Friday, March 2, 2012

Civil War History: Disease the primary killer

Among Cavendish’s Civil War soldiers (173), the fatalities were more often caused by disease than the battle itself. Ten died in battle, but 18 more died as follows: 4 in prison, 9 while in service from disease like typhoid and 5 from wounds received in battle. One soldier was lost at sea on his way home from Andersonville Prison.

The single biggest killer in the Civil War was not the battlefield but rather disease. In the Union Army 4 men died from sickness for every 1 man killed in battle, and deaths from disease were twice those resulting from all other causes. On the whole, the heaviest incidence of disease occurred early in the war. Because there were no cures or vaccines for the most common ailments (dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, tuberculosis, malaria, measles), you either got well or died.

Vermonters were frequently sicker than their counterparts from other states. In fact, the incident of disease was so high among the Vermont “mustering” camps, that in January 1862, US Surgeon General Charles Tripler issued a special report on the health of Vermont soldiers. In December 1861, Dr. Edward Phelps reported that a quarter of Vermont soldiers were sick. The January report found an overall sickness rate of 18.42%, despite the fact that the rates for the Second and Third regiments had improved considerably since December.

Dr. Tripler concluded that a "nostalgic element" affected the Vermonters more severely than others, causing depression among the troops and, he implied, feeding into a vicious cycle of poor health. However, there is one major reason why Vermonters were more likely to become ill in the camps. Unique to Vermont was that the majority of volunteers came from rural areas and so had limited exposure to childhood diseases. Consequently, they were highly susceptible to measles, mumps and other diseases.

The unsanitary conditions at the camps and prisons were a perfect breeding ground for dysentery, which caused an estimated 45,000 Union and 50,000 Confederate soldiers to died from this disease alone. This was most likely due to the latrine being located next to the water supply.

Reading through the list of Cavendish soldiers, you will see that some were imprisoned in Andersonville. Camp Sumter Military Prison, was one of the largest Confederate military prisons during the Civil War. During the 14 months the prison existed, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were confined there, with almost 13,000 dying from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding and exposure to the elements.

The relationship of diet to ill health was somewhat understood. In "The Military Handbook and Soldier’s Manual,” the recommendation was to “Eat sparingly of salt and smoked meats and make it up by more vegetables as squash, potatoes, peas and rice..." The manual also advised staying away from fatty foods and eating at a regular time each day. Unfortunately, most soldier’s diets consisted heavily of fatty, salted meat, few vegetables and irregular meal preparation and times.

For More Information
Civil War Medicine by Janet King, RN, BSN, CCRN

Civil War Diseases from Civil War Academy


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