The First Deadly Enemy Encountered: Disease
January 28, 1862. The first enemy that most soldiers encountered in the Civil War was not a human but a microbial one. Recruits in mustering camps frequently suffered from epidemics, ranging from common colds to measles, mumps, and other highly contagious diseases, especially those common among children. (1)
The majority of Vermont’s volunteers, and countless other soldiers, came from rural areas where childhood exposure to diseases was somewhat limited. Finding themselves in close quarters with large numbers of people for the first time, new recruits were highly susceptible to these diseases.
Additional deadly diseases awaited soldiers destined to spend months in military encampments. Typhoid fever, malaria, dysentery, and chronic diarrhea became serious problems in the Union camps near Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1861. Particularly hard-hit was Camp Griffin, a few miles west of the capital, where the Vermont Brigade was stationed. Fevers, respiratory ailments, and cases of lameness grew rapidly as winter began to set in. (2)
Musician George Randall of Company D, Fourth Vermont Infantry, complained in early November of lameness and a sore throat that left him unable to speak above a whisper much of the time. “It is a disease that we all have,” he wrote to his wife in Glover. Private Hiram Hunter of Company D, Fifth Vermont Infantry, wrote his sister in West Albany on December 22 the sad news that her husband, Private Seth Bumps, had perished of typhoid fever the night before. 3
Alarmed by the rapid increase in sickness, Vermont governor Erastus Fairbanks sent Vermont’s eminent physician Dr. Edward E. Phelps to Camp Griffin to investigate. Phelps reported in December that one-quarter of the Vermonters were sick, but he could identify no particular cause except to speculate that the grounds of the camp, in the words of historian George G. Benedict, “had become saturated with noxious elements” from extended occupation. 4
The problem grew so bad that US Surgeon General Charles Tripler filed a special report on January 28, 1862. He found that the five regiments of the Vermont Brigade had an overall sickness rate of 18.42%, despite the fact that the rates for the Second and Third regiments had improved considerably since December. Of the fifteen other regiments in General William F. Smith’s Division, only one had a sickness rate comparable to that of the Vermonters. 5 Tripler had no better theory than Dr. Phelps as to why the Vermonters suffered so disproportionately; their campgrounds, tents, clothing, and food were no different than others’, or at least not significantly so. All regiments were exposed to the harsh conditions of camp life, which included drilling in muddy conditions, long hours of picket duty, and heavy physical labor. Dr. Tripler concluded that a “nostalgic element” affected the Vermonters more severely than others, causing depression among the troops and, he implied, feeding into a vicious cycle of poor health. His remedy was to send large numbers of convalescing soldiers to hospitals in Philadelphia, reserving general hospital beds for the most seriously ill. Thus, soldiers in good health were effectively segregated from those suffering from disease and melancholy. (6)
The health of the Vermonters began to improve in February and recovered to normal levels by the time the troops left Camp Griffin in March. (7) Never again would the Vermont Brigade experience such high levels of disease, but great trials awaited them on the battle field.
– Submitted by Jeffrey D. Marshall, Director of Research Collections, University of Vermont Libraries.
1. Kenneth Link, “Potomac Fever: The Hazards of Camp Life,” Vermont History 51:2 (Spring, 1983), 75-6.
2. Ibid., 76-7.
3. George H. Randall to wife, November 8, 1861 (George H. Randall Papers, Special Collections, University of Vermont). Hiram Hunter to sister, December 22, 1861 (Civil War Miscellaneous Collection, U.S. Army Military History Institute).
4. George G. Benedict, Vermont in the Civil War, vol. I (Burlington, 1886), 238.
5. Link, 75.
6. Benedict, 236.
7. Ibid., 240.