When we think of the toll the U.S. Civil War took on the country, we often think first of the bloodshed caused by 19th century weapons of war–guns, cannons and the like. But of the estimated 620,000 men who died in the War Between the States, a majority died from a non-combat related killer. According to the Civil War Trust, for every three soldiers killed in warfare, five more died of disease.
In the book Disease in the Civil War by Paul E. Steiner, Ph.D., M.D. (National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD), the author explains that the 1861 campaign in western Virginia was a formidable breeding ground for troop illnesses . Both Union and Confederate troops were sickened in epidemic proportions . Steiner lists the reasons why measles, typhoid, pneumonia, diarrhea and dysentery, and a variety of other diseases spread so easily and rapidly in 1861 military camps.
Reasons for the Epidemics in this Theater
(1) All regiments on both sides were new
(2) Nearly all regiments were rural in origin
(3) The weather during the summer and fall in western Virginia was extremely wet and unseasonably cold
(4) Camp sanitation was unusually bad in some regiments (in a microbiological sense)
(5) Hospital facilities, lack of segregation of sick and wounded, and medical supplies were bad
(6) Many colonels and surgeons lacked experience in the field sanitation of that day
(7) The mountainous terrain was peculiarly and exceptionally unfavorable for good camp sanitation
So, for example, numbers of troops contracted measles simultaneously early in the western Virginia campaign, and the complications from what we now consider a rite-of-passage childhood illness were sometimes severe, affecting soldiers’ respiratory systems and turning into more serious conditions. The lack of skilled nursing, bad food, crowded camp conditions and miserable weather made recovery much more difficult.
Spread of diseases such as typhoid and diarrhea/dysentery multiplied in camps where sanitary conditions were poor. Because the idea of heat sterilizing items used for food and drink was not heard of at that point in medical history, germs spread easily. Also, the excessive rain brought flooding. Rainwater flowed freely down from the hills, carrying contaminated surface water down into drinking water sources below.
Dr. Steiner notes that these conditions combined to create natural biological warfare. Mid-to-late 19th Century medicine was not particularly effective in the face of these challenges. There were no such things as measles vaccines or basic antibiotics. Military physicians and nurses were inexperienced in construction and maintenance of field hospitals, and medical supplies were often stored many miles from camps.
“The Thirty-sixth Ohio regiments left vivid accounts of the medical situation. (Dr. R.R.) McMeens (Surgeon, 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry) had to deal with outbreaks of severe and protracted Rubeola, parotitis, pneumonia, and diarrhea. Most of the cases were treated in an open barn on bunks of straw; the diet was meager.”
—Disease in the Civil War, Steiner, page 57
One soldier’s battle with typhoid
“There are so many sick that I begin to feel that there is need of greater care. I dread nothing so much as the hospital unless it may be the Guard House. The inmates all have such a woe be gone look. If they only had some kind wholesome Christian woman to nurse and cheer them by their presence and kind words. I do wish we had some Florence Nightengale [sic] to bless us by her presence.”
–First Lieutenant Judson Cross, Gauley Bridge, VA, Sept. 12, 1861
According to Steiner, typhoid fever in the western Virginia field of battle was not widespread at the time of the Nicholas county battles of Cross Lanes and Carnifex Ferry. However, cases shot up after that time, peaking among Union soldiers in that area in November (755 cases).
Caught up in that delayed fever frenzy was a young Ohio soldier named Edgar Condit. He escaped injury and capture after the Battle of Cross Lanes and fled to Panther Mountain. He and two other soldiers came upon the Renick farm on the mountain and were taken in, fed and hidden in a cave on their property for two weeks (Margaret Grose Renick, who helped the soldiers, was the sister of Caroline Grose Backus, subject of Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story; her daughter Lydia Renick is the subject of my book-in-progress, Panther Mountain: Lydia’s Story).
Some time after returning to Union headquarters at Gauley Bridge, Condit contracted typhoid fever. Although no hospital records have yet been found, it is likely that he was taken to the U.S. Army Hospital in Gallipolis, OH, a facility that admitted many soldiers from the western Virginia campaign.
Edgar struggled to recover from typhoid for many months, and did not rejoin his regiment, the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, until almost a year after he became ill. He went on to fight at Antietam and the Battle of Dumfries.
Years later, Edgar became a world traveler and wrote a book about his adventures, titled Two Years in Three Continents (Fleming Revell Company, 1904). In the book’s dedication, he thanks two friends whom he credits with saving his life during the Civil War:
“Out of a grateful memory the author desires to dedicate this volume to two friends who materially assisted Providence in saving his life during the Civil War, viz: To Mrs. James A. Renick of Cross Lanes, W.Va., who secreted and fed him in a cave for two weeks and thus saved him from the horrors of a Confederate prison, and to his comrade and “bunkmate,” M.M. Andrews, now of Bay City, Mich., who, at a later period, gave to him not less than a mother’s care and love during a long siege of typhoid fever in an army hospital.”