Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Smallpox During the War


Smallpox was present to a considerable extent in the United States during the war, but at no time could it be considered a prevalent disease among white troops serving in any of the armies or departments. A total of 12,236 cases with 4,717 deaths were reported. There were no serious outbreaks of smallpox, but at times, as in the period from January to April 1864, sporadic cases occurred in all commands. Isolation and vaccination were recognized as efficient means of protection, but often the troops were not satisfactorily vaccinated. Many of the volunteers had never been vaccinated before induction into the army.

In a private cemetery in Carroll Co., Ohio, lie the remains of a young man who was the victim of the paralyzing fear the term "smallpox" could strike into a community back in Civil War days.

The solitary grave is marked by a government furnished headstone, with the simple inscription, "F. Rollins, Co.D,80 OVI-1862."

The military records in the War Department furnished only that his first name was Francis and he was born in 1839. He enlisted at Fort Meigs on December 12, 1861 and died on April 13, 1862. He was laid to rest amid the fields where he had probably played as a lad.

Francis Rollins was very ill with smallpox when he traveled home from the army on a short furlough. When Rollins reached home, the family was so terrified of the disease that they would not let him in the house but quartered him in an outhouse and were afraid to go near him. When he died, his body was wrapped in a sheet and buried along a nearby fence row as quickly as possible.

Although disease killed more soldiers than action, smallpox was not among the major maladies.

Alton Ill and its prison had smallpox. Even an island where they buried the dead became known as Smallpox Island.

During the next three years over 11,764 Confederate prisoners would pass through the gates of the Alton Prison. Of the four different classes of prisoners housed at Alton, Confederate soldiers made up most of the population. Citizens, including several women, were imprisoned here for treasonable actions, making anti-Union statements, aiding an escaped Confederate, etc. Others, classified as bushwhackers or guerillas, were imprisoned for acts against the government such as bridge burning and railroad vandalism.

Conditions in the prison were harsh and the mortality rate was above average for a Union prison. Hot, humid summers and cold Midwestern winters took a heavy toll on prisoners already weakened by poor nourishment and inadequate clothing. The prison was overcrowded much of the time and sanitary facilities were inadequate. Pneumonia and dysentery were common killers but contagious diseases such as smallpox and rubella were the most feared. When smallpox infection became alarmingly high in the winter of 1862 and spring of 1863, a quarantine hospital was located on an island across the Mississippi River from the prison.

Up to 300 prisoners and soldiers died and are buried on the island, now under water. A cemetery in North Alton that belonged to the State of Illinois was used for most that died. A monument there lists 1,534 names of Confederate soldiers that are known to have died. An additional number of civilians and Union soldiers were victims of disease and illness.


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