Myth # 142: During the Civil War, soldiers bit on bullets to combat pain.

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Rhonda Florian wrote: “I’m hoping you can help me with some information. I am a living historian. I keep running into what I believe is a history myth—that soldiers used to bite on a bullet during surgery. I always scoff at the idea. I ask the person, “What’s going to happen the first time you scream?” Besides, I ask, what would be the purpose of biting a bullet even if it were humanly possible? But then there’s always that person who says they’ve seen a Civil War bullet with teeth marks on it. Undeniable proof, they exclaim.”

I can only point to an excellent response to this question, written by George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, here. 

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3 Responses to Myth # 142: During the Civil War, soldiers bit on bullets to combat pain.

  1. Ride into History says:

    Might this change Jo a bit . . ..

    Ann Birney, Ph.D. and Joyce Thierer, Ph.D.

  2. Jake Pontillo says:

    Since we do find Civil War type bullets with teeth marks on them, we need to figure out why the men chewed on them. It is clear that they did not bite on them during operations. I propose that ordinary soldiers chewed on them as they walked. The dangers of lead poisoning was not well understood at the time, and there is a certain satisfaction in just chewing on something as one walks. Some cut a piece of some kinds of wood, such as sassafras or black birch, others plucked a piece of grass stem or other plant material. I myself often carried pieces of anise sticks and chewed them as others might chew gum. I suggest that a minie bullet would serve the same purpose.

    • Curtis Cook says:

      This has some potential. As far back as the Roman Empire it has been known that lead was poisonous, but ‘known’ is not the same as ‘commonly accepted’ or ‘understood’. The Romans lined some of their pipes with lead anyway, assuming the positive effects of good sanitation would outweigh the negative effects of ingesting the water that ran over the lead sheeting. Common soldiers of the Civil War era may not have been as aware of the dangers as doctors or scientists were.

      A quote from Revisited Myth #42: “The second reason may have simply been “on a bet.” “Watch this!” or “Can you do this?”” — I can definitely relate to this, having chipped a tooth trying unsuccessfully to open a Coke bottletop with my teeth back when I was in high school (It was the 70s. *sigh*). Young men do stupid things.

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