Journal of a graduate student in military history and the American Civil War

On Lice, Disease and Quinine

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The statistics of those who died during the Civil War, not from injury but from disease, are shocking. Of the 360,222 men known to have died on the Union side, a quarter of a million were lost due to disease rather than the enemy. While the Confederates didn’t keep records, it is estimated that seventy-five percent of the 258,000 Southern deaths could be attributed to disease.[i] General John B. Hood in Civilian Clothes

I found fascinating that for many, the cycle of illness started soon after joining up. Those from the less populated countryside found themselves in large groups after mustering in – perhaps for the first time in the lives – and were exposed to childhood maladies like the measles, mumps and smallpox. Confederate soldier William A. Fletcher’s experience appears to be not uncommon. A young man from Texas who first signed on in 1861 as a member of the 5th Texas Infantry of Hood’s (see Hood’s photo right) Brigade, he wrote in his memoirs that in the first large camp he was assigned to after signing up, he contracted the measles. While in the hospital recovering from an associated extremely high fever, he became infested with lice and before being released, he contracted the mumps.

Head LiceIn this camp we suffered a good deal with sickness—the most fatal I guess was measles. I had an attack of measles and was sent to the hospital in Richmond and remained there a few days and got tired of hospital life, so I tried to be a good boy and please the woman who had charge of the ward in which IWashington, D.C. Hospital tents in rear of Douglas Hospital was. I soon persuaded her to get me a discharge, and I returned to camp one cold, frosty morning; the next day I was hauled back a very sick man; was put in a small room that had a coal grate and was instructed to stay in bed and keep well covered up. I lay there a few days with a burning fever, taking such medicine as was prescribed. I had learned the “itch” [from lice] was getting to be a common complaint in the hospital, and after the fever had somewhat abated, I found I had it, so when the doctor made his next visit I drew my arms from under the covers and showed him the whelps or long red marks of itch, and he said he would send me some medicine that would cure it.[ii]

FredericksburgWhile encamped near Fredericksburg, Fletcher suffered from a severe attack of jaundice and was given a permit of sick leave. Rather than moving with his unit, he took a room in a Fredericksburg hotel where he received no medical care and almost died of food poisoning.[iii]

Cases like this – and worse – were common due to a lack of sanitary conditions, adequate food, clean water and trained medical care. Gerald Linderman confirms that “each army suffered two waves of disease,” the first being “acute infections of childhood.”[iv] Because those who survived the first wave developed immunities, the incidence abated over time. But it was followed by a second wave that decimated the ranks in ever increasing numbers. Considered “camp” diseases, dysentery, malaria, and diarrhea, took men in their tents and in hospitals by the thousands, reducing the effective fighting force of many units dramatically.[v]

John D. Billings, in his memoir Hard Tack and Coffee, brought up two important points about health in army camps. The first was that many men came to the army already ill. This was particularly true of the recruits in 1864 and 1865, “for those who have occasion to remember will agree that a sufficient number of men too old or diseased came to the front in those years – no, they did not all get as far as the front – to fairly stock all the hospitals in the country.”vi] Billings attributed this to both the incompetence of some of the doctors providing physical examinations for enlisting recruits and the desperation of the government willing to use marginal physicians and accept men clearly unfit for duty.

Billings also spoke of the presence in every company of men who feigned illness to escape duty. As might be expected, these men were seen as shirkers who burdened others in the company with the work they did not perform. These “beats on the government” showed up routinely at the sick tent to receive the care and, in some cases, medicine administered by the doctor. Quinine was the drug du jour “whether for stomach or bowels, headache or toothache, for a cough or for lameness, rheumatism or fever and ague.”[vii] Some who feigned illness went so far as to refuse food and so created a real health crisis for themselves with varying consequences ranging from transfer to a hospital and eventual release from the service, to susceptibility to more severe and long term conditions.[viii]

