The Six Common Deadly Illnesses of Soldiers in the Civil War: Dysentery, Typhoid Fever, Measles, Pneumonia, Tuberculosis, and Malaria

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Medicine During the Civil War

The Civil War had more deaths than all previous wars combined. Most people think those soldiers in the Civil War died of wounds or amputations, but the truth is that most died from common diseases that they never had been exposed to. Disease cost ten times as many soldiers’ lives than those soldiers who died in battle and of wounds (Heidler 1303). Although there were many different diseases that killed soldiers, there were six common ones.

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Dysentery was considered the worst and harshest of all the diseases. Dysentery is an intestinal infection that is most commonly caused by bacteria or parasites. It is defined as diarrhea which contains blood, pus and mucus. There are two types of dysentery. One is amoebic dysentery or intestinal amoebiasis which is caused by a parasite within the large bowel. The other type is bacillary dysentery and this is caused by an invasive parasite (Thomas 1). The causes of dysentery are parasites as well as bacteria. Some of the symptoms include cramps, bloating, fevers, and around three to eight stools a day. These symptoms are not just limited to mild cases. In severe cases, more of the symptoms include pain when touching the abdomen, ten or more stools a day, nausea, and vomiting. It is also common for weight loss to occur. Although there are many symptoms, they vary from the severity of each, for example, a soldier could go from just having abdominal pain to chronic diarrhea. The symptoms typically come to the surface around seven to twenty-eight days after the infection has occurred (Thomas 2). The soldiers used whiskey during the Civil Complaints of the bowel were treated in different ways. For an open bowel, they used a plug of opium. However, for a closed bowel, they treated it with “Blue Mass”. Blue mass was a mixture of mercury and chalk. Some other treatments included strychnine, castor oil, laudanum, camphor, turpentine, calomel, lead acetate, silver nitrate, quinine, whiskey, ipecac, and even cauterization of the anal opening (Civil War Medicine 2).

Another disease that caused many deaths was Typhoid fever. Typhoid fever is a bacterial disease which is spread through contaminated foods and water. Most of the time, the symptoms occur one to three weeks after initial exposure. Early symptoms include a fever reaching up to 104 degrees, weakness and fatigue, muscle aches, sweating, dry cough, weight loss due to appetite loss, abdominal pain, constipation, rash, and an extremely swollen abdomen. Without treatment, Typhoid state occurs. This is where one lies motionless while barely being able to open the eyes. The soldiers with Typhoid fever also became delirious. The bacteria that causes this is Salmonella Typhi. The most serious complication was internal bleeding and holes in the digestive tract (Mayo Clinic 1). This was a fatal disease so there was not a good treatment. By 1864, the fatality rate was 60%. They used remedies such as turpentine, quinine, brandy and quinine sulphate, or hygienic measures to try and treat it (PBS 2).

Pneumonia is a disease present today, but during the Civil War it was responsible for the death of 20,000 Union and 17,000 Confederate troops. About 1 in 6 men who were infected with pneumonia, had it as a fatality (Civil War Diseases 1). Stonewall Jackson died of pneumonia. Pneumonia is defined as an infectious disease which inflames the air sacs located in one or both lungs. Various things cause it, including viruses, bacteria, and fungi. This disease can range from mild and then quickly go to life-threatening. Some of the symptoms include, but are not limited to, chest pain when a person breathes or coughs, confusion or changes in mental awareness (in adults age 65 and older), fatigue, fever, sweating, shaking chills, lower than normal body temperature (in adults older than age 65 and people with weak immune systems), nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, and lastly shortness of breath. Many people have heard the term walking pneumonia, but that is not the correct name. This type of pneumonia is actually caused by bacteria-like organisms. The most common cause of pneumonia is bacteria. The bacteria’s scientific name is Streptococcus pneumoniae. During the Civil War, this type of pneumonia came after the common cold or flu. The fungi that caused pneumonia was found in soil and bird droppings, but it varied upon the geographical location where it was found. The viruses that caused the common cold and flu were also the viruses that caused pneumonia. Many men in the Civil War smoked, and that was one of the risk factors for pneumonia (Mayo Clinic 3). To treat pneumonia in Stonewall Jackson’s case, they injected him with mercury and antimony to use as a laxative and induce vomiting. Before his injuries and illness, Stonewall had the common cold, and as said above, pneumonia was often associated with the common cold. They used cupping and blistering agents to drain his lungs of the pneumonia, for that is what they thought they were doing. Like other diseases, they used opium in the form of morphine to manage the pain (Civil War Monitor 2).

