Assignment 5


What I’ve found:

Diseases such as dysentery and typhoid were present constantly during the war. These diseases were both spread through contaminated water or food. Germ theory was not accepted at this time and proper hygiene standards were often not followed. The miasmatic theory was the popular belief in the medical community at the time and had been for centuries. This theory was based in the that diseases such as dysentery were spread and caused by miasma, or foul smelling air. Coincidentally, preventative measures to avoid contagious miasma occasionally worked as one would avoid unhygienic areas as they would have an odor. In the case of the Civil War the Sanitary Commission instituted rules for the camp to preserve the health of the soldier. These rules followed the theories of the day.  Noxious fumes were considered to come from damp soil and cause dysentery and therefore soldiers were discouraged from camping there. Today we can say that environment could invite malaria, another camp disease but not dysentery. Latrines were ordered to be a strict distance away from camp and boiling and stewing food was emphasized. Both were excellent ideas as contamination with fecal matter is the cause of dysentery and typhoid and boiling the food might get rid of the bacteria.

These recommendations could have saved many if they had been followed, despite the lack of modern medical knowledge they were based on. However, The Sanitary Condition of the Army remarks on the lack of order and cleanliness in over half of the camps reviewed. Whether for inexperience, ignorance, or haste the rules were bypassed and thousands died. Dysentery, and other extreme cases of diarrhea, were the main culprit of the hundreds of thousands that died of disease in the union. Union records are more readily apparent and most sources I have refer to union sources, but what I do have from the Confederacy confirms this underpreparedness and complete wipeout through disease was universal.

Hospitals created new steps to deal with the influx of patients. Diseased and wounded patients were separated on entry and many were allowed fresh air which alleviated the overcrowding. Pavilion hospitals with better ventilation and cleanliness began to be built in 1861 and the first ambulance corps was created in 1862 for better transportation to field and general hospitals. The American scientific community would not change their minds on germ theory and disease until the mid 1880s,. The American public were less interested in the cause of the disease and more in the treatment and cure. Hospitals created during the Civil War in response to the wounded and diseased created new innovations to deal with the problem and, at least in certain general hospitals, had a death rate below 10%.

Primary Source- The Sanitary Condition of the Army

It talks about the hygienic conditions in the union army. This provided an contemporary insight into the state of the camps and the attitude towards the spread of disease in the army.

Secondary Source- “Confederate Medicine”

This describes typical practices and attitudes of Confederate doctors towards disease and treatments. This is the only source I have found that makes the distinction of the side of the conflict it covers.

Primary Source- “Rules for Preserving the Health of a Soldier”

This is the rulebook on hygiene and practices at camp for the union army recommended by the Sanitation Commission and accepted by Congress in 1861. In regarding how many died from disease, this is important to demonstrate if there were rules and measures designed to prevent such cases.

Secondary Source- “Disease and Infection in the American Civil War”

This is an article describing the realities of disease and difficulties of hygiene in the Civil War. Most of the statistics in the article are of the union army.

Secondary Source- “American Attitudes Towards the Germ Theory of Disease (1860-1890)”

This is an article on the evolution of the medical field and scientific progress, specifically in germ theory and its relation to sanitation in the mind of the American people.  I wanted to see if attitudes toward epidemiology or the etiology of disease changed in the U.S. faster than overseas due to the large case study that was the Civil War.

Primary Source- The Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion (1861-65)

This source has very detailed casualty counts for the union army and testimonies from certain doctors.

Secondary –

This article details innovations in the medical field such as pavilion hospitals, triage separation, ambulance services and the treatments for common diseases.

Secondary– “The Innovative Design of Civil War Pavilion Hospitals”

The article detailed the importance of pavilion hospitals during the war and why they were an innovation.

Working Thesis: Preventative measures instituted against diseases failed in the beginning of the Civil War to stop the dead and sick from accumulating. As the count rose, medical personnel began innovating in the hospitals to save lives. Although many of the innovations stemmed from the mistaken theory of miasmata, the often increased sanitation that resulted always helped.


5 Replies to “Assignment 5”

  1. In my research I have read muster rolls and other documents that list casualties and there were more that died because of dysentery, and typhoid instead of being wounded in battle. I look forward to seeing how you complete your work. Zach Wood

  2. This is a very interesting topic. I would really like to learn more about your work considering these early methods of treating wounded patients are very interesting. Early medicine is always something I want to learn more about just to see how far we’ve come from one period of time to another.

  3. This is really an awesome topic to choose, and I am almost jealous I didn’t think to do it. In studying war, especially in North American history, disease always tends to be the deadliest of killers. And the medical practices of the time were rather brutal and merciless.

  4. This is a topic that has so much information to use and you seem to have a good hold and direction of where you want to go with it. My topic is pretty similar with connecting it to surgical developments through out the civil war and what they lead to. Something I found during my research is that more than half of the deaths from the civil war were related to and/or caused by infection or disease! I found that astounding, but is a reasoning and example as to why your topic is so important towards the medical advances during the Civil War.

  5. I am very interested in your medical approach to this topic. I feel like this is overseen by many people studying and looking into the civil war. I am interested to see what tools and medicine they used to combat major injuries and how they adjusted so quickly when they found it didn’t work well.

Leave a Reply