True or False: Soldiers chewed on lead Civil War bullets for pain relief.
If you search for this subject online, you will find many collectors and experts refute that biting the bullet occurred during surgery, as a substitute for anesthesia. And I concur with that. After all, best I can tell, no one has produced a diary entry of a soldier or surgeon referring to this practice.
Here is a great video expressing the most popular consensus:
What these collectors and experts are saying is probably, for the most part, true – that Civil War surgeons generally didn’t stick a bullet in someone’s mouth to chew on while they sawed an appendage off, for example. I agree with that.
The truth is that the vast majority of Civil War bullets dug with teeth marks in them probably have teeth marks from animals, from a bored soldier, or they aren’t really teeth marks at all.
I accepted the expert consensus until I detected the yard of a mansion used as a Civil War hospital after the battle of Franklin, and found the bullets pictured above. Though I’ve found a myriad of melted Minies, and several bullets exhibiting teeth marks in the past, I’ve found none like these anywhere else.
So how do I reconcile that expert opinions such as that in the video above concerning practice in surgery seem to be in direct contradiction with these relics, which I believe are the “real deal”? The answer is pretty simple.
The bullets I found at the hospital site weren’t simply bit on, with simple teeth impressions, like several examples I had found in the past. I dig camp lead all the time, but these are not melted. These examples were literally chewed up like pieces of gum. These bullets were chewed for hours and hours, not just during a relatively short surgical procedure. The one at the bottom can be popped in the mouth and fits like a mouth piece. The teeth marks are distinct, and these were all found on the lawn of the mansion.
So, while lead bullets were generally not used in surgery as a substitute for anesthesia, it is well documented that wounded soldiers waited in excruciating pain, often for hours on the lawns of such hospital sites, due to the sheer number of wounded. And what about the dying, most horribly wounded soldiers that were not selected for surgery because the surgeon knew they had no chance to live? And after surgery, such as an amputation, the soldiers were often still in excruciating pain for days, or died a slow death anyway. And what about soldiers dying in excruciating pain from dysentery, or other common disease which took more soldiers than battle?
What would you do when your friend or fellow soldier is lying there in the most horrible pain, screaming and crying and begging for help? You would give him/them what little whiskey you had, and perhaps you would give him something to bite on. A piece of leather, or a bullet. After all, fired and dropped bullets were about the only thing the average soldier had in plentiful supply, and were used for carving to pass time and to make everything from fishing weights, pencils, and game pieces.
The soldier’s teeth would initially only indent the bullet slightly, but over time the warmth of the mouth and persistent biting would soften up the lead and over hours or days you’d end up with what looks just like discarded chewing gum, albeit lead.
So in this context, “biting the bullet” doesn’t seem as hard to believe as something prescribed by a surgeon in lieu of anesthesia. Can I scientifically prove that the bullets above were chewed by a soldier in extreme pain? Of course not. But if you are a relic hunter, you understand what I mean when I say “the relics never lie”, and one of the great things about relic hunting is sometimes, based on the history, the nature of the site, and the relics….sometimes the truth is made known to you in a way no amount of research or discussion could accomplish.
And if you are wondering, the answer is yes. I have popped a lead bullet in my mouth and tested, the potential of lead poisoning be damned.
Author’s Note: Incidentally a number of documented instances of surgeries being performed without anesthesia occurred during the Civil War, particularly on September 17, 1862, at the Battle of Iuka, Mississippi, when 254 casualties were operated on without any anesthetic. This episode is recorded in the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion.