Civil War Maladies

by John McGuire on June 13, 2012 · 4 comments

Civil War Maladies

By Jack McGuire

As if the advantages of manufacturing and industrialization weren’t enough the North had over twenty two million people and the South just nine million.  On the other hand the Confederacy did enjoy the advantages of familiarity with the roads and terrain of the South over the invading Northerners.   They were also fighting a war for their independence.  Many of their troops identified themselves with the rebels who fought in the revolutionary war.

Some Southerners believed that their very land would repel the hated Yankee’s.  That the combination of Yellow Fever and Malaria would wreak havoc amongst men bred in the North.   But in reality Union troops enjoyed unrestricted supplies of Quinine.   Ten percent of the Union’s African American troops had a partial immunity to the diseases.  Another factor for the North was the blockade of Confederate ports that eventually limited the South’s access to medicine.    Southern women were able to smuggle medicine in their hoops skirts, but supplies were very limited.    In an attempt to make an alternative to Quinine the Confederacy tried willow, poplar and dogwood bark mixed with whiskey, but it didn’t work.

In 1864, in one of the earliest cases of biological warfare Luke Blackburn, a physician and supporter of the Confederate cause, tried using dirty shirts and sheets from yellow fever patients in Bermuda.  He packed the shirts and sheets in trunks with the intention of having them sent to Northern cities.   Blackburn had one labeled for President Lincoln’s White House, but there is no record it ever arrived.   With all the experience the doctor had treating Yellow fever in the South, he had no idea the disease was spread through personal contact.

In the 1800s bad smells were thought to be responsible for the disease, but soldiers from both sides were  felled by Measles, Mumps, Chicken Pox, Pneumonia, scurvy and dysentery.   A soldier from a large city was less likely to become infected because they were exposed to them at an earlier age.   When conscripts from the smaller towns of the South were sent to camp they suffered miserably.

Lack of sanitation poor nutrition and lack of sewage disposal added to the misery of troops, but especially the Gettysburg campaign where literally hundreds of thousands of men marched hundreds of miles to engage their enemy.   According to some civilian accounts smell could not possibly describe the odor of men having walked all that way without the ability to bathe properly.   Even General Lee contacted dysentery on the march to Gettysburg.

The fact is camp diseases such as dysentery, malaria and diarrhea took more men from the battlefields than mini balls or cannon balls.


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark S June 14, 2012 at 6:48 am

Yellow fever is NOT spread through personal contact – it is spread via the bite of a mosquito infected with the yellow fever virus (an RNA Flavivirus).

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Jack mcguire June 14, 2012 at 9:14 am

Actually Mark is correct yellow fever is spread when a mosquito bites a person already infected with the disease and then bites another person. Should have mebntioned that, but I flubbed it.

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jackie martin June 14, 2012 at 10:55 am

An addendum to this is the excellent book,” Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War” by Andrew McIIwaine Bell. It is amazing how these virulent diseases shaped the course of many a campaign, and their outcome, the extent of which has eluded true study for 150 years!!

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Thomas W. Frank, MD COL, MC, USA June 14, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Thank you Mark. Exactly what I was going to say. In fact prior to the Civil War and throughout the 19th Century there was an active debate between the “Contagionists” and the “Anti-Contagionists” as concerned Yellow Fever with most orthodox practitioners falling in the “Anti-Contagionist” camp. It was noted that often those in very close contact with victims of Yellow Fever did not develop the disease even if they had themselves never had it. The patterns associated with an insect vector did not resemble the patterns associated with accepted contagious diseases such as diphtheria and influenza. Not until the early 20th century was the Mosquito proven to be the vector of Malaria (thank you Carlos Finlay, Walter Reed and William Gorgas).
Tom Frank

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