Thursday, March 29, 2012

Cavendish Civil War: Congressional Medal of Honor

The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force, which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States. For a small town, it’s pretty amazing that Cavendish would boast one Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, let alone two.

William J. Sperry was born and raised in Cavendish. He received his medal for gallantry during the assault of Petersburg, VA, "with the assistance of a few men, captured 2 pieces of artillery and turned them upon the enemy.". He served as Sergeant of Co. "E " Sixth Regiment and was promoted 2nd Lt of that Company 21 Aug. 1862. He mustered out as Major in June 1865. Sperry died from the recurrent fever he had experienced intermittently since coming home from the Civil War, in Claremont, NH March 3, 1914.

During the flood of 1927, his widow’s home in Cavendish was one of the seven houses destroyed. Among the items lost was her husband’s Medal of Honor. A second one was awarded, via an act of Congress. However, workmen cleaning up from the flood eventually found the original medal downstream. Sperry is buried in the Cavendish Cemetery on High Street and his Medal and other artifacts are housed at the town office. For more information about Sperry.

Thomas Seaver was born in Cavendish, but his family moved to Pomfret, Vt while he was still in grade school. However, after the Civil War, Seaver settled in Cavendish once more and began work as an attorney, serving as a public defender. He was made a judge of the probate court in 1886 and in 1892 received the Medal of Honor “ For so long a record, embracing numerous acts of distinguished gallantry, it is difficult to select that one for which a medal should be awarded, as being the most distinguished of all. I respectfully suggest that General L. A. Grant select himself the special act of distinguished bravery for which this medal should be awarded, since he, from personal knowledge, is best able to make that selection.... the papers having been submitted to the Asst. Secretary of War were endorsed by him as follows: 'Let the medal issue for distinguished gallantry in action near Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, May 10, 1864.'" For more about Seaver.

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