Another disease that killed many soldiers was measles. Measles was a major problem for soldiers, especially young ones, during the Civil War. One gathering of ten thousand new recruits was hit by measles and by the end of the week 40% of them had contracted the disease (Murphy 89). Measles is caused by the rubeola virus. Measles is an epidemic disease, which means it is always present within society. Scientists have researched and found that there are 21 different strains of the measles virus. It takes about one to three weeks after being infected for the measles to show. A term that goes along with measles’ symptoms are the 3 C’s. These are cough, coryza, and conjunctivitis. Coryza is a runny nose. Conjunctivitis means swollen eyelids and inflamed eyes. It is said that no matter what, a fever always occurs. Other symptoms include dry hacking cough, watery eyes, sensitivity to light, sneezing, a reddish-brownish rash, body aching and Koplik’s spots. Koplik’s spots are very small grayish-white spots with bluish-white centers in the mouth, insides of cheeks, and throat. One can assume that many of the men in the Civil War had vitamin deficiencies because there were limited ways to get these vitamins. Vitamin deficiencies were one of the risk factors for measles. Complications included diarrhea, vomiting, eye infection, respiratory tract infections, such as laryngitis and bronchitis, difficulty breathing, ear infections, which could lead to permanent hearing loss, and febrile seizures. A febrile seizure is a seizure that is caused by a spike in the body temperature. Another complication is of measles was hepatitis. Encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that can be fatal, affects around 1 in every 1,000 patients with measles. It is an inflammation of the brain that can sometimes be fatal. It may occur soon after measles, or several years later. Thrombocytopenia, or low platelet count, affects the blood’s ability to clot so the patient may bruise easily. Squinting, eye nerves, and eye muscles may be affected. Complications that are very rare but possible include Neuritis, which is an infection of the optic nerve that can lead to vision loss, Heart complications, Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis is a brain disease that can affect 2 in every 100,000 people, months or years after measles infection. Convulsions, motor abnormalities, cognitive issues, and death can occur. Other nervous system complications include toxic encephalopathy, retrobulbar neuritis, transverse myelitis, and ascending myelitis. There are two types of measles. Measles is the standard form caused by the rubeola virus. Rubella, or German measles is caused by the rubella virus (Christian Nordqvist 1) Measles usually lasts about three to four weeks under normal conditions. Most of the time it does not cause lasting effects, but in Army camps during the Civil War, it was usually fatal. It was usually due to improper care of the disease and poor sanitation. A lot of times, measles would come after one was infected with pneumonia. Surgeons and doctors during the Civil War would try and treat this by prescribing whiskey. They also used rest, proper care, and time because that was said to be the only true cure, although many men died of this disease (Measles 1). One gathering of ten thousand new recruits was hit by measles and by the end of the week 40% of them had contracted the disease.

Tuberculosis killed about 14,000 soldiers during the Civil War. Once a person gets this disease, it is in the person’s body for life. Tuberculosis is an infectious bacterial disease characterized by the growth of nodules (tubercles) in the tissues, especially the lungs (Civil War Diseases 2). Tuberculosis is caused by bacteria spread through tiny microscopic droplets that are released into the air. This happened during the Civil War when soldiers with the untreated, active form of tuberculosis coughed, spoke, sneezed, spit, laughed, sang or did anything verbal. This means that tuberculosis was highly contagious in the soldiers’ camps. Some of the risk factors included diabetes, severe kidney disease, certain cancers, Crohn’s disease and psoriasis, malnutrition, and very young or advanced age. Another risk factor was medical care one received, or more accurately, the lack thereof. Substance abuse was a risk factor as well; alcohol abuse weakened the immune system which caused one to be more vulnerable to TB. Tobacco use was also a risk factor. Using tobacco greatly increased the risk of getting tuberculosis and dying of it. There were many different complications that came from tuberculosis. Some examples included spinal pain and joint damage. Swelling of the membranes that cover a person’s brain was a complication as well. This can cause a lasting or intermittent headache that occurs for weeks. Mental changes also are possible. Liver or kidney problems are common. A person’s liver and kidneys help filter waste and impurities from the bloodstream. These functions become impaired if the liver or kidneys are affected by tuberculosis. Rarely, tuberculosis can infect the tissues that surround one’s heart, causing inflammation and fluid collections that may interfere with the heart’s ability to pump effectively. This condition, called cardiac tamponade, can be fatal and cause death immediately. The symptoms of tuberculosis vary on which organs and parts of the body are contaminated. There are two stages of tuberculosis. The early stage is Latent TB. In Latent TB, one can have a TB infection, but the bacteria remain in the body in an inactive state and cause no symptoms. Latent TB, also called inactive TB or TB infection, is not contagious. Latent tuberculosis can then turn into Active TB. Active TB makes a person sick and is very contagious. It can occur in the first few weeks after infection with the TB bacteria, or it is possible for it to occur years later. Symptoms of active TB include coughing that lasts three or more weeks, coughing up blood, chest pain, or pain with breathing or coughing, unintentional weight loss, fatigue, fever, night sweats, chills, and loss of appetite (Mayo Clinic 2). During the Civil War, they treated TB by sending the troops and infected for some so-called “fresh air” or they would perform surgery to decrease the lung capacity (Diseases 2).