The fact remains that many, many men died of very real and unwanted maladies. Diseases flourished in camp because of poor nutrition, inadequate sewage disposal, dirty water and infrequent bathing. Typhoid, measles, cholera and dGeneral Robert E. Leedysentery killed hundreds. Even General Lee contracted dysentery on his way to Gettysburg.[ix] Billings spoke eloquently of his many friends who suffered and died of wasting illnesses, either in the field or in hospitals, away from the families who could have unquestionably cared for them better at home.[x]

As James I. Robertson, Jr. pointed out in his book, Soldiers Blue and Gray, “more confederates died of illness during the seven week aftermath at Corinth than fell in the two days of intense fighting at Shiloh, an aftermath not at all uncommon during the war and certainly after every battle.[xi] Disease was – without question – the war’s biggest killer.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

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On Dog Tags, Sunken Confederate Subs, and Graves Registration

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I am returning in this post to a topic covered previously here on the discovery and recovery of the Confederate submarine, CSS H. L. Hunley, found in 1995 in the waters off Charleston, S.C. The Friends of the Hunley chronicled the archaeological discovery process which uncovered something very interesting. It was the “ID Tag” of Ezra Chamberlin. This created somewhat of a mystery because Ezra was a member of the infantry of the Union Army. What would the ID Tag of a Union soldier be doing in a sunken Confederate submarine?

Research by forensic genealogist Linda Abrams provided a plausible solution to the mystery as outlined in a story on the Friends of Hunley site. It’s a good read. The suggestion is that Chamberlin died at the Battle of Fort Wagner, a.k.a. the First Assault on Morris Island. His body was likely ransacked by Confederate troops and his ID medallion taken as a souvenir. This was common practice on both sides.

Interestingly, the remains of the Hunley crewman wearing Chamberlin’s medallion were identified to be those of Confederate Corporal J. F. Carlsen who can be placed at Morris Island during the Union’s second attack. His facial reconstruction is available at the link above. Whether he took the medallion from Chamberlin’s body or traded for it is unknown.

That Civil War soldiers wore identification medallions (Dog tags) like the one belonging to Private Chamberlin was news to me. My research confirmed that they were not issued by either government. According to an essay by Edward Steere posted on the U.S. Army Mortuary Affairs Center, there were no graves registration units to formally identify and bury battle dead. “Burial was, of necessity, performed by fatigue parties from the line. … Little or no provision could be made for any systematic interment of remains during a campaign of rapid movement.” Burying the dead at Fredericksburg, Va., after the Wilderness Campaign, May 1864. Photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan. 111-B-4817.

As in any war, the bodies of the victors were treated better than those of the vanquished. It is well known that battle dead in the Civil War were often buried in pits or unmarked graves. Use of coffins, like those pictured here at Fredricksburg after the Wilderness Campaign, was unusual.

Men began to take responsibility for their own identification. Those of means could order ornate identification medals or pins. Some purchased less expensive medallions from sutlers, merchants following the armies. Made from coins or other metallic disks, sutlers charged a small fee for stamping into the metal a soldier’s name and unit among other things. Some men without other identification simply wrote their names on paper and pinned it to their shirt prior to going into battle. Shockingly, Steere estimates that only 30 percent of soldiers who died in the Civil War were identified.

Of additional interest:

  • Mike Brown has an excellent history of Civil War Dog Tags and pictures of several varieties on his website.
  • Replica ID tags can be purchased from Civil War memorabilia shops like Memorial Brass.
  • The modern process for embalming began during the Civil War as grieving families wanted to have the the bodies of their oved ones returned home for burial.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

the places

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Locations of significance during the American Civil War. – Under construction. –




Best’s Grove

Two miles from Frederick. Location “where Jackson and D.H. Hill had already established their headquarters” and where “five leading generals of the Army of Northern Virginia pitched their tents in the same woods.” Source: Joseph L. Harsh, Take at the Flood, (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1999), 105-106.

Big Springs

Site of encampment of Lee’s army during his invasion of Maryland, early September, 1862.


