According to history books, the Civil War was one of the deadliest wars to date. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers lost their lives, on and off the battlefield. Yet despite the gruesome tallies of the battlefield, for every three soldiers dying of gunshot wounds, five more perished from diseases. During the war, there were many troubles with physical disease, mental disease, and the treatment of patients.
In 1860, a battle started that sparked a war that would later be defined as the War Between the States, the War of the Rebellion, or the most common name, the Civil War. Many people were not prepared for the duration of the four year war, nor the devastation it would bring on the country. As recruits signed up for battle, generals started by teaching them basic maneuvers to properly make camp. The eager but untrained soldiers were taught how to set up the grounds that would house thousands of troops, plan for thunderstorm drainage, places where cooks would be able to slaughter their animals, bake, or do whatever they needed to feed the influx of soldiers. Latrines were dug and strict regulations were set on how to abide by the use of relieving oneself. These were men who had been raised to relieve themselves simply by the nearest bush, and were now expected to use a giant pit with many other soldiers. However invasive the conditions were, known as the “rules of hygiene”, they sought to keep the soldiers safe from their own sewage (This Place of Death). Unfortunately, as the war went on, the guidelines would eventually slip, and safe camps would no longer be the norm. Despite efforts to keep camps clean in the beginning, dysentery, also known as chronic diarrhea, and yellow fever still raged through and became the most common diseases causing death in the Civil War (An Analysis of the Medical Problems).
Dysentery is an infection of the intestines, causing stool to be loose or watery, and contain blood and mucus (What is Dysentery). It can also be referred to as bloody diarrhea. It’s caused by bacteria transmitted through poor sanitary conditions (What is Dysentery). With so many unwashed soldiers crowding campsites, using the same bowl to eat with as to wash up, and sustaining a poor diet, this caused a perfect environment for diseases to thrive. Many soldiers would go to the nearest bush or stream to do their business, regardless of where it was located by the camp. Because they often went upstream to do their business, their waste would cause contamination in their water supply (Dysentery and Diarrhea). Dysentery alone killed more soldiers than a gunshot wound (Civil War Medicine). Another large contributor to the disease riddled death toll was yellow fever. Yellow fever is a disease usually transmitted by mosquitoes that carry the infection, the name came from the symptoms of jaundice some people receive (What is Yellow Fever). Soldiers camping in marshy grounds were particularly susceptible to yellow fever, as they were right in the heart of mosquito breeding habitats. Though more diseases were prevalent as the war went on, the two mentioned were among the most deadly. Bowel disorders were top illnesses of the Civil War and killed more men than battle (Dysentery and Diarrhea). Here many people would probably object to the statistic of diseases killing numerous soldiers, but they must keep in mind that many of those soldiers had never left their home before. Their immune system was not equipped to handle such harsh treatment. Coupled with the fact that their food was insufficient in health and their living conditions were barely accepted as livable, it gave plausible reason for so many to perish from such maladies.
Further aspects in the sanitary conditions were the hospitals themselves. Doctors had very little knowledge in the ways of basic cleanliness and would often cross contaminate with their blades. A common practice for any field doctor, would to simply wipe the blade clean with a rag, and continue onto the next patient, using the blade previously held to treat countless other patients. For the treatment of diseases, doctors used many cures. A paragraph from ehistory’s article Civil War Medicine: An Overview of Medicine reads as follows. “For bowel complaints, open bowels were treated with a plug of opium. Closed bowels were treated with the infamous “blue mass”… a mixture of mercury and chalk. For scurvy, doctors prescribed green vegetables. Respiratory problems, such as pneumonia and bronchitis were treated with [a] dosing of opium or sometimes quinine and muster plasters. Sometimes bleeding was also used. Malaria could be treated with quinine, or sometimes even turpentine if quinine was not available. Camp itch could be treated by ridding the body of the pests or with poke-root solution. Whiskey and other forms of alcohol also were used to treat wounds and disease … though of questionable medical value, whiskey did relieve some pain” (Civil War Medicine). With the onslaught of wounded or diseased soldiers coming in, doctors had very little time to create sanitary work spaces and often had to go for days on end with little to no sleep.
