Originally aired on July 11, 1997 - In part 150 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson says that just being in the Army killed more men than died in battle.
#150 – Measles
The Civil War was less than six months old when a Confederate soldier wrote from camp: “It scares a man to death to get sick down here.” In January, 1862, a Michigan private noted: “From two to four died every day from the many diseases around.” A year later, another Billy Yank asserted: “Every man in our regiment and all the others here is sick with some thing or the other.”
An Illinois soldier swore that “we are dying faster from the sicknesses of camp than from the casualties of war.” At the same time, a Virginia soldier was telling his sister: “I had rather face the Yankees than the sickness….”
None of these Civil War participants was exaggerating. In fact, just being in the army killed more men than died in battle. Total deaths on the Union side are estimated at 400,000 men. Only about 120,000 of those deaths were caused by the enemy. The remaining quarter of a million came largely from disease.
On the other side, Confederate Surgeon Joseph Jones tabulated that of the 300,000 Southerners who died in the war, two-thirds of them perished from sickness. Stated another way, for every soldier killed in action, two soldiers died behind the lines from sickness and disease.
The list of reasons for such suffering is too long to give here. Suffice it to say, a dozen crippling diseases usually struck a regiment at some point in the war.
Generally the first ailment of epidemic proportions was rubella, or red measles. The initial onslaught struck in the weeks following a regiment’s organization, and recurring waves occurred whenever a large number of recruits came into the unit. Shortly after a Southern army of 10,000 volunteers took shape, measles infected 4,000 of the men.
A member of the 1st Maine recalled: “Though we enlisted to fight, bleed, and die, nothing happened to us so serious as the measles”. Over 150 of those Maine soldiers were hospitalized before the regiment left its basic training camp. In November, 1861, a Confederate stationed in western Virginia observed that 1,800 men were down with measles. Of the 100 men in his own company, only 20 were able to perform duty.
Statistics show rubella to have been more widespread in Confederate than in Union armies. Further, Western soldiers suffered worse from measles than did Easterners. The explanation lay in the rural background of the men. Soldiers from the cities had been exposed to many so-called “childhood diseases” and this had varying degrees of immunity. Farm boys, on the other hand, had been unaffected and thus were highly vulnerable.
Hence did an Iowa private state in December, 1861; “The measles went through our Regiment in such a manner that out of 560 men, only 250 are (able to perform) duty.” In another regiment of Union farmers, measles prostrated 125 men in a two-day period. Since army surgeons had little idea of the cause of measles, they attributed the outbreak to wheat straw used in the bunks.
Measles can kill directly; it can also weaken the constitution and make an afflicted soldier highly susceptible to other, fatal illnesses. A young Kentucky private who survived the disease confessed: “I knew nothing for a few days and when my fever began to abate, I could not speak above a whisper.”
One Union surgeon, obviously perplexed, wrote: “These ‘measly boys’ were easily recognizable for months after by peculiar signs. They seemed of all the men to be most frequently and more easily (affected) by other maladies…”
A Billy Yank at Vicksburg in 1863 asserted that measles “is what kilde the most of our boys. They would take the measels and (have) to lay out in the rain and storm and they wod loste abot 2 days.”
As dangerous as measles were, it paled in comparison to the biggest killer in the 1860s. It too was a sickness – one to be discussed in another program.