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Flashback: A typhoid epidemic struck down thousands of soldiers during the Civil War

Confederate prisoners of war in uniform stand in the yard in 1864 at Camp Douglas in Chicago.

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By RON GROSSMAN | Chicago Tribune | Published: March 6, 2020

CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — On May 1, 1861, Stephen A. Douglas rallied Chicagoans to support President Abraham Lincoln with a speech at the Wigwam, the city’s convention and meeting hall. It marked a U-turn for Douglas, who had defeated Lincoln in a race to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate and unsuccessfully ran against him for the presidency in 1860.

Douglas, who had hoped the Civil War could be avoided by working out a compromise with the slave-holding states, realized the time for negotiations had run out when Southerners attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina, which set off the conflict.

“There can be no neutrals in this war. There can be none but patriots and traitors,” Douglas told his Chicago audience.

Despite his strongly worded message, Douglas looked frail and was taken to the nearby Tremont House hotel. As his condition deteriorated, he was diagnosed as having typhoid fever, a 19th-century analog of the coronavirus: a highly contagious, deadly disease with no known cure or means of prevention.

As the Tribune reported, Douglas slipped in and out of consciousness for weeks. On some occasions, he seemed to be waging war, barking out orders like: “Telegraph to the president and let the column move on!” Just before the end, he uttered: “Death! Death! Death!”

He died on June 3, shortly after leaving a message for his mother, sister and two sons: “Tell them to obey the laws and support the Constitution of the United States.”

By then, typhoid fever was spreading among the soldiers who had amassed around Washington, lest the Confederate Army attack the nation’s capital.

“In some regiments as many as forty members have been discharged from the service on account of ‘debility,’ caused by a long course of the fever,” the Tribune reported Jan. 18, 1862.

Though the Civil War is remembered for its battlefield bloodshed and carnage, more soldiers died from typhoid fever and other infectious diseases than in battle.

Tribune reporters were seeing that statistic with their own eyes, already in the first year of the war.

“The mortality in our army from camp sickness is probably more than double casualties of war,” one correspondent wrote in December 1861. “There are regiments on the Potomac that have not enough well men to take proper care of the sick."

A trainload of sick soldiers was "one of the most distressing scenes it has ever been my lot to witness. Many of these poor fellows were in the critical stages of typhoid fevers,” an Army chaplain wrote. “Some tottered about delirious, unable to give any account of themselves, uttering only incoherent mutterings.”

Scenes like that meant that strategy and tactics were dictated by sick rolls, no less than terrain and ammunition supplies. Operations had to be called off or failed because there weren’t enough troops fit for battle.

The Tribune published “A Letter from a Chicago Boy” that came from a military vessel on the Mississippi River in 1862. The ship was on a dangerous mission: gaining control of the river and thus severing communications between the Confederacy’s Eastern and Western states.

Yet the cabin floor and staterooms were crowded with typhoid victims. ”We have never had so many sick before, which makes us realize that we are indeed surrounded by peril,” the young man wrote.

Epidemics are generally an urban phenomenon. Cities bring together a sufficient human mass for germs to be passed from one victim to another. But during the Civil War, Army camps were the petri dish of typhoid fever.

Reporting an infected soldier’s demise, the Tribune would attribute the cause of death to “typhoid fever, that terrible scourge of camp life.”

Chicago’s breeding ground was Camp Douglas along the lakefront at about 31st Street. Named for the senator, it was built as a jumping-off point for Union regiments heading to the front. Then it became an internment camp for Confederate prisoners of war. It was chronically overcrowded, and woefully understaffed.

Front-line medical care was supposed to be provided by interned Confederate doctors, but they were rarely seen in the hospital, according to Army inspectors who visited the camp and reported:

“The sickness among the prisoners is increasing — the disease being principally pneumonia, assuming a typhoid character, and in many cases proving fatal.”

Even doctors sympathetic to typhoid victims were fighting with one arm tied behind their back. The germ theory of disease had yet to be adopted by the American medical profession, so doctors fumbled with figuring out the common denominator of their patients with typhoid fever. (The pathogen that causes the disease is spread through contaminated food or water and occasionally through contact with an infected person.)

One set of Army investigators traced the disease to the flooring of the tents soldiers slept in. The incidence of typhoid fever was highest in regiments with rubber flooring. The lowest incidence was reported by regiments with tent flooring made of straw or boughs.

Closer to the truth were those who thought that the culprit was unburied fallen soldiers or contaminated drinking water.

The latter theory had previously been applied to the periodic outbreaks of malaria and cholera that Chicago suffered. Originally the eruptions of disease were attributed to “miasma,” fetid air that supposedly hung over polluted water. The Chicago River was certainly that. It was essentially an open sewer into which human and animal wastes were dumped. Then someone replaced the miasma notion with an explanation involving hydraulics: As the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan, it carried those waste materials into the water that was piped back to Chicago’s faucets.

But though the Board of Sewage Commissioners was established to stop the pollution of the city’s drinking water, the problem wasn’t solved until 1900, when the Chicago River’s flow was fully reversed. Similar epidemics of typhoid fever continued until the development of antibiotics — drugs that could arrest the disease in a patient, thus preventing it from being passed on to others.

But that breakthrough occurred decades later. During the Civil War, about the best that could be done for a typhoid fever victim was to sit by him as his body wrestled with the disease, hoping and praying he’d emerge victorious.

The poet Walt Whitman painted a poignant word picture of the process. During the war, he regularly visited soldiers in a Washington hospital. He brought them gifts and chatted with them.

He became particularly attached to Pvt. Erastus Hall, a victim of typhoid fever. “Many nights I sat in the hospital by his bedside,” Whitman wrote. “He always liked to have me sit there, but never cared to talk.”

Hall died in August 1863, and shortly after his mother received a letter from Whitman, a stranger to her. It read: “I write you this letter because I would do something at least in his memory — his fate was a hard one, to die so — He is one of the thousands of our unknown young American men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss about their dying so unknown, but I find them the real precious & royal ones. ... Poor dear son, though you were not my son, I felt to love you as a son, what short time I saw you sick & dying there.”

rgrossman@chicagotribune.com

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Prisoners of war in Confederate uniforms in front of their barracks at Camp Douglas in Chicago, sometime between 1862 and 1865.
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