Tuesday, March 4, 2014


 By Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein

Latrines were commonly called "sinks" by soldiers North and South during the Civil War. Improper preparation of latrines, and the failure of some soldiers to use them, caused great discomfort and much disease in virtually all the armies at times.

The common sink was a trench 10 to 12 feet long, 1 to 2 feet wide, and 6 to 8 feet deep. A crotched stick was placed at each end to hold a pole that functioned as a seat. Improvements on the conventional sink included boards with holes placed over the trench and, i the union Army of the Cumberland, board platforms with kegs or cracker boxes for seats. Each day six inches of dirt was supposed to be shoveled into the sink to cover the waste. Ideally. carbolic acid or chlorinated lime would also be added to deodorize and sanitize the area. Some regimens surrounded the sink with brush to provide minimal privacy. When the sink was filled to within one and a half to two feet of the edge, it was supposed to be filled in and a new sink dug. Each regiment was supposed to have a sink on the left and right ends of the camp as well as a third sink for the officers.

Sinks were the source of a variety of problems. Early in the war many regiments failed to construct sinks at all. Soldiers from rural areas were used to using convenient bushes and continued the practice in camp. This habit led to filthy, offensive, and malodorous sites that quickly caused diseases such as typhoid fever, diarrhea, and dysentery. Even regiments that dug sinks could have similar problems if the officers did not enforce discipline and insist that the men use the sinks. One probably effective punishment, applied in some Union camps, was to force the offender to wear a barrel with his head protruding over the top and excrement piled under his nose.

Some sinks were poorly maintained. Soldiers in charge failed to cover the deposits with dirt every day. Men who were lazy or too ill to control themselves missed the sink, producing nasty areas around the edges of the latrine. The offensive smell caused some soldiers to avoid the sinks while others sought the bushes because of modesty. These actions only contributed to the problem.

Even a sink that was well maintained might be poorly located, in a place where the sewage seeped, drained, or overflowed into the camp water supply. Wells and streams were easily polluted with germs that caused intestinal diseases. Some latrines were located close to camp kitchens or cooking areas, where flies spread disease from the excrement to the food. In October 1861, the surgeon of the Third Tennessee Regiment (Confederate) complained that the men of the Eighteenth Tennessee were digging a sink right next to his regimental hospital. He protested that the latrine would contribute to the spread of disease and undo all the progress he had made toward cleanliness in his regiment.

From: The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine

Image: Latrine, Camp Sumner, Andersonville, Georgia, circa 1863


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