Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Michael Aubrecht
Future years will never know the seething hell and black infernal background and it is best they should not. —Poet Walt Whitman, on the misery he witnessed in hospitals and camps
It has been estimated that well over 600,000 men died during the four years of America’s Civil War. Surprisingly, approximately two-thirds of those deaths were due to rampant disease and dysentery. Therefore, the majority of the soldiers who did not come home from the battlefield were actually sick, not shot, when they passed away.
The state of medical advancements left much to be desired at the time, as the technology that was being developed to take lives far exceeded the technology to save them. Physicians did not understand the concept of infection and therefore made little effort to prevent it. Proper antiseptics and methods of implementation were not yet developed, and the poor conditions of camps and field hospitals made sterility impossible. No antibiotics were available either, and even the most minor of wounds could easily become a fatal infection. While the typical soldier was at very high risk of being shot and killed in combat, he faced an even greater risk of dying from disease.
Army camps were literally breeding grounds for all kinds of disease, and both young and old men died by the thousands from measles, smallpox, pneumonia and malaria. Poor hygiene, the lack of adequate sanitation facilities, infected drinking water, and the proximity of animals helped to rapidly spread germs. Exposure to the elements made simple illnesses deadly. At the time, a severe case of diarrhea and dehydration could even be fatal. In an effort to prevent these senseless casualties, the armies established sanitary commissions to educate soldiers on ways to maintain a safer living environment.
American poet Walt Whitman often volunteered at Union camps and hospitals, where he assisted medical personnel in nursing the sick and wounded. He later captured the atrocious conditions that soldiers experienced when he penned the words contained in the epigraph to this post. It has been said that a soldier would come under the threat of fire infrequently, but he would be in mortal peril every day from the invisible enemies that sprung from the filth of their camps and devoured their ranks from the inside out.
As thousands of soldiers gathered together in tent cities, many of them were exposed to different communicable diseases for the first time. Hundreds immediately fell prey to these viruses. Their city-dwelling compatriots, however, were more likely to be immune to these diseases. Measles was considered one of the worst diagnoses, and this illness quickly made its mark on the Confederate army. One officer, Surgeon L.J. Wilson of the 42nd Mississippi, recalled a major epidemic that broke out in his camp in 1861. He stated that the rampant disease was “something that astonished everyone, even the surgeons.” Within three months, 204 men from three different regiments died. Dr. Wilson was left with over 100 more patients who were crammed into an old tobacco warehouse. Within several weeks, a new regiment could lose half its numbers to the germs.
Perhaps the most common ailments to strike the camping soldier during the Civil War were bowel disorders. The affliction of both diarrhea and dysentery was so widespread that it came to be called “the runs,” as those suffering from it would often be seen rushing to find a latrine trench. It also became known as the “Virginia Quickstep” or the “Tennessee Trot.” That said, the most devastating sickness to hit the Southern forces was typhoid fever, which was commonly referred to as “Camp Fever.”
It has been estimated that up to one fourth of all non-combat deaths in the Confederate army were the results of typhoid. During the winter of 1862–63, troops stationed in the Fredericksburg area suffered in misery as the spread of respiratory sickness enveloped the army. One soldier wrote, “It is fearful to wake at night, and to hear the sounds made from men about you. All night long the sounds go up of men coughing, breathing heavy and hoarse with half choked throats, moaning and groaning with acute pain, a great deal of sickness and little help, near or in the future.”
Aubrecht, Michael, The Civil War in Spotsylvania: Confederate Campfires at the Crossroads (The History Press, 2009).
Robertson, James I., Jr. Tenting Tonight (New York: Time-Life Books, 1984).
Toalson, Jeff, No Soap, No Pay, Diarrhea, Dysentery & Desertion: A Composite Diary of the Last 16 Months of the Confederacy from 1864 to 1865 (iUniverse, Inc., August 18, 2006)
Welch, Spencer Glasgow, A Confederate Surgeon’s Letters to His Wife (Neale Publishing Company, 1911).