehydration.

Regarding question #2-- what type of injury will produce amnesia? Really any type of head injury can produce amnesia so you could have some writerly leeway here.

A fall from a height, blunt force trauma to the head, gunshot wound to the head (though this is hard to survive in today's medical climate so would be probably lethal during civil war times.)
Here's a previous post about amnesia.

I found a few resources that were particularly interesting for my inner medical nerd.
1. This one dealt with treatment of the dead. Very interesting insight here particularly concerning how dog tags for soldiers likely came about.

2. Photos of Lincoln General Hospital—A Civil War Hospital.


A former military wife, Jocelyn Green authored, along with contributing writers, the award-winning Faith Deployed: Daily Encouragement for Military Wives and Faith Deployed . . . Again. Jocelyn also co-authored Stories of Faith and Couragefrom the Home Front, which inspired her first novel: Wedded to War. She loves Mexican food, Broadway musicals, Toblerone chocolate bars, the color red, and reading on her patio. Jocelyn lives with her husband Rob and two small children in Cedar Falls, Iowa.


  1. My father-in-law was a soldier in the US Army at the height of the 1916 (?) world-wide flu epidemic. He was one of the soldiers who had the flue. He spoke of having been in the "dead house" along with many others whom the doctors held no hope for recovery. He did survive. So I am assuming this was a term used for the near dead but not indicative of a true morgue. I would assume that they still received palliative care such as water and any food they could hold down. I would guess, too, that the truly dead went to the truly dead house. (I hope you don't think my near-humor is in poor taste.)

    1. You made my point for me... which is a great time saver. Unless the person was actually dead, and assuming they had been brought to a hospital of some sort, there would be people to give whatever palliative care was possible at the time. If nothing else, water would be given if there was someone there to give it.

  2. Interesting post, ladies. Enjoyed it.

    I've read accounts of soldiers eating maggots. I agree - gross.

    As far as amnesia - a fall from a horse could do it. There were field rocks and boulders all over Gettysburg.

  3. Thanks Jordyn for shining the spotlight on this question. Thought I'd share here some insight from Terry Reimer, the director of research at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine ( She told me this:
    "I have read O.H. Miller’s account of what happened to him, and I really doubt that that was the way it happened. No one was “ordered to the dead-house” as far as I know. Only already-dead bodies were taken there for autopsy and storage. Perhaps he was put in a ward or section of hospital set aside for the hopeless cases. This frequently happened, because they had to make snap judgments in triage and sometimes got it wrong.

    Triage split the wounded men into three groups—slightly wounded, mortally wounded, and ones who would most benefit from surgical intervention. There are many cases of men put into the mortally wounded category who ended up living. However, no one, no matter how badly wounded, was left to fend for himself. The worst cases would have been given whiskey for shock and morphine for pain, and anyone who wanted to eat or drink would have been given sustenance. The surgeons and nurses were not barbarians."

    SO I will not reproduce Capt. Miller's account in the novel. :)

    1. I wonder if "the dead house", in Miller's case, was euphemistic.

  4. Jocelyn,

    I'm glad you added these thoughts from Terry Reimer-- it's such excellent info!

    Thanks for your comments Vera and Loree-- a fall from a horse is a good idea for an amnesia inducing mechanism of injury. Strong Work!!

  5. Jordyn - you're awesome AND conniving! What a great combination!

    Good posts and good suggestions.


  6. I have to admit I'm still not confident about my amnesia dilemma. Originally I was hoping to have some soldier get amnesia and forget his identity for a while-say a couple weeks or so. But I've heard that amnesia would cause him to forget the moment of injury and then have to short-term memory loss AFTER the injury- but that he would still remember what happened up to the point of injury- who he was, why he was fighting, etc. Jordyn, others, what do you say? Could amnesia realistically cause him to forget the last few years (or longer) of his life for a while?

  7. How interesting...I have heard of the dead house. Could amnesia be caused from being thrown from his horse?