Medicine, Disease, and Death in the Civil War
August 9, 2014
The Civil War holds the record of being the deadliest war that the United States has ever been involved in. The Civil War’s death toll reached approximately 633,000 compared to the 521,000 lost in World War I and II combined1. Some of that was caused by the fact that medical techniques and care were not advancing as quickly as weapons were. Another major factor in the amount of casualties is disease which was typically caused by poor hygiene. It took a majority of the war before doctors realized what was causing the diseases and other deaths and what techniques could be used order to lessen the death toll. Disease was the main cause of death in the Civil War. There were around 206,000 soldiers killed in battle, 337,000 died from disease, and the rest of the deaths were those who died as prisoners. The medical statistics of the war show how deadly disease was being that one in 13.5 died from disease compared to one in fifty-six that died from their wounds. One of the main diseases that caused death was continued fevers which 33.27% of Confederate soldiers who had the illness, died from it2. Many times the field hospitals that were used to treat the mass amount wounded soldiers were all kept together in tight, unsanitary, and poorly ventilated conditions which caused infections and diseases. Conditions at the soldiers’ camps were poor as well. One of the main causes of disease was poor hygiene because the soldiers did not bathe every day and many times the pots and pans used for cooking, were also used for boiling bug infested clothes for washing. The term ‘germs’ was unknown so washing hands and bathing were not considered necessary, even for doctors. Trash was all around the camp due to lack of a better place to put it which caused for bugs. The soldiers had poor diets because it was hard to find or get fresh vegetables and sometimes all they could get their hands on was spoiled food. The soldiers would drink water from a stream or pond as long as it looked and smelled good, even though many bacteria were still in the water.
The disease known for killing the most soldiers was dysentery which caused severe diarrhea. Second to that was typhoid fever which was spread by different types of bacteria and body lice and would cause high fevers, delirium, rash, and headaches. Scurvy was caused by a lack of vitamins which caused dental damage including spongy gums, loose teeth, and bleeding mouths. Pneumonia and tuberculosis would infect the lungs and were both very contagious. Smallpox was very contagious and dangerous which would cause fever and skin bumps. Other diseases included chicken pox, measles, whooping cough, and mumps.
Even though the main killer of the Civil War was disease, battle caused a great amount of death also. The Union had about 43,000 mortally wounded, meaning they were wounded in battle and died later. The Confederate’s had approximately 94,000 mortally wounded. The most deadly battle of the Civil War was the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 which killed 23,053 Union troops and 28,063 Confederate troops. There were other causes of death in the Civil War including drowning, suicide, murder, sunstroke, and execution. On the Union side drowning took nearly 5,000 lives, suicide took about 400, and sunstroke killed just over 300.3 The amount of lives lost in battle is directly correlated with the advances in weaponry that took place during the Civil War. The first year of war was not one for advances. Most soldiers carried muskets which took time to reload and could only fire effectively up to eighty yards. The Union was the first to advance when troops were supplied with rifles which were “quicker to load and put a spin on a bullet, increasing its accuracy and firing range4” but the South was soon to follow in their lead. The minie ball was a new kind of...
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