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Typhoid Fever


Originally aired on July 14, 1995 - In part 46 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson describes the danger that both Union and Confederate armies faced from the ingestion of impure drinking water: typhoid fever.

#46 – Typhoid Fever

How many listeners of this program ever go to a water cooler, push the button, bend over, and then pause with a pang of uncertainty before drinking? Few if any of us do that. We take pure water for granted. Yet that is a modern assumption.

In Civil War days, contaminated water was a major killer. The reason was that water near camps and battlefields in the early part of the war contained a bacillus that produced an acute, infectious disease that could be fatal. This gastro-intestinal disorder is called typhoid fever. Its severity is often overlooked because sickness and disease were so widespread in so many forms throughout the conflict between North and South.

Typhoid fever was among the first diseases to appear in army camps. By the summer of 1861, it had attained epidemic proportions. Fully a third of the 21st Virginia (a unit basically from Buckingham, Charlotte, and Cumberland counties) was down with measles, or typhoid fever, or both. A Kentucky brigade numbered 1,800 men in late June, 18621, when typhoid struck it. Two months later, almost 1,300 of the 1,800 recruits had fallen victim to the disease.

Comments by soldiers give a sickening picture of the environment in which typhoid fever flourished. A newspaper correspondent wrote shortly after the 1862 battle of Shiloh that water from the Tennessee River “smells so offensively that the men have to hold their noses while drinking it”.

On the Virginia peninsula a few months later, a Union soldier noted: “The water we are compelled to drink is of the most miserable quality. I have drank so many wiggle-tails and polly-wogs that I can hear young Frogs croaking all the time.”

In August, 1863, a cavalryman on duty at Morris Island, South Carolina, where an engagement had recently taken place, stated: “The water supply obtained from Barrels sunk in the sand soon became unfit for us. Dead bodies were (lying) all around, and the water smelt and tasted of them.”

Soldiers who got typhoid fever and survived never forgot the high fever, diarrhea, uncontrollable nausea, dehydration, and violent spasms associated with it. Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks used a variety of terms for the disease. “Camp fever”, “continued fever”, and “break bone fever”, were among the most popular.

Army surgeons had little knowledge of what to do for the illness. That is because they had no idea what caused typhoid fever. A Texas surgeon wrote his wife about how helpless he felt when a new outbreak of the disease struck his unit. Near the end of the same letter, the physician state in passing: “We have had an awful time drinking the meanest water not fit for a horse.”

Medical treatment for typhoid (and any other illness, for that matter) depended on what the surgeon had at hand.  An ill New Hampshire soldier informed his sisters of the medicine he had been ingesting. “The first day the Dr. gave me a powder that came very near turning my stomach inside out and today he gave me 20 drops of Aromatic sulfuric Acid 3 times a day; that goes better.” The soldier then added: “I will inclose one of my powders. It will cure any ails that flesh is heir to, from a sore toe to the brain fever.”

Thanks to gains made in hygiene, better camp conduct and policing, plus increases in basic knowledge, typhoid fever tapered off as the Civil War continued and practically disappeared in the last months of the conflict. Yet a fourth of all deaths from disease in the armies of North and South came from typhoid fever.

How blessed we are that in spite of all the major problems besetting Americans today, impure water is not one of them.

Dr. James I. "Bud" Robertson, Jr., is a noted scholar on the American Civil War and Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech.