View Full Version : Civil War Dental Care

04-24-2006, 11:01 AM
Having recently survived an "infected tooth" (and I can tell you, that kind of pain is up there with a kidney stone), I got to wondering what dental care was like 145 years ago. I know that one of our regular posters, Bernard Beiderman, is a modern day dentist and is an infantryman in the hobby. Maybe he and a few others who do a medical impression can fill me in on the procedures of the day and what, if any, preventive dentistry was like "back then". I can only imagine.........


04-24-2006, 11:45 AM
There is a fine dentist and a fine historian (who does Civil War medical living history) in Chattanooga named Anthony Hodges.

04-24-2006, 03:04 PM
Glen Baugher does a gret Steward impression with a really good portion on dentistry...He and his wife Gloria used to do presentations at the Museum of Civil War Medicine in Fredrick.

04-24-2006, 06:22 PM
I typed in "Civil War Dentistry" and got a number of sites with information.

The Confederacy had a recognized dental department, while the Union rejected any efforts to provide dental care for soldiers.

As expected, care was rudimentary in the field, limited to extractions and treating wounds of the face and mouth. Most "drillin' and fillin'" was done in town, if you could afford it.

There were no air-driven or electric handpieces; the dentist would use a hand cranked drill or pump a pedal with his foot to run the belt-driven handpiece, so none could be considered high-speed instruments. Fillings were either gold foil (very thin layers of gold that would be hammered into place to form a solid filling) or amalgan (silver) that was mixed by mortar and pestle, the excess mercury being squeezed out in a cotton pad (Some present day old timers still do a variation of this technique).

Dentures were vulcanized rubber, with either porcelain or bone teeth embedded.

The work was done without local anesthetics. None were around yet.

04-25-2006, 05:09 PM
My wife is an orthodontist and graduate of the University of Maryland Dental School. While becoming a dentist she took a class on the History of Dentistry and did research on Dentistry in the Civil War. She tried to tell her professor that the Confederate Army was one of the first armies to develop a form of dental corps. Perhaps, dental corps isn't the best term and "recoginized dental dept." sounds better. Anyway, her professor disagreed and insisted that the Union had the first dental corps. I disagree with the professor.

The University of Maryland Dental School was the first dental school in the world. I think it was founded in the 1840's. When the War broke out an overwhelming majority of the Maryland dental graduates served the South. According to Daniel Hartzler, "Of the 67 dentists who were soldiers during the conflicts, 8 saluted Old Glory while 59 saluted the Stars and Bars." Of the dental class of 1860 which had 35 graduates, 11 served the South and 3 served the Union.

My understanding is the Confederate dentists often started off as privates in the ranks in the Confederate army, but due to the high number of facial wounds the Confederate government decide the dentists could be used in the hospitals. I think Confederate dentists could hold the rank of Lieutenant and sometimes had their own ambulance.

John A. Wyman

04-25-2006, 11:46 PM
My minds eye is thinking about having a tooth filled without novacaine. That had to hurt like the blazes! Or, needing a dentist and not having access to one (not that it doesn't happen these days, too). Gunshot wounds and amputations notwithstanding, think of being on campaign with an infected tooth, absess(sic?) or decay. I'm sure on more than a few occasions, matters were taken into one's own hands, and that's even more scarey.


04-25-2006, 11:58 PM
I found a site with some basic information on dentistry in the Civil War. It says:

Dentistry in the Civil War

The dental profession had gained some standing during the two decades that preceded the Civil War. In the secceding Confederate states, for example, there were about 500 dentists. Jefferson Davis, while serving as Secretary of War under Pierce, was an advocate for a dentistry corps. Perhaps this is why the Confederate Army had a dental program, while a similar idea by the Union Army was rejected by the War department. Confederate Surgeon General Moore was also quite supportive of the idea of Army dentists, leading one to comment that the dentists owed more to Moore "than to any man of modern times".

Soldiers tended to neglect basic care of their teeth. Toothbrushes were somewhat scarce and the average diet left a lot to be desired. Dental operations usually also cost more than the common private soldier could afford... particularly in the Confederacy when inflation set in.

Many soldiers, by the way, were turned down if they lacked six opposing upper and lower front teeth to bite off the end of the powder cartridges used with the muzzle loading rifles of the times.

Dentists were usually accorded the rank of hospital steward, though according to one source, they also could be full surgeons with all the pay and benefits of a surgeon. Medical director William A. Carrington, CSA, commented that dentists "plugged, cleaned, and extracted teeth", in addition to "adjusting fractures of the jaw and operating on the mouth". Another, Richmond dentist Dr. W. Leigh Burton, commented that his days were filled of "twenty to thirty fillings, the preparation of cavities included, the extraction of 15 or 20 teeth, and the removal of tartar ad libitum!"

