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Diseases During The Civil War Essay

1644 words - 7 pages

The smell of fecal matter and blood fills the air. A few soldiers scramble away into the woods to relieve themselves five feet away from their only supply of water. The injured and dying lay moaning in tents as doctors work diligently to save as many soldiers as they can. A group of four soldiers sit around the camp fire picking off lice and fleas and throwing them into the fire. A soldier dies of typhoid fever and is lifted out of his bed. Throughout the Civil War, camps scenes like this occurred on both sides of the fight as soldiers faced death from campsite diseases. In fact, 221, 791 Union soldiers died from disease compared to 62, 916 deaths from action.
Medical records from the ...view middle of the document...

2 Symptoms of dysentery included cramps, stomach pain, and loose bloody stools. Dysentery was caused by food and water infected by microbes in the unsanitary Civil War camps on both sides of the war.3 “From 1861 to 1866, for example, the Federal Army reported more than 1.7 million cases of diarrhea and dysentery”.3
Soldiers were not the only ones to suffer from dysentery and diarrhea. During the Battle of Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee suffered from terrible diarrhea, most likely dysentery, which left him unable to leave his headquarters for long periods at a time.3 The Union General Darius N. Couch had been infected with dysentery during the Mexican-American War in 1846, but continued to suffer from it for life. The General had to go on a twenty-four day leave during the Battle of Fredericksburg, due to a severe attack, and gave orders while lying on his back.3
A diary of a sixteen year old soldier, named James H. Onderdonk, who was killed by dysentery. In his diary, he writes, albeit brief, entries about how he feels in the days leading up to his death. On January 8th, 1863, he wrote that he started experiencing diarrhea, but recovered. On March 19th, he writes that “he was placed in the ‘HOSPITAL’. He had fever with his diarrhea.” James believed he had recovered by March 24th, but he returned to the hospital on the 29th.3 He noted on his April 5th entry that he was still in the hospital but began to feel a little better.3 Unfortunately by mid-July, James began to feel weaker and weaker, and by the 28th of July he did not think he could “read and write, no longer a soldier my discharge signed and here for me.”3 His last entry dated on August 8th, the day before he died, noted that he was “no better rather weaker than yesterday Stomach very sore Cough better.”3
This diary is no different than many of the diaries written by Civil War soldiers. Soldiers could survive a few rounds of diarrhea or dysentery, before facing one more bout that could kill him. Doctors during this time, unfortunately, did not know microbes caused this illness and used treatments such as “warm clothing, avoidance of sun, sleeping on the damp ground, exercise, frequent bathing, personal cleanliness, and laxatives”.3
Scurvy became a problem with many soldiers as well. During the civil war, it was noted that scurvy peaked when not as many vegetables were available to the soldiers for food, or between February and June.4 Potatoes proved to be especially important, as one responder said “a barrel of potatoes for every 100 soldiers, twice a week should have been provided to distant regions to keep the corps in good health”4Symptoms of scurvy include “a weakened and debilitated system, an emaciation and bloating with excessive diarrhea, unhealed wounds, jaundice, mental depression, dejected spirits, and ‘dropsy’ with swelling and severe pain of the feet and legs often confused with rheumatism”
Confusing scurvy with rheumatism is noted in the letters between Granville W....

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