By Kirk T. Mosley, M. D.
The early history of Asiatic cholera in the United States Army is based upon the experience of the military forces with the disease when cholera pandemics originating in the endemic centers of the Far East invaded the North American Continent and gave rise to widespread epidemics within the United States on at least four different occasions in the 19th century.1 The disease entered the United States through seaports, particularly New York and New Orleans, being brought in by infected immigrants from cholera stricken areas of western Europe.
In the first three epidemics, which swept this country in the fourth, sixth, and seventh decades of the 19th century, troops of the Army often suffered as severely as did the civilian population from outbreaks of the disease. In some instances, troops were responsible for the spread of the disease as infected units were moved from a station to a new post where the disease had not yet appeared. In many instances, the disease was introduced among the troops from civilian communities. One of the first experiences of American soldiers with cholera fully demonstrated its devastating character and showed how disastrous an outbreak can be to a military operation. During the Black Hawk Indian War in 1832, seven companies of infantry troops destined for this campaign embarked on the steamer Henry Clay at Buffalo, N. Y., on 1 July. Cholera broke out among the troops on 4 July. By 9 July, only 68 men of the 7 companies that departed from Buffalo were left. Many died of the disease on board ship; many others deserted in panic and died of cholera in the surrounding countryside.
Fortunately, cholera has not been a serious problem to military operations of the Army in any of the major conflicts involving the United States. The disease had not reached the North American Continent at the time of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.The Mexican War had just ended when the second American invasion by cholera began in 1849.Cholera was absent from the United States during the Civil War but entered shortly thereafter, in 1866, for the third major outbreak in this country. Cholera apparently played no role in the Spanish-American War, but in 1902 and 1903 the disease, broke out among American troops on duty in the Philippine Islands.
1 Wendt, Edmund C.: A Treatise on Asiatic Cholera. New York: W. Wood & Co., 1885.