The Deadliest Enemy: The Hidden Killers Of The Civ Essay, Research Paper
Invisible to the world of honor, away from the patriotic duty, surrounding the trill of battle, and penetrating the comradery of the campfire, the most deadly and merciless enemy stood waiting to strike the soldiers of the civil war. The enemy, to small to be seen and too advanced to be combated, was the angel of death for many a fine soldier. This creeping death that came was inescapable and virtually unstoppable. Only infrequently did the soldiers face each other, yet every day they were forced to fight their deadliest enemy; Disease. (Davis,185) In the minds of most the civil war is considered to be the last great display of honor. Soldiers marched forth ready to fight and die for a cause they strongly believed in. Yet the war was much less romantic, and tremendously more sad and disturbing. The fighting men of the civil war on both sides were subject to as Walt Whitman put it, a “seething hell and black infernal background”, due to their subjection to subhuman conditions (Lowenfels, 181-2). It was disease and infection, not bullets that claimed the majority of soldiers’ livelihood. Thus creating the central focus of this paper: How did the breeding grounds for such deadly killers infiltrate the Civil War?”Two or Three Love Taps”As reported in several of Bell Wiley’s books, the physical exam to enter the war effort was ridiculously lax. The medical examination was an introduction to the solider on the new world of medical treatment he was about to encounter in the war. The physicians seemed to pay no attention to the number of arms and legs of a recruit. Most doctors simply asked a man how he felt then gave him “two or three love taps on the chest” before yelling, “I only wish you had a hundred such fine boys as this one” or the like before sending them through into the army (Wiley, Billy Yank, 23). The general feeling was if a man could work on the farm, he could fire a rifle. This practice allowed thousands of ill and frail men to enter the military, and bring with infections and infirmities to their new messmates. Most of the men had never attended school or had ever been exposed to rudimentary childhood disease such as mumps and measles. Diseases that were only a two-week inconvenience to a child were life threatening to an adult.”Something That Didn’t Smell Like Milk and Peaches”To make matters worse, those who survived the initial gauntlet were made to face an even more unpleasant trial. There is a well-known male saying, which states, “The world is his urinal”. This was all too true in civil war camps. Sanitation was a foreign word in most camps, and the soldiers paid the price for their ignorance. The men were usually either too lazy or too preoccupied to walk all the way over to the regimental latrines. Instead, many men simply relieved themselves were they stood or behind a tree. Soon men began watching were they walked and even slept. One Virginian said he awoke to discover that, “I had been lying in – I won’t say what – something that didn’t smell like milk and peaches” (Wiley, Johnny Reb, 248). The garbage situation was none the better as one federal inspector gave the description, “Slops deposited in pits within the camp limits or thrown out broadcast; heaps of manure and offal close to the camp” (Wiley, Billy Yank, 217). The mounds of garbage and excrement from thousands of men would turn the camps, especially in the heat of summer, into an olfactory nightmare. It comes as no surprise what happened next. With the formation of new divisions, quickly came the breeding ground for sickness. Units that started around one thousand, usually dwindled down very quickly, due to illness (Davis, 186). In most units, the death rate due to illness was only outnumbered by the rate of discharge due to illness (Nolan, 35).”The Shits”Living in this microbe paradise, it was no wonder that the soldiers suffered from the terrible pestilences. Malaria, brought by the ever-growing mosquito population, took a respectable toll. Almost half of the 38th Iowa was wiped out by “the shakes”, and over one million cases were diagnosed during the war. Unfortunately, due to the lack of knowledge at the time, doctors felt the disease was brought by poisonous odors, and not the mosquitoes (Davis, 188). Typhoid was an even greater menace. One federal colonel protested, “We would rather die in battle than on a bed of fever.” He reported that he saw men “jabbering and muttering insanities, till they lie down and die.” It was called “camp fever” and was never traced to the tainted water. In the south it claimed as many as a quarter of all the soldiers who died (Davis, 188).
Out of all the diseases, it was alvine flux, which the soldiers feared the most. Contracted from their own habits, “Diarrhea”, “Dysentery”, or most accurately “the shits” killed more men than all the bullets fired in the war. Over one and three quarter million of such cases were reported during the war, and this excludes those who chose not to report it due to the contempt some soldiers had for the doctors remedies, with good reason (Davis, 188). The doctors usually never made a diagnosis, instead simply asking the solider how he felt. The standard remedy for most of these ailments was a dose of salts, which acted as a laxative, only making matters worse. If a solider went back again uncured, the prescription was a dose of the same plus an additional bonus of castor oil. Worn down by the poor treatment, the men would usually contract another disease. A bitter Yankee wrote home to complain, “Sick dogs are treated better than this” (Engle, 206-7).Salt Horse and the LikeThe diet of the soldiers was not better than the living conditions, if that is possible. Rations were ill-balanced, ill-preserved, and ill-prepared. Surviving the food was as hard as surviving the diseases. Meat was scarce, and if it arrived, it was almost always tough, old and sometimes rotting. Most meat came pickled and was called “salt horse.” Another feature of the meat was that it came with passengers. Men joked that they never had to carry their meat because the maggots would do it for them. The most prevalent of food was a hardtack; a large, dense cracker made from shortening and flour. To stale to eat it whole, it was soaked in water, or fried in grease. These crackers also contained maggots (Davis, 189).Taking to the Bottle The war was no picnic for the doctors of the war either. The Medical schools of the time only offered two-year courses, with the second as being only a repeat of the first. The idea was, if you didn’t learn it the first year, hopefully you would get it the second. Furthermore the only requirement for medical school was the ability to pay the tuition. What the “doctors” learned in medical school was nearly useless anyway. Some of the medicine and procedures had not been improved since the days of Caesar. Body temperature was considered unimportant, so there was no call for the twenty thermometers available to the federal army. Doctors frequently prescribed a powder called Opium to treat aliments. The result was a large number of drug addicts after the war. The bullet wounds sustained by soldiers would carry dirt into the body, which would lead to infection. Three out of four limb wounds were amputated. A wound to the body was usually considered fatal, and the doctors did nothing. The process of amputation was gruesome and agonizing, yet effective in saving the solider. The solider would usually receive some anesthesia, such as chloroform, or morphine. There were no syringes so the anesthesia was usually manually applied to the wound. Most soldiers were given a shot of whiskey and a bullet to bite on before the doctor began the procedure. First the surgeon would cut of the blood flow with a tourniquet. Then the doctor would remove the outlining tissue and flesh with a scalpel. After which he would use a hacksaw-like tool and cut through the bone. The doctor would then suture the arteries back together. The practice took about fifteen minutes, the solider would be carted off and a new patent brought (Beller, 145). Most surgeons, despite their ignorance, did their best for the men, but the pressure and the overwork took its toll. George Stevens, doctor of the 77th New York wrote, “they look to me for help, and I have to turn away heartsick at my want of ability to relieve their suffering.” It is no wonder many doctors turned to the bottle (Davis, 196).”Seething Hell and Black infernal background” For all the suffering of the soldiers, little advancement in medical technology and procedure was made. The organization of hospitals became more efficient, along with the advent of a female nursing corp. A small understanding of sanitation in disease prevention and the speed of the ambulance corps increased. Yet none of this truly helped the poor soldier of the Civil War. Medical advancement was made decades later, thanks to the price the soldiers paid by suffering in the “seething hell and black infernal background of the war effort.”