Monday, September 29, 2014

"The Slow Dead March of Camp-Disease": Death in the American Civil War


Charles Furman had known Fannie Garden for only 13 days before he asked her to marry him. In all, they spent less than a month together before the Confederate government ordered him northward to fight the “soulless soldiers” of the “despised Yankee Nation." The letters they wrote in the years that followed captured both their own deepening love and the chaos and carnage of the American Civil War. He was prepared, he wrote, to fight and die to defend her—and to defend Confederate freedom. He was utterly unprepared, however, for the reality of war—for the tedium and toil of daily life, for the savage intensity of battle, and most of all for the sweeping devastation of disease.

In November 1861, his regiment was encamped in northern Virginia. Since the Battle of Bull Run four months earlier, there had been only a few minor skirmishes to distract the men from the weariness of camp life—until now. Union general Daniel Sickles was gathering reinforcements, and Furman expected an attack any day. Responding to the news, Furman wrote to Fannie to assure her that he “love[d] her truly, and deeply, and earnestly—with all the warmth of his nature.” Nonetheless, he asked her not to worry, insisting that what he truly feared was not an instantaneous death in battle but a long, lingering death of disease. The former, he wrote, was like heavy infantry—“brilliant and rapid”—but nothing compared to the “universally destructive cavalry” of disease. Ultimately, he concluded, “the slow dead march of camp-disease is much more to be dreaded than the rapid double-quick of ball and shell.”

In the six months since Furman had enlisted, only eight of the regiment’s 900 soldiers had died in battle, and another 50 had been wounded. In those same months, measles and typhoid fever swept through the regiment, killing 43 and leaving dozens more too weak to fight. By winter’s end another 20 would be dead of typhoid and pneumonia. These losses typify larger patterns of Civil War mortality. In the first year of the war, as soldiers gathered from across the country, measles, smallpox, and other childhood illnesses devastated newly-formed armies. Exposure and nutritional deficiencies left soldiers vulnerable to disease, and the filthy, fetid water that sustained most of their camps allowed dysentery and typhoid to thrive. The Civil War, recent analysis suggests, claimed the lives of upwards of 750,000 Americans. An estimated two-thirds of those deaths—perhaps 500,000—were the result not of battle but disease. Historian Allen Guelzo has estimated that disease killed perhaps 18 percent of the entire Confederate army, and James McPherson argues that the percentage may be even higher. It is little wonder, then, that what Charles Furman feared most in the fall of 1861 was not battle—not bullets or bayonets—but disease.


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