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The Dysentery Enemy

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Originally aired on August 22, 1997 - In part 156 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson says that during the conflict there were one million eight hundred thousand cases of dysentery and diarrhea among the two million soldiers who served in the Union army. As he makes clear, the disease did not take sides.

#156 – The Biggest Killer

The Civil War has been called many things. Among them is the belief that the struggle was “one vast experiment in the determination of how much injury the human body can endure”.

Sickness and disease were constant companions of soldiers both South and North. Whether ailments associated with childhood, or epidemics a part of any army camp, uncontrollable germs waged their own war in the 1860s. By far the most prevalent of all Civil War diseases was officially known as diarrhea and/or dysentery. It was the illness that soldiers mentioned most, simply because it was the malady that struck – and killed – the largest number of men on both sides.

Physicians at the time disagreed over what diarrhea and dysentery actually were. The two words were generally used interchangeably, and the two diseases were always grouped together for statistical purposes. In truth, diarrhea is a symptom, while dysentery is a disease. Civil War surgeons made no such differentiation. Intestinal disorders were the biggest killers, no matter what you called them.

One physician felt that “more soldiers were permanently disabled and lost to the service from these diseases than from the disability following accidents of battle”. That was true. Among the 2,000,000 men who served in the Union armies, there were 1,900,000 reported cases of diarrhea and dysentery. How many tens of thousands of others suffered in silence can never be known.

These sicknesses struck hard early in the war, thanks in large part to deficiencies in food, medicines, and sanitary facilities. Yet while such other diseases as typhoid fever and malaria diminished during the conflict, the incidence of diarrhea and dysentery steadily increased. Rare indeed was a Civil War soldier who did not have at least one severe attack of “the flux”, “the Tennessee Trots”, or “the Virginia Quick Steps”, as soldiers labelled the illness.

Bitter humor swirled around the crippling diseases. It was a standing joke among surgeons that bowels were of more consequence than brains. And when a soldier was discharged for chronic diarrhea, a slang phrase was that he “hasn’t got the guts to stand it” in the army.

Neither diarrhea or dysentery is necessarily fatal, although each can be. Certainly the diseases usually left soldiers as easy targets for the host of other illnesses rampant in camp or hospital. One Johnny Reb wrote his wife that he had “the Bowel complaint”, but he reassured her by adding: “That is nothing much in camp, for they nearly all get it.”

An Illinois soldier who barely survived an attack commented: “Inflammation of the bowels was so severe and painful that it seemed as though death would be a welcome relief.” The diary of Luther Jackson of the 12th Iowa contains this entry for June 1, 1862: “I am still suffering from diarrhea. I lie still all the time, hoping to be better soon.” Jackson died eight days later.

Because 19th Century physicians knew so little about intestinal disorders, they prescribed anything and everything as treatment. Favorite “medications” were whiskey as well as such purgatives as turpentine and castor oil, which, of course, further inflamed the intestinal tract.

A tragic case in point was Private John Leopold of the 74th Pennsylvania. In October, 1863, he was hospitalized after three months of chronic diarrhea. Surgeons then plied Leopold with large doses of lead acetate, a mixture of laudanum and whiskey, aromatic sulfuric acid, tincture of opium, silver nitrate, belladonna, calomel, and ipecac. When nothing worked, the physicians applied steaming mustard plasters to the chest. Leopold mercifully died after twelve days of such treatment.

He was unquestionably one of the silent heroes of a nasty war.