Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Disease in the Civil War

Contributed by T. A. Wheat

There were at least twice as many deaths from disease as from combat-related injuries during the Civil War. However, this ratio varied considerably from year to year. In 1861, deaths from disease exceeded those from combat-related injuries by at least 12 to 1, a rate similar to that during the Revolutionary War. Few large battles created fewer combat deaths, while life in camp exacerbated the conditions for disease. Meanwhile, the majority of the recruits, especially in the South, were from rural areas and had never been exposed to childhood diseases such as measles and mumps. In young adults, these diseases and their complications are often fatal, especially when combined with the decreased resistance associated with an inadequate diet and chronic exposure to the elements.

During the warm months of the year, bacterial diseases consisted mainly of intestinal infections from contaminated food and water. Flies infected food, causing infectious diarrhea, or "camp fever," while mosquitoes spread malaria, or "intermittent fever." Both of these scourges virtually disappeared during the winter months, except for a persistence of low-grade infectious diarrhea caused from direct contamination of the water supply from improperly placed latrines and poor camp hygiene. Antebellum U.S. Army regulations took into account the association of filth and disease and called for the proper location and maintenance of latrines. Inexperienced officers were usually unaware of the need to keep their camps clean, and their men tended to ignore such instructions even when given. Over time, however, the connection between cleanliness in camp and a lower rate of illness became obvious and soldiers adjusted accordingly. Aside from low-grade diarrhea, the winter months saw colds, coughs, sore throats, and pneumonia made fatal for lack of effective treatment.

Still, by the latter part of the war, both Union and Confederate soldiers enjoyed generally good health. The weak had died or gone home, while the remainder developed natural immunities either by surviving disease or being vaccinated. Ironically, Confederate soldiers benefited from their inability, because of the blockade, to procure harsher medications. By relying on readily available botanicals, they enjoyed similar benefits with much less drastic side effects.

From: encyclopediavirginia.org


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