Malaria was another fatal disease that took the lives of many men during the Civil War. Malaria is a fever caused by a protozoan parasite that invades the red blood cells. The parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes in many tropical and subtropical regions. There are two different types and severities of malaria. Uncomplicated malaria symptoms include a sensation of cold with shivering, fever, headaches, vomiting, seizures, sweats, followed by a return to normal temperature, and tiredness. Usually these symptoms last six to eight hours. Severe malaria symptoms include fever and chills, impaired consciousness, prostration, or adopting a prone position, multiple convulsions, deep breathing and respiratory distress, abnormal bleeding and signs of anemia, clinical jaundice and evidence of vital organ dysfunction. When an infected mosquito bites a human host, the parasite enters the bloodstream and lays dormant within the liver. The host will have no symptoms for an average of 10.5 days, but the malaria parasite will begin multiplying during this time. The new malaria parasites are then released back into the bloodstream, where they infect red blood cells and multiply further. Some malaria parasites remain in the liver and are not released until later, resulting in recurrence (Mayo Clinic 3). During the Civil War, they treated malaria with quinine (Civil War Medicine 2). Quinine was discovered by Spanish explorers and conquerors. They are in fact the very people who carried malaria to South America. In the 1630’s a monk by the name of Antonio de la Calancha wrote, “A tree grows which they call the fever tree in a country of Loxa, whose bark, of the color of cinnamon, made into powder amounting to the weight of two small silver coins and given as a beverage, cures the fevers and tertian [Malaria]; it has produced miraculous results in Lima.” Quinine is extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, which grows in the Andes (Rooney 111).

While bullets and gun shells accounted for many injuries during the Civil War, more soldiers were killed due to sickness and disease. The sanitary conditions of the camps and prisons were deplorable. Drinking water and food were often contaminated. In addition, this was the first time these men experienced living with such large groups. This caused fever and sickness to spread more rapidly and easily. The six main diseases that killed the most soldiers were dysentery, Typhoid fever, measles, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and malaria. Each disease was different in its own way, but all had one thing in common. Each disease made the soldier population go down, due to death.

Bibliography

  • “Civil War Diseases.” Civil War Academy – American Civil War, www.civilwaracademy.com/civil-war-diseases.
  • “Civil War Medicine: An Overview of Medicine.” Civil War Medicine: An Overview of Medicine | EHISTORY, ehistory.osu.edu/exhibitions/cwsurgeon/cwsurgeon/introduction.
  • “Diseases.” Civil War Medicine, civilwarmedical history.weebly.com/diseases.html.
  • Heidler, David S., editor. Encyclopedia of the American Civil War. J-Q ed., vol. 35, ABC-CLIO, 2001.
  • MEASLES, www.wtv-zone.com/civilwar/measles.html.
  • Monthly, Military History. “War Culture – Military Drinking.” Military History Monthly, 12 July 2012, www.military-history.org/articles/war-culture-military-drinking.htm.
  • Murphy, Jim. The Boys’ War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk about the Civil War. Sagebrush, 1993.
  • Nordqvist, Christian. “Measles: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 15 May 2017, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/37135.php.
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The Six Common Deadly Illnesses of Soldiers in the Civil War: Dysentery, Typhoid Fever, Measles, Pneumonia, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. (2022, Dec 07). Retrieved February 4, 2023 , from
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