Biological Warfare in U.S. Civil War

The civil war in Syria isn't the first one in which biological warfare has been a threat. In the U.S. Civil War, 644,000 soldiers died; one out of four combatants never made it home. But they were twice as likely to die of disease than from a bullet. Their deadliest enemy was a biological foe.
The civil war in Syria isn't the first one in which biological warfare has been a threat. In the U.S. Civil War, 644,000 soldiers died; one out of four combatants never made it home. But they were twice as likely to die of disease than from a bullet. Their deadliest enemy was a biological foe.

The poorly clad, physically spent and mal-nourished soldiers lived in close quarters, exposed to the elements and under constant siege by germs. Many men succumbed to infectious diseases that festered in camps lacking in the most basic sanitation. Field kitchens, fresh water supplies and sleeping quarters were often located near latrines, pools of stagnant water and garbage dumps. Stale, insect-infested rations washed down with foul-tasting coffee (called "swill") added to the onslaught of diseases every soldier faced.

As a result of these unhygienic conditions, dysentery and diarrhea (called the "quick step") sickened tens of thousands of soldiers. Doctors did not know how to treat these bowel disorders and tried everything from opium and mercury to strychnine, castor oil, laudanum and turpentine. None of the so-called remedies worked and, as a result, 95,000 lives were lost.

Typhoid fever was also spread by rotten food, killing another 65,000 men. Pneumonia, an opportunistic disease, carried off 37,000 soldiers, many of them weakened by some other condition. Measles accounted for 11,000 deaths; tuberculosis added 14,000 more; and many other men died from Whooping cough, small pox and other maladies.

Field hospitals were a source of many deadly infections. Without access to adequate fresh water supplies, doctors could not properly wash their surgical instruments, hands or clothing. A wounded soldier might survive his operation only to succumb to an infection such as gangrene, the rotting away of infected flesh.

In the low-lying and coastal areas of the South, both armies faced another deadly biological foe. Mosquitoes quickly spread malaria during the warm and humid months, sickening more than one million men during the course of the war. Thanks to the availability of quinine, only 30,000, men died of the disease. Those that survived were partially immune to future attacks, but in their weakened condition they could fall prey to other biological enemies.

Yellow fever also stalked the South, causing periodic epidemics among soldiers and civilians alike. In The Reckoning, Doc Raymond blames the yellow fever epidemic in the refugee camp on "miasma," the foul swamp air. Doc's remedy is the standard treatment of the day, a concoction of nostrums that may have worsened the condition.

Yellow fever actually figured in an attempt at biological warfare. A southern physician by the name of Luke Blackburn tried to ship trunks containing dirty linen from yellow fever patients to Northern addresses, including the White House. If the trunks ever reached their destination, they had no affect because the disease is only spread by mosquitoes. Blackburn later became governor of Kentucky.