Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Chief Camp Diseases of the Civil War

I'm so pleased to be hosting author Jocelyn Green this week. She e-mailed me a feasibility question and I managed to rope her into writing a few posts about the medical aspects of the Civil War!

I know...I'm a tricky girl.

Jocelyn has graciously agreed to give away a signed copy of her novel Wedded to War. Just leave a comment in the comments section that includes your e-mail address on any of her posts this week and you'll be eligible to win-- though must live in the USA. Drawing will be Saturday, September 1, 2012 at midnight. Winner announced here on Sunday, Sept 2, 2012!

Here is Part I.

My novel Wedded to War explores the medical care of the Union army during that first chaotic year of the Civil War. During this time, disease was more of a killer than injury, especially in the Army of the Potomac during their ill-fated Peninsula Campaign in the marshes and swamps south of Richmond, Virginia.

Below are a few of the most prominent diseases that affected troops even before they could shoulder their rifles in battle. This information can be found in many sources, including the National Museum of Civil War Medicine ( in Frederick, Maryland, which I visited as part of my research for this novel. The statistics for the Confederate side were not tracked as well. (Other sources will be listed at the end of this post.)

Diarrhea and Dysentery

The terms diarrhea and dysentery were often used interchangeably, but both were widespread and seriously debilitating. (Some sources say General Robert E. Lee was suffering with it during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, and that it affected his decision-making ability.) On the Union side, there were at least 1.6 million cases with more than 27,000 deaths during the course of the war. Causes ranged from poor diet and cooking practices (called at the time “death by frying pan”) to infection with microscopic organisms. For unknown reasons, chronic diarrhea and dysentery sometimes persisted for the remainder of a soldier’s life. Treatment included a good diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, opiates in alcohol and sometimes oil of turpentine and glycerin.


Malaria is a fever-inducing disease caused by microscopic parasites transmitted to humans by the bite of the Anopheles mosquito—but no one knew this during the Civil War. The cause was thought to be “swamp miasma,” an invisible agent which floated through the air. Nearly a million cases of malaria were reported in Union records, with approximately 4,800 deaths. The disease was most common among soldiers of both sides serving in the deep South. Quinine, as the powdered bark of the cinchona tree or as quinine sulfate derived from the bark, served as an effective preventative and cure.

Nutritional Diseases

The major nutritional diseases seen during the war were scurvy (vitamin C deficiency), night blindness (vitamin A deficiency) and malnutrition. With diets often devoid of fresh fruits or vegetables, the vitamin deficiencies were often seen together. In addition to the individual disease symptoms (i.e. tender or bleeding gums), the poor diet led to compromised immune systems which hampered recovery from wounds and other diseases. Decent diet was known to cure and prevent the problems, but field logistics made this nearly impossible. There were 46,000 cases of scurvy in Union records, with 771 deaths.


“Camp-followers” and city brothels offered ample encounters with prostitutes. Sexually transmitted diseases, primarily syphilis and gonorrhea, were common in the armies of both North and South. Among white Union troops, there were 182,800 cases of both diseases combined. There were no effective treatments, and there would be none until long after the war. Among the techniques they tried were rest, diet, injection of various metals in to the urethra, internal use of mercury compounds and even the application of mercury vapor on the surface of the body. Reports that nearly one-third of post-war deaths in veterans’ homes were due to late-stage venereal disease show the futility of these treatments.

Typhoid Fever

Typhoid fever, an intestinal infection caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhi, is generally contracted from contaminated food or water. Symptoms include delirium, fever, exhaustion, and red skin lesions. Associated diarrhea can lead to puncturing of the intestines and death. Survival of the infection was known to confer immunity from further infection. Union records show 75148 cases among white troops with 27,058 deaths, a 36 percent mortality rate. Similar rates were found in Black Union troops and Confederate troops. Treatments, generally ineffective, included opiates for pain, quinine for fever, various diets and calomel (a mercury medicine).

Recommended Sources:

This is just a general overview of a few of the diseases that afflicted Civil War troops. For more in-depth study, I recommend:

Adams, George Worthington. Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1952. [For the South, see Doctors in Gray by H.H. Cunningham.]

Freemon, Frank R. Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Letterman, Jonathan. Medical Recollections of the Army of the Potomac. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1866. Available at Google Books here:

Wilbur, C. Keith. Civil War Medicine. Guilford, Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press, 1998.

Woodward, Joseph Janvier. Outlines of the Chief Camp Diseases of the United States Armies. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1863. Available at Google Books here:


A former military wife, Jocelyn Green authored, along with contributing writers, the award-winning Faith Deployed: Daily Encouragement for Military Wives and Faith Deployed . . . Again. Jocelyn also co-authored Stories of Faith and Courage from the Home Front, which inspired her first novel: Wedded to War. She loves Mexican food, Broadway musicals, Toblerone chocolate bars, the color red, and reading on her patio. Jocelyn lives with her husband Rob and two small children in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Connect with Jocelyn:


  1. Wow! I knew it was a terrible war, and you'd think all the physical injuries would ave been bad enough without the sickness as well. Fascinating post, thanks or this. I must bookmark it.

