Monday, September 7, 2009

Time to 'bite the bullet'

Our cabinet of curiosities at the front of the shop (I refer to it as my little museum of historical insignificia), contains several Civil War-era bullets. Both are lead. One appears to be a .69 caliber round shot; the other is a Minie Ball. They are moderately interesting in themselves, although not particularly uncommon in this part of the world.

What makes these two particularly interesting, at least to me, is that both carry teeth marks.

These bullets have a history. Someone, sometime, chewed on them. And that begs the question: why would anyone chew on a lead bullet? Or, in other words, why would anyone, literally, bite the bullet?

In common use, “to bite the bullet” means to bear down on a project, usually an onerous one, and just get it done. No matter how unpleasant the prospect is, you’ve got to just bite the bullet and do it.

The story goes that the phrase actually originated during the Civil War. On the battlefield, if a soldier was hit in an arm or a leg by a bullet, the bone would just shatter with shards and splinters of bone spreading in all directions. There was no way to repair the damage and the wound was actually life-threatening. The only remedy was amputation.

At the same time, anesthesia was rare. So when a soldier saw the surgeon approach in blood-splattered apron, he knew he was in for a hard couple of minutes. He would be laid on what passed for an operating table and his buddies would hold him down while the surgeon would wipe off his saw and begin.

Since there were no pain killers, the soldier would have a bullet placed between his teeth so he wouldn’t bite off his tongue or scream with the pain. Hence, teeth marks on the bullets.

It is a compelling story. It makes sense. It conforms to our notions of the Civil War and of the then-state of medicine. It conjures images of battlefields and of the times.

Turns out it is also wrong.

Civil War historian Janet Bucklew was our guest for "First Friday" this past weekend. She’s just written a book about Henry Janes, a country doctor from Vermont who served during the war. Janet, a Research Historian, is a veteran ranger at the Gettysburg National Military Park, and is also on staff at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD. You'd think she knows whereof she speaks.

Janet's presentation focused on Dr. Janes as a platform for discussing Civil War medicine in general. During the Q&A following her talk, she made a comment—almost as an afterthought—that belied the myth and burst my bubble. Soldiers never chewed bullets during the procedures, she said. The danger of swallowing was too great. Besides, there was anesthesia, so there was no real need.

The teeth marks probably came from pigs. According to Janet, the human jaw simply isn’t strong enough to cause the indentations in the bullets, while a pig’s jaw is. She said that swine would root around the battlefield following action, and would dine upon the corpses there and would at times wind up with a bullet in their mouth. That’s rather grizzly, but that makes sense.

Frankly, I like my story better. It certainly conjures a more romantic mental image.

I’ve tried to verify my version, but I can’t. The sources I’ve checked do repeat my version, but there are no attributions; in fact they all seem to be quoting one another, or talk about “common knowledge”. That’s simply not good enough when it comes to historical accuracy.

At the same time, I cannot verify Janet’s version either. But it does make more sense when you stop and think about it.

The problem with history is that you’re always studying someone else’s version of the facts. Even if you go back to primary sources, you’re dealing with someone’s impression or memory or view of what was said or what happened where. And you have to judge the source: how close were they to the event? Is their story self-serving or embellished? Are they telling the entire story or just what they want their audience to know?

So which version of the story do I tell when showing off our cabinet of curiosities? Maybe both, with an emphasis on history being what you make of it.

And that’s pretty much the point anyway, isn’t it?


  1. Well, Janet is right.

    Bullets were not needed since anesthesia was simply not rare. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (published by no less off an authority than the US Surgeon General) states that 95% of all operations were done under general anethesetics and the remaining 5% of patientts either could not tolerate them due to already being barely alive with supressed vital signs (and likely not awake) or due to facial wounds that impaired the airway. In these last cases they could not have bitten anything.

    Surgeons reports, hospital records and journal abound that show anesthetics were used. If men were ever given anything to bite in an operation, it certainly would not have been anything so easily swallowed. Rope, leather or even sticks would have been better. But even reports of these items simply don;t seem to show up. The popular myth is hard to kill even when good documentation exists.

    Maybe the new forensic study of "bitten" bullets by the University of Michigan will shed some light on this subject.

  2. what a story to be experienced.thanks...