Confederate Dentistry during the War

Early in 1861, the first interests in a dental corps appeared in the Regulations for the Medical Department of the CS Army. The standard supply table for both service in the field and hospitals was to include teeth extracting sets.

In fact, one set was to be allocated for commands of 100-500 soldiers and two sets for every thousand troops. The problem with this initial allocation was that most surgeons were unfamiliar with the instruments that were being assigned to them. One soldier indicated that it took seven pulls to extract his tooth and that he felt that, “his head would come out with it!”

Secession provided a unique problem for Confederate dentistry. Only 1/5th of the dentists at the beginning of the war lived in the South. By 1864, there were only 250 to 300 dentists in the South and spread across the various states, there may have been fewer than 40. In the North, there was a dental society in every state. The American Dental Association and American Convention were both based in the North.

There were three or four Dental Colleges in the North. In the South, there were no dental societies or journals in most states. Only the Georgia State Dental Society with 11 members existed during the war. The Virginia Society of Surgeon Dentists had disbanded in 1846.

The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery was the primary college for dentists of the South. 49% of those who graduated came from the South. 59 students from the college served in the Army of the Confederacy. There was one more school, the New Orleans Dental College.

It was chartered in March of 1861. Its first nine graduates did not receive their diplomas until after the war ended and did not influence Southern dentistry.

The war also drained those dentists from the local communities, as conscription late in the war required every man to defend the South.

Supplies were also a critical issue to the South. Brown and Hape at 30 Whitehall Street, Atlanta, Georgia was the only dental supply house for the South. Thinking that the potential war would disrupt supplies, they purchased in October of 1860, an assortment of teeth and dental instruments from suppliers in the North.

They were able to offer these supplies at prices similar to those purchased, in New York or Philadelphia.

By January 1861, they required dentists to pay in Georgia State Funds or gold or silver. They also declined to sell with payment upon delivery. Gold foil for fillings, porcelain teeth, and other supplies were soon affected by the Union blockade.

Brown and Hape started to melt down scraps of platinum to replace porcelain-manufactured teeth.

Mr. Brown carved molds by hand and cast them out of gunmetal. They even refined their own gold in their laboratory. Gold foil was sold at one rate (28.00 per oz.) if it was paid in gold but was sold at a 5% premium if paid with paper money.

By late in the war, the price for gold foil was $64.00 per ounce when paid in gold coin. The Confederate private, by 1865, was paying 6 months’ pay to have one tooth filled in his deflated currency. He could not afford a gold filling at $120.00, extracting a tooth for $20.00, and an upper set of teeth, which was $1,800 to $4,000.

A comparison would be the cost of a pair of cavalry boots at $1,000.00

The toothache of a man could be “cured” by a compound of 1 grain of Arsenic, 1 grain of Morphine and Creosote enough to make a paste. A piece the size of a pin head in the cavity and would be held with some beeswax or cotton.

When Stonewall Jackson’s men won at the Second Battle of Manassas, they found toothbrushes at the railroad yard.

At a cost of $10.00 if purchased, they wore them in their coat buttonholes as an ornament. Their toothpaste was charcoal. When the tooth bristles wore out, they were rethreaded with hog bristles from slaughtered animals.

In 1862, and again in 1864, conscription acts drafted dentists. Under the conscription laws, physicians who had practiced at least 7 years were exempt from service.

This was later clarified in 1863 with a Confederate Congressional act that exempted dental surgeons who had practiced at least 10 years. A group of 13 Virginia dentists presented the petition for this act.

They also argued for the providing of “professional services” of dental surgeons, who were essential to the “health, comfort, and wellbeing of every community and should be exempted. The war department eventually overruled the Congress and drafted Surgeon Dentists.

There are two cases where dentists who were conscripted and then assigned to hospitals as stewards. Dr. John Hunter of North Carolina and Dr. Warkins Burton were both assigned in this fashion through either a court case (Hunter) or by the Surgeon General Moore, in the case of Burton. Dr. Burton was assigned to Richmond Hospitals to “perform dental operations.”

Surgeon General Moore had no authority to appoint “Surgeon Dentists” to any higher grade that a Hospital Steward. He could provide “extra duty pay.”

That resulted in the Surgeon Dentist receiving the following payments: extra duty $4.00 per day, commutation for room $40.00, company pay $18.00, monthly rations $125.00, and two suits at $15.00 per month for a total of $318.00 by the time all extra pay was provided.

The actual uniform included chevrons on the coat sleeve that were black and a black stripe down the outer pant leg.

They wore a cap emblem that had a gold “MS” in two olive branches.

They were provided with a special benefit as a Surgeon Dentist. They were provided with ambulance transportation to their respective hospitals.

This caused a bit of jealousy with the other Confederate Surgeons. By providing this service, the dentists did not have to walk several miles between hospitals with instrument cases and dental materials. This continued until the last days of the Confederacy. Perhaps riding was better than rank in this case.

By November 4, 1864, Confederate Army Medical Circular 15 was issued. As far as practical, dentists performed operations of dentistry required in General Hospitals by profession.

The Surgeon Dentists were to supply their own instruments, but hospital funds were used to purchase necessary materials and files. They were to be provided with “extra duty pay for extraordinary skill and industry.” Monthly reports of Dental operations and registers and forms were to be forwarded to the Surgeon General by the 5th of the next month.

Unless Officers and enlisted patients were registered as patients in the hospital, they could not obtain dental services unless it was an emergency case. Those patients were provided with fillings, extractions, cleanings, and work on maxillofacial fractures and wounds. Amalgam was used for fillings since it was inexpensive and simple to use. A typical day was 20-30 fillings and 15-20 extractions.

After the Civil War, the formation of the Southern Dental Association was a result of the Surgeon Dentists work for the Confederacy.

Until next month,

Surgeon T.T. Steinbach

Army of Tennessee Corps Hospital