    1. Hi Sue! Glad you found this helpful! Soldiers died far more often from disease than from wounds (although, as DP mentions, some diseases were caused by bacteria infected a wound...). And so many of the diseases were either caused or exacerbated by poor hygiene. Very preventable stuff! That's why I found the work of the U.S. Sanitary Commission so fascinating, and critical. Definitely worth writing a novel about-hence, Wedded to War. :)

  2. Most deaths came from injuries and disease and not out right kill shots. In fact, a wound often meant death. No antibiotics so infections ran rampant. And a surgeon's best skill was speed. Work fast and get it done. Though anesthesia, in the form of ether and chloroform, was a known entity, it wasn't always available in the field. Brutal times. I imagine that the medical tents on both sides at Shiloh and Antietam were horrific places.

  3. DP, you're right, the availability of anesthesia in the field was iffy. My next blog post will focus on anesthesia and amputations, but I'll just mention here that right now I'm writing about Gettysburg, (the battle and aftermath) and learned that General Meade ordered 25 wagons of medical supplies to the rear, so that ammunition could be up front. I understand why he did it, but it meant that much needed supplies didn't really start arriving until July 5, and there had been wounded since July 1. Brutal times is right! And of course, because of the blockades, anesthesia was in very short supply for the South.

  4. Would love to win! Thanks for the chance!

  5. Hi Jocelyn: I sure wish I'd known about your blog ages ago when I was deep into research for my 3-book series on Civil War POWs. Good job.

  6. I love the Civil War ere and would love to add this book to my colletion.

  7. Reading all of this makes me wonder how anyone survived back then. Must have really been scary times, especially for soldiers. Thanks for this interesting post. I need to read your book.

  8. Wow! The idea of treating any ailment with mercury just makes me cringe. Of course they didn't know then what we know now. This is one of those days I'm glad I live in the 21st century.

    And I'd love to win a print copy of Wedded to War. I have it digitally already, but it's just not the same.

    andeemarie95 at gmail dot com

  9. Reading this makes me wonder about mercury poisoning as well then, since you mention internal and skin applications of compounds containing mercury... Interesting thought.


  10. Measles were also a huge killer. Great post, ladies!

  11. Amazing that the human race has survived all our years and all our wars. I've endured two bouts of Malaria myself (grew up a Missionary kid in the rain forest) and I was well-tended and properly medicated and treated and I almost died one of those times. I can't imagine what it must have been like suffering through that kind of illness in a medical tent.

    Thanks for sharing your research with us, Jocelyn!


  12. Thanks for all the wonderful comments. Jocelyn did an amazing job and I'm very grateful she shared all her wonderful research here at Redwood's. Can't wait for Friday's post.

  13. Jocelyn,
    I have some CW letters that share of a cousin suffering from dysentery and of his ultimate death from same. The letters to the father from the soldier (before he became to ill) and also from his command. Very touching and some even dry in how they communicated.
    Sad we had to lose so many from illness and infection back then.
    Had another cousin who was a POW and buried up in NY.

  14. I'm loving all these comments! Maria, I'm sure those letters are fascinating!
    Vickie, thank you, and I need to read your books too-fellow River North author! I've got them on my list. Let me get past the next deadline (32 days away!). For those wondering about mercury poisoning, yes, it definitely happened. Surgeon Genereal William Hammon had calomel taken out of the medical supply kits (calomel was a mercurial medicine) because of the awful side effects they had, including grotesque levels of salivating. But the older doctors didn't agree with him, and neither did the general public. He lost his job AND they put him on trial for it. Sad!

    1. The mention of mercury in this article reminded me of an incident years ago in a hospital laboratory I worked in. This was a very small and very old hospital. We were cleaning out and we found a container with liquid mercury in it. I can not recall how we disposed of it, but I do remember having a hard time finding a placed that could help us. I have no idea what it was used for.
      I did a quick search and didn't find anything more than the thermometer aspect. I did see that mercury was used in dental amalgams. I wonder if that is true today. I had all my amalgam filling replaced a few years ago.

  15. A fabulous resource for anyone doing research on US military medicine is the US Army Medical Department Office of Medical History website They have several of these books online free, plus dozens more - from Revolutionary War through Iraq.

    Please don't enter me in the drawing - I already have a copy of Wedded to War - which I LOVED!

  16. How interesting. Poor soldiers if a bullet didn't get them a germ did. When I was at Hot Springs, Arkansas, there is a little civil war shop and he said the hot springs were used by many of the soldiers and how the std's were such a problem. Kind of sad.

  17. Fascinating! The book sounds good, too. Thanks for the information and for a chance to win!

  18. I didn't know that diseases were more of a killer than the actual war in the civil war. Crazy. And some of the diseases i would have never considered during that time like stds. Some of those treatments do not sound pleasant. Thank you for the info!

  19. It has always amazed me that people died so easily from STDs that are easily treated now due to advances in medicine. Wow.