Revisited Myth # 142: During the Civil War, soldiers bit bullets to combat the pain when no anesthesia was available. mm

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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5 Responses to Revisited Myth # 142: During the Civil War, soldiers bit bullets to combat the pain when no anesthesia was available. mm

  1. forwoodnesssake says:

    I wonder if the word billet, as in a piece of wood, is not confused with bullet in this manner, considering the mix of regional accents thrown together. A stick long enough to go outside of both cheeks would not be an issue for swallowing. It is likely that in the case of aspiration a stick would be “flushed” out as the mouth pretty much opens wide when vomiting. If the patient passed out, there would probably someone in attendance that could remove the stick before anything untoward happened.

    On Mon, Feb 4, 2019 at 11:44 AM History Myths Debunked wrote:

    > Mary Miley posted: ” 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,” >

  2. Rhonda:

    I can most certainly help with this as well, as George and I worked together at NMCWM for a good number of years. When asked about this, or someone mentions it, you can debunk it very simply….first, George points out the simple fact that Anesthesia was readily available, but that doesn’t often answer the question (It doesn’t sound ‘sexy’ enough to be true…) so I usually say it using that first, then adding this little bit (true); If you were a surgeon about to operate, and you DIDN’T have Chloroform/Ether etc, would you give a soldier a LEAD bullet to bite? First, the chance is pretty good he’d break his teeth (causing another problem), and if THAT didn’t happen, swallowing the bullet is a close second. Neither option is a good one nor one that even the most junior surgeon would have thought of. If ANYthing is going to be used to bite down on, a piece of leather (belts, cartridge boxes, tons of it around) is both safer and simpler….but since out of the many many MANY relics that have been preserved from the war, we haven’t found any with human teeth marks in them…..its likely that neither the leather, NOR the Bite the bullet, were used.

    v/r Jason Grabill Former Docent & 19th Century Medical Instructor, National Museum of Civil War Medicine Former Surgeon, 27th Virginia Infantry, (Stonewall Brigade), Former Acting Surgeon, Stonewall Brigade.

  3. Dan Hopping says:

    I worked with an archeologist on a battlefield survey where we found a bullet with bite marks and folks were talking about ‘biting the bullet’ when the archeologist laughed and said it was not people but pigs. He said the bullets with their oxide tasted somewhat salty and they would dig them up chew on them and spit them out. These battlefields have gone through a lot of use in the 150 years since the war and there is enough incidences that these pig chewed bullets have reinforced the myth.

  4. Gretchen Blade says:

    Is this true? 

    Thanks

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad

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