Bolivar Heights, near Harpers Ferry

Making better time than expected, A. P. Hill’s van reached the turnpike from Charlestown, turned north, and stopped just short of Halltown at eleven o’clock. Jackson could now see the enemy’s defenses on Bolivar Heights two miles to the front, but he decided not to develop his line until he had scouted the position and established contact with McLaws and Walker. Jones and Lawton were halted in the rear of Hill. 32 1

1. Joseph L. Harsh, Taken at the Flood : Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862 / [book on-line] (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1999, accessed 9 August 2009), 228; available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=102364938; Internet.


Buckeystown, Maryland

Bull Run, First Manassas

Catoctin Gap

Chambersburg, Pennsylvania

Charleston, South Carolina

Crampton’s Gap, South Mountain



Elk’s Ridge (Blue Ridge in Virginia?)

South of the Potomac, John Walker, who was just as isolated from the rest of the army as McLaws, broke camp at about 6:30. His two brigades marched south through Hillsboro and then turned right, heading west on the road from Leesburg. Having no notion of the situation he might encounter, Walker decided to mask his approach from the enemy in Harpers Ferry. He stopped short of Vestal Gap in the Blue Ridge and proceeded north on the road that ran between the Blue Ridge (Elk Ridge in Maryland) and the Short Hills (South Mountain in Maryland). Known locally as “between the Hills,” this dale was a continuation of Pleasant Valley across the Potomac. 1

1. Joseph L. Harsh, Taken at the Flood : Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862 / [book on-line] (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1999, accessed 9 August 2009), 226; available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=102364936; Internet.

Fort Sumter

Frederick, Maryland

Gaines’ Mill


Hagan’s Gap, Maryland (in the Catocins)

Hagerstown, Maryland

Harper’s Ferry

Kanawha Valley


Loudoun County

Loudoun Heights

Passing through Neersville, Walker reached the eastern foot of Loudoun Heights, the crown of the Blue Ridge on the Potomac, by ten o’clock. Here he was greeted by the ominous sound of a cannonade in the water gap beyond the mountain. The mysterious firing was soon explained, as up rode a party of engineers and signal officers sent by Jackson to guide the placement of artillery and open communications between the columns. Walker thus learned that the nature of his mission had changed. He had now become one element in a complicated siege operation. 1

1. Joseph L. Harsh, Taken at the Flood : Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862 / [book on-line] (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1999, accessed 9 August 2009), 226; available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=102364936; Internet.


Maryland Heights

  • Overlook Harpers Ferry on the Maryland side
  • 2000 ft. mountain
  • Captured by McLaws forces on September 13, 1862
  • A signal party place there
  • Federal artillery was carried off or spiked leaving Confederates n need of hauling up guns


Mason-Dixon Line


Middletown Valley

Monocacy Junction

Where the Frederick spur line joined he main B’&’O line just west of the river.


Offutt’s Crossroads

Pleasant Valley, Maryland

Point of Rocks

Port Royal, South Carolina


Richmond, Virginia


Sandy Hook, village near Harpers Ferry at the base of the mountain

Secessionville, South Carolina


Shenandoah Valley

South Mountain


Thoroughfare Gap

Three Springs

Near Buckeystown, site of encampments of Lee’s army as it invaded Maryland in September, 1862.

Turner’s Gap, South Mountain

Vestal Gap, Blue Ridge Mountains


Williamsport, Maryland

Winchester, Virginia

Written by Rene Tyree

November 4, 2007 at 7:39 pm

Posted in

On Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution

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Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution A thought provoking collection of essays on the complicated second American revolution that was the American Civil War and the startling reversals that took place during the counterrevolution not ten years later. McPherson’s essays are masterful.

For more…see the post Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as “Revolutionary.”

Written by Rene Tyree

October 26, 2007 at 4:24 pm

Study block

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A paper is due this weekend. Usually studious, and cognizant of the fact that I have a day job, I know I should read during every spare minute and write as I go. Instead, I’ve built this blog site. Enough said.

Written by Rene Tyree

October 24, 2007 at 2:58 am

Posted in Masters Degree

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