Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Impact of Disease During Civil War

By Intisar K. Hamidullah

After studying medical records from the Northern Army and Civil War Veterans it was concluded that several hundred potential recruits were unable to join due to poor health history from childhood illnesses and slavery. Although, if one did pass the exam, they dealt with disease on crowded battle fields, trenches and encampments from frequent outbreaks of diseases. The ratio of the number of deaths from disease to wound-caused deaths was much higher for black soldiers than for white ones. The high death rate for blacks was attributed to men being weak and more susceptible to disease from poor living conditions, unhealthy posts, unbalanced diets, and indifferent treatment. Out of the seven diseases previously mentioned, diarrhea (caused by certain viruses and bacteria) was the greatest killer, accounting for 20 percent of all deaths caused by disease, followed by 14 percent pneumonia and 13 percent typhoid.

Socioeconomic background affected soldier's chances of survival during the Civil War in the areas of previous residency, occupation and skin color for blacks. The mortality of a white Northern solider was better if he was not a farmer and lived in the city because he was probably exposed to other infections and his body had built immunity to the disease. The mortality from disease for slaves formerly engaged in other nonfarm occupations such as house servants was as low as the death rate for those in elite occupations, but their advantages over field hands resulted exclusively from their lower probability of contracting diseases. Consequently, black soldiers with darker skin were more likely to die of disease. Since prior to joining the Civil War their bodies and immune systems were not prepared to handle the environmental stress of war.

In conclusion a recruit from a healthy background who had limited exposure to disease had a lower immunity to disease compared to a man from an unhealthy background. Additionally a person who had enlisted with better nutrition was advantaged over a man with poor nutrition, which left him prone to disease. As a result, a measles and small-pox attack would confer immunity and reduce the likelihood of contracting the disease in the future. Whereas a previous attack of TB does not have any influence on resistance to a future attack.

In addition to socioeconomic background affecting a soldier's susceptibility of acquiring a disease, living and sanitary conditions also affected their chance of survival. Some soldiers failed to wash their bodies and their clothes since they were used to being taking care of by either their mother or wife. Additionally camp regulations stated they were supposed to dig an eight foot trench for human bodily wastes and to cover it with six inches of dirt every night. However, most soldiers were disgusted by this so they relieved themselves in an open space instead. Doing this invited flies around the camp accompanied by diseases that spread to the men and their food rations which led to an unhealthy living environment.

 Not only did the soldiers have to endure an unhealthy living environment when they went to the field hospital, they were operated on by a surgeon who had blood and pus on his coat from the previous patient. Then while he was operating on his patient if he dropped his instruments he would pick it up, rinse it off and continue to work on his patient. In addition to the high number of soldiers affected by illness, many were also wounded from bullets. Due to the disproportionate ratio of soldiers to surgeons, the surgeon had to look at a soldier briefly and determine how he was going to be treated. If he was slightly wounded, in the interest of saving as many soldiers as possible, he was overlooked. However if he was wounded on a limb the surgeon would amputate
within ten minutes.

First the doctor would give the solider a dose of whiskey and then place chloroform on a cloth over his nose to place him in an unconscious state for the amputation. Coincidentally, there was a 75% survival rate for amputations if they did not succumb to fever.

Despite a high survival rate for amputees, if they were infected with one of the common deadly diseases their chance for survival rates was not as favorable. Since vaccinations were not available most surgeons and nurses depended on quinine, chloroform, opium, morphine and rhubarb to treat soldiers. When they did not have access to those drugs and chemicals they used natural remedies. According to a doctor's records for treating patients he noted white sumac, red elm, prickly ash and poke was mixed and applied to a syphilis rash. Then for stomach and bowel symptoms soldiers were treated by drinking a mixture of raspberry and whortleberry leaves. Usage of natural remedies was essential if the doctor was unable to secure necessary drug supplies.

Even if a soldier survived the Civil War he incurred lifelong health challenges. A fifty year old Civil War veteran of 1890 resembled his seventy five year old descendents of today. Additionally, Union soldiers were more likely to survive a wartime illness, but Southern soldiers lived several years longer after war. Consequently, the more infections a person is exposed to the greater likelihood of arthritis, heart disease, stroke and even cancer later in life.   

Excerpted From: teachers.yale.edu



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