The Cole County Historical Society shares the history of one of its many interesting artifacts.
photo by Tiffany Schmidt
The James Foster McHenry Civil War Room of the Cole County Historical Society presents the complex period from 1861 to 1865 as experienced in the county and in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital.
Visitors learn about the conflict by means of a room-length mural, a diorama of the city during the war, original weapons, military accoutrements, personal items, uniforms, and more. A portrait of Missouri officers by Sabra Eagan, a Jefferson City artist, is displayed. Also shown is a portrait of Judge James McHenry, a highly respected jurist and enthusiastic local historian for whom the showroom is named.
Prominently displayed among the artifacts is a surgical amputation kit, circa 1860. The velvet lined, walnut case contains two bone saws, three sizes of scalpels, and a tenaculum (a type of forceps). These six items have ebony handles. There is also a brass tourniquet with a strap.
This set is attributed to Dr. Alexander C. Davison, CSA. Museum accession records indicate that the set was received from his granddaughter, Dr. Suzanne Davison, in 1948. This was the year the museum was officially opened by the society, which had been formed in 1941. Dr. Gravison’s grave in Riverview Cemetery has a marker which states “ALEXANDER C. DAVISON/SURGEON/WILLIAMS REGT./SHELBY’S MO BRIGADE/CONFEDERATE STATES ARMY/AUG 16, 1842 – OCT 12, 1908.”
The role of the Civil War surgeon cannot be fully appreciated without understanding that simple instruments and rudimentary knowledge of procedures were overcome by on-the-job experience. Fortunately, the use of chloroform and ether to sedate the wounded were used when available. The skillful use of the capital amputating saw saved lives while earning the operator the nickname “Sawbones.” Contrary to this derogatory sounding moniker, many of these men became proficient at the procedure and could complete it in less than 10 minutes. Records indicate that amputees whose limbs were shattered by heavy lead Minie balls or shrapnel had a 75 percent survival rate. This is in spite of the filth spread by the wooden-handled amputating instruments that were simply wiped or rinsed off between operations. Bacteria wasn’t well understood in the mid-19th century.
The Dr. Davison surgical set serves as a reminder of the significant contribution military doctors made to the survival of wounded soldiers during the Civil War. This item and other artifacts of local historical interest have been donated to the Cole County Historical Society Museum for preservation and display.
The society maintains records, collections, and artifacts for public display, education, and scholarly research to allow Cole County residents the opportunity to preserve, understand, and share their heritage.