A utility crew working at Virginia's Manassas National Battlefield Park unearthed what at first just seemed like portions of bone. Then came more bones, so far 11 limbs in all, nearly all of them leg bones. Now, thanks to help from forensic anthropologists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, what NPR reports is the first "limb pit" that's been excavated on a Civil War battlefield is providing insight into not the battle but its aftermath: the actions of battlefield surgeons. The limbs aren't just any limbs, but amputated ones, thought to be those of Union soldiers wounded when charging along the Deep Cut ridge during the three-day Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862 (the pit also contained buttons from Union uniforms).
The Confederates held the ridge, and Union troops ultimately pulled back, leaving thousands of wounded men behind and awaiting surgeons. The weapons of war were advancing, and the battle saw the use of a new type of bullet, the Minié ball, that could shatter femurs. The severity of the resulting wounds led to a huge number of amputations, and the museum's Doug Owsley says the cut bones show the surgeons knew what they were doing, with striations left on the bones revealing surgeons moved the saw slowly at first to set it, then quickly, then slowly as the saw left the bone. The Washington Post notes the pit also held the skeletons of two soldiers; one still had a bullet lodged in his thigh bone near the hip. Owsley says amputation wasn't an option for that soldier: "The only way [the surgeon] can deal with it is to take ... the thigh completely off, and he just can't do it." (Go inside the search for a lost Civil War fortune.)