Civil War Dentistry
An Article Contributed by Jenny Goellnitz
The dental profession had gained some standing during the two decades that preceded the Civil War. In the seceding Confederate states, for example, there were about 500 dentists. Jefferson Davis, while serving as Secretary of War under Pierce, was an advocate for a dentistry corps. Perhaps this is why the Confederate Army had a dental program, while a similar idea by the Union Army was rejected by the War department. Confederate Surgeon General Moore was also quite supportive of the idea of Army dentists, leading one to comment that the dentists owed more to Moore "than to any man of modern times".
Soldiers tended to neglect basic care of their teeth. Toothbrushes were somewhat scarce and the average diet left a lot to be desired. Dental operations usually also cost more than the common private soldier could afford... particularly in the Confederacy when inflation set in.
Many soldiers, by the way, were turned down if they lacked six opposing upper and lower front teeth to bite off the end of the powder cartridges used with the muzzle loading rifles of the times.
Dentists were usually accorded the rank of hospital steward, though according to one source, they also could be full surgeons with all the pay and benefits of a surgeon. Medical director William A. Carrington, CSA, commented that dentists "plugged, cleaned, and extracted teeth", in addition to "adjusting fractures of the jaw and operating on the mouth". Another, Richmond dentist Dr. W. Leigh Burton, commented that his days were filled of "twenty to thirty fillings, the preparation of cavities included, the extraction of 15 or 20 teeth, and the removal of tartar ad libitum!"
Dentist Dr. James B. Bean of Atlanta made significant contributions to the treatment of fractured maxillary bones. Bean used an interdental splint made of vulcanized india rubber that had cup shaped indentations for the teeth. Bean's splint was a great success and he was sent to Richmond where his splint was used for treatment at a ward of the Receiving and Way Hospital.
The Confederacy in particular should be praised for it's Dental Corps. The act of conscripting dentists in January 1864, gave the Confederate soldier at least that small advantage over his Union counterpart. As before stated, all attempts at the Union Dentistry corps were turned down.
Most of this info was gleaned from "Doctors in Gray" by H.H. Cunningham.