Introduction - Disease during Civil War
American Civil War soldiers faced great dangers in battle; enemy artillery and gunfire, and often hand-to-hand combat wiped them out by the thousands. However, the greatest danger waited for them back at their camps; various diseases that spread like wild fire in their crowded camps took many more soldier's lives during the Civil War than did enemy fire. In fact it is estimated that nearly 400,000 Civil War soldiers died from disease compared to 200,000 from other causes. Unfortunate soldiers and civilians who caught one of the many deadly diseases prevalent during the war had little hope of survival due to the fact that nobody had any idea how to treat most of these diseases at that time.
On this page we list interesting facts about disease during the American Civil War. Information on this page includes what disease killed the most soldiers, how disease were able to spread so easily during the war, and what measures were taken to control the spread of disease.
Causes of Disease during the American Civil War
- Unfortunately doctors and nurses during the American Civil War just did not know that hygiene was important for health. Most of the medical people cared for the sick and dying and often risked their own lives in doing so, they just did not know any better at that time in history.
- The reason diseases killed so many soldiers during the Civil War was the lack of basic sanitary and hygiene practices. For example surgeons would not clean their equipment between patients often leaving the blood from the previous patient on their tools when moving on to the next patient.
- Doctors at that time had no knowledge of cross contamination, which is the passage of microorganism that can cause disease from one object to another. Medical tools and doctors and nurses hands were usually not cleaned between the treatments of different patients.
- The drinking of contaminated water leading to the spread of waterborne diseases was a major problem at Civil War camps. Contaminated water can cause numerous diseases including Dysentery and Typhoid; two huge killers of Civil War soldiers. Often water sources for army camps were dirty and contaminated; frequently little consideration was given to the location of the camps latrine which may have been upstream from the water supply.
- Army hospitals, especially at the beginning of the war, were overcrowded and poorly ventilated; conditions which allowed disease to spread rapidly. Patients would sneeze and cough into the air releasing small droplets filled with viruses or bacteria into the air; other patients who inhaled this could get tuberculosis and other infectious airborne diseases. As the war progressed hospitals with better ventilation were constructed, especially in the North.
- Army camps were usually overcrowded and airborne disease would spread quickly among the soldiers.