An unfortunate side affect of harried doctors with what seemed to be an unlimited supply of dying soldiers, those already treated would sometimes fall to the side of neglect. With cases of surgical amputation, the risk of gangrene was always a factor. To care for gangrene, nurses would dissect the dead tissue and inject the wound with bromine under anesthesia, the wound would then be pack with bromine-soaked dressing and the patient kept in a separate tent. (Medical and Surgical Care). Because of the sheer number of injured soldiers, field surgeons would separate them into three categories: mortally wounded, slightly wounded, and surgical cases (Modern Medicine’s Civil War Legacy). In the case of surgery, doctors would line them up in order of severity and commence the operations. Before starting, they would administer doses of morphine to the soldiers, to lessen the pain of the surgery. With the lack of resources to be found in keeping pain tolerance at bay, many soldiers would be kept on anesthetic or morphine until their injuries were less severe. In some cases, the soldier kept using an opiate to forget the horrors of the war as noted in the quote by Jonathan Lewy, “Maimed and shattered survivors from a hundred battle-fields, diseased and disabled soldiers released from hostile prisons, anguished and hopeless wives and mothers, made so by the slaughter of those who were dearest to them, have found, many of them, temporary relief from their sufferings in opium” (The Army Disease). This led to a rise in drug abuse after the Civil War.
Once the battles ceased and the Union came out as the victors in the war, the fight for many of the soldiers was not over yet. As a result of living through such a traumatic experience, many soldiers came out of the war with various degrees of PTSD. However, PTSD was not defined as a disease until 1980 when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) added PTSD to the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) nosologic classification scheme (PTSD Overview). Because of the horrors they lived through, numerous soldiers changed mentally and emotionally and many were even sent off to asylums to try and treat this behavior. Some soldiers even committed suicide just to get away from the trauma they experienced (The Civil War’s Hidden Legacy). The war had changed everyone.
The affect of disease in the war is important, because without it the outcome could have ended differently. Society might have even been changed from how we know it. Because of this war, medicine and medical practices evolved into what is known today. The overall war was horrible, and the conditions of the soldiers just short of torture, however the advances made might not have happened without the Civil War. History was made with this war.
Bollet, Alfred Jay. “An Analysis of the Medical Problems of the Civil War.” Civil War Medicine: Challenges and Triumphs, 1st ed, Galen Press, 11 Jan. 2002, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2376709/pdf/tacca00085-0198.pdf, Accessed 30 June 2017.
Dixon, Ina. “Modern Medicine’s Civil War Legacy.” Civil War Trust, 29 Oct. 2013, www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/civil-war-medicine, Accessed 3 July 2017.
“Dysentery & Diarrhea” www.wtv-zone.com/civilwar/dysentery.html, Accessed 3 July 2017.
Friedman, Matthew J. “PTSD History and Overview.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 23 Feb, 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2376709/pdf/tacca00085-0198.pdf, Accessed 2 July 2017.
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Humphreys, Margaret. “This Place of Death: Environment as Weapon in the American Civil War.” Southern Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 3/4, Spring/Summer2016, pp. 12-36. EBSCOhost, web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=53fe2aae-fd7d-4d42-9af3-d86b60cabfb3%40sessionmgr4009&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=120161600
Lewy, Jonathan. “The Army Disease: Drug Addiction and the Civil War.” War in History, vol. 21, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 102-119. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/0968344513504724.
Thomas, Liji. “What is Dysentery?” News Medical Life Science, 8 Sep. 2015, www.news-medical.net/health/What-is-Dysentery.aspx, Accessed 3 July 2017.
Smith, Yolanda. “What is Yellow Fever?” News Medical Life Sciences, 24 May 2015, www.news-medical.net/health/What-is-Yellow-Fever.aspx, Accessed 3 July 2017.
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