Dentist Dr. James B. Bean of Atlanta made significant contributions to the treatment of fractured maxillary bones. Bean used an interdental splint made of vulcanized india rubber that had cup shaped indentations for the teeth. Bean's splint was a great success and he was sent to Richmond where his splint was used for treatment at a ward of the Receiving and Way Hospital.

The Confederacy in particular should be praised for it's Dental Corps. The act of conscripting dentists in January 1864, gave the Confederate soldier at least that small advantage over his Union counterpart. As before stated, all attempts at the Union Dentistry corps were turned down.

Most of this info was gleaned from "Doctors in Gray" by H.H. Cunningham

This was found at www.huntermcguire.goellnitz.org

John A. Wyman

04-26-2006, 08:52 AM
...think of being on campaign with an infected tooth, absess(sic?) or decay.


Someone not too long ago made a statement to the effect of "The Civil War was fought by a massive number of young men, many of whom didn't feel well much of the time". There is some accuracy in that statement. Think of the men who had scrapes and cuts and bruises, bouts with rheumatism, the common cold, sore throats, etc, even a plain old headache, along with Mark's observation about toothaches -- all common nuisances that we today can address by reaching for a bottle of excedrine. They had essentially nothing by way of remedies.

04-28-2006, 06:34 AM
I agree with your wife. In addition, the Confederates developed sophisticated facial reconstruction techniques and called it plastic surgery. The first real plastic surgery hospital was in Atlanta Georgia. If t hey could not use the real bone, they fashioned what they needed from gutta percha.

04-28-2006, 06:45 AM
Having recently survived an "infected tooth" (and I can tell you, that kind of pain is up there with a kidney stone), I got to wondering what dental care was like 145 years ago. I know that one of our regular posters, Bernard Beiderman, is a modern day dentist and is an infantryman in the hobby. Maybe he and a few others who do a medical impression can fill me in on the procedures of the day and what, if any, preventive dentistry was like "back then". I can only imagine.........


Both Medical Departments carried scalers, picks, handdrills, creasote and alum (to stop any bleeding) gold or tinfoil for fillings, of course a set of pliers. Each pliers was specifically designed to reach a particular tooth on one side of the mouth. Most importantly, they used chloroform to put the patient under during the procedure. On occasion morphine might be injected as a local anesthetic. And of course, the infamous "tooth key", a wicked looking device designed to lever rotten stumps from the jaw before they do any more damage. :shock: The key's design, by the way, has not changed from classical Egyptian times.

Typically it was the steward's job to take care of any tusks which show up at sick call. The troops would, of course try to avoid anything dentist-like (or medical like) as long as possible before submitting to the scaler or scalpel. By then they were often in dire need of it anyway.

bill watson
04-28-2006, 09:09 AM
Let's talk about that novocaine.

When I was young somebody got the idea that little boys would brush their teeth more often if going to the dentist was a painful experience. So I got no novocaine, and this was just before the high-speed, water-cooled drills came in. The drill had an electric motor, but it was a really slow drilling process. Hurt incredibly, and the anticipation of the inevitable pain was just as bad.

These days even root canal doesn't seem like much to me.

More to the point: I am writing another Civil War novel and in the process of researching, found George W. Smith, first sergeant-to-captain, Seventh NJVI, from Cape May. He went through a decade of hassling with the government over the size of his pension. They didn't believe he'd hurt his back jumping a ditch at Fredericksburg (they believed his back was hurt -- the description shows his fifth vertebra was twisted off both axis. They just didn't want to believe he'd done it during the war). What wasn't in dispute, however, was his other injury, the one he was getting a pension for. Shot in the right jaw, broke the bone and took out teeth, cut across tongue and throat, coming out in the soft tissue just under the left jaw. A terrible wound, at Chancellorsville; it kept him in the hospital until he was discharged/resigned in January 1864. And the pension records show he was still being treated for it 40 years later. It was tender all the time, it occasionally oozed pus, and he was still seeing bone fragments emerge.

It makes me hurt just to think about it.

I'm still reading pension records (the pile from NARA is two inches thick) so I don't know if he got his added pension. But the back injury eventually killed him, in 1907; he started getting paralysis and deadness in his legs and eventually complications set in. He got injured, by the way, when the brigade commander forgot that Smith had 100 men with him out on a picket line while the rest of the III Corps went back across the river down near the Jackson part of the Fredericksburg fight, under cover of darkness. They noticed it was awfully quiet in their rear and when they checked, the army was gone. In the rush to get to the river before the pontoons were taken up, Smith misjudged the width of a ditch and went into it, hard; about like forgetting there's one more step on the staircase, except he went down five feet.