One topic often overlooked in relation to disease and the Civil War involves diseases of the digestive tract. The reason behind this lack of discussion most likely stems from the fact that it was not nearly as visible as other wounds and diseases were. It is probably not an overstatement to say that the majority of all soldiers in the North and South would have suffered at least once from some sort of digestive distress throughout their time in service. Although records are imperfect, and most Confederate records destroyed, it is estimated that 44,500 Union soldiers died of either diarrhea or dysentery (Jarrow). The Confederate experience is likely to have seen similar numbers.
Regulations regarding camp sanitation and general health did exist for both sides but standards were usually not met (Jarrow 38). For instance, latrines became so disgusting and mismanaged that soldiers prefered to relieve themselves near camp. Rain, flies, and the feet of other soldiers would have carried the bacteria into camp and infected food and drinking water. Many soldiers also missed the mark in basic hygiene and it wasn’t uncommon for men to go days without bathing or washing their hands properly after going to the bathroom. Bacteria that causes dysentery can remain in feces for days, which made it easily transferable. Camp kitchens also did not contain refrigeration of any kind and food spoiled fast in the summer months. Soldiers ingested spoiled food and experienced diarrhea, poising, and even intestinal worms. In 1864, a Maryland hospital reported a 20 foot long tapeworm living inside the body of a soldier (Jarrow). With such hoffic camp conditions it is no surprise that diarrhea and dysentery were some of the most common killers of the war (Burns).
“I am still suffering from diarrhea. I lie still all the time hoping to be better soon.”-Diary entry of Luther Jackson dated 1 June, 1862. Eight days later he was dead.
Those suffering from digestive problems had little to no control of their bowels. They were forced to squat down wherever they could run to in order to relieve themselves. This was a very dangerous effect of intestinal distress because it meant that many people living nearby were exposed to dangerous bacteria. Diarrhea was nicknamed the “Virginia Quickstep” or the “Tennessee Trots” depending on where the camp was located (Robertson). Soldiers could not give their best in battle while they were plagued with abdominal pain, loose bowels, fatigue, dehydration, and delirium. Most physicians at the time lacked proper understanding about these complications and not only had little understanding of how they were contracted, but also how they were to be treated. Cases were often treated with alcohol and purgatives, which did very little besides further irritate their bowels (Robertson). Many men were left permanently disabled from the damage that their digestive tract suffered and their lives were often shortened as a result.
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- Burns, Stanley B. “Behind the Lens: A History in Pictures. “ PBS. Accessed 9 August, 2021. pbs.org/mercy-street/uncover-history/behind-lens/disease/.
- Dorwart, Bonnie Brice. “Disease in the Civil War.” Essential Civil War Curriculum. Accessed 9 August, 2021. essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/disease-in-the-civil-war.html.
- Jarrow, Gail. Blood and Guts: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease. Calkins Creek: NY, 2020. Print.
Robertson, James. “The Dysentery Enemy.” Radio IQ: WVTF. 30 August, 2019. Accessed 9 August, 2021. wvtf.org/post/dysentery-enemy#stream/0.