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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Lice

LICE
By Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein

Lice, small insects that thrive in dirty places, were ubiquitous in the clothes and on the bodies of Civil War soldiers, North and South. Although soldiers with high standards of personal cleanliness might delay getting lice, sooner or later everyone from the lowliest private to the highest general suffered their presence.

The initial discovery of lice on one's person embarrassed many soldiers, who sought to rid themselves of the pests in private. However, most soldiers soon realized that lice were a universal problem, and "skirmishing" for "graybacks" became a communal social event as soldiers sat around in a group examining their clothing, removing the vermin, and squishing them. At time;s, bored soldiers held "vermin fairs" and louse-jumping contests to see whose insect hopped the farthest.

Skirmishing for lice provided temporary and partial relief, as did the rare opportunity to acquire a new uniform and burn one's old clothes. The only lasting way to get lice out of apparel was to boil the clothes in water, preferably with a little salt. Most soldiers had or took few opportunities to boil their clothes or bathe frequently, so lice remained a constant problem.

Civil War soldiers saw lice as a nuisance, not as spreaders of disease. Lice transmit typhus, but surprisingly few cases of typhus were reported during the war. However, the lice caused unpleasant itching, and the resultant scratching of dirty skin led to numerous skin infections.

From: "The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine"

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