by Barbara Joy Cooley
Uncontrolled infectious diseases – including epidemics – killed two thirds of the 660,000 soldiers who died during the American Civil War.(1) Two thirds! I was astounded by this number until I read the Civil War letters written by my great-great-grandfather, William McAdams.(2)
Just as the novel coronavirus epidemic has cancelled and delayed many events, these Civil War-era epidemics stopped or delayed a number of major campaigns, thus making the Civil War last perhaps two years longer than it would have otherwise. Pneumonia, typhoid, dysentery, yellow fever, and malaria were the predominant diseases that plagued the soldiers. Historians sometimes call this collection of Civil War era diseases “the third army.”
William McAdams, a 25-year-old farmer and leader of his community near the town of Kansas, Illinois, was bright and optimistic as he enlisted in the 59th Illinois Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army in late 1861. He was elected by his peers to be their Sergeant, and he did not intend to be away from home for long. After all, his wife Harriet was pregnant with their second child, Willie Jr. Their first child, Charlie, had died as a toddler. He and Harriet had a 160-acre farm that included cattle, sheep, chickens, bees, an orchard, and rotating fields of oats, corn, and wheat. He was also an active leader of the rural Methodist church that his family helped to build.
Soon after he enlisted, William and his men – whom he affectionately called “the boys” — were put on a temporary guard duty in Jefferson City, Missouri, where they quartered in the State House. In a letter to Harriet, he remarked, “The State House is now dirty from top to bottom. I have never seen a place yet where soldiers were quartered that was very clean.” The lack of cleanliness continued to bother him for the next three and a half years that he spent in the Army.
Even the food was dirty. The next month after their stay in Jefferson City, when they were on the move as part of Sherman’s army, William remarked about the food he and his men had just eaten, “We came to the firm conclusion that we could have more to eat, have it better cooked, and have it clean.”
In his letters, he frequently reported back to Harriet about his health and that of other men from their community who had enlisted along with William. This wasn’t mundane; because there was so much illness around, getting sick was a constant and serious concern.
Illness struck. The company had to leave two of their men in a hospital at Iuka, Mississippi, in August or September, 1862. Both of those men had to be discharged in November, after extended illnesses.
Later, William met a soldier who had been a prisoner of war in Virginia. The Confederates put him and many other prisoners to work building hospitals to care for ill and wounded soldiers. After a while, the prisoner was able to escape through the wilderness, where he was helped by black men who shared their food with him by day, and guided him by night, until he reached his regiment.
When the soldiers could sleep outside, it was considered a blessing. One day in the autumn of 1862, William wrote, “We left all our tents and unnecessary camp equipage at Florence, Ala. and we lay out in the open air all the time and we all enjoy excellent health.”
By December 1862, when he went to visit some of the soldiers that he knew from back home, he reported, “We found the boys in rather low spirits and some of them not enjoying very good health. They reported to us that Charlie Mayo and James Arterburn were laying very sick at Nashville and they could tell me that Alexander Scott was dead but could tell but little about the circumstances that attended his death. When I first visited him on November the 10th, Brother Aleck was sitting or laying by the campfire. I conversed with him a few minutes & he appeared to me to be quite unwell. When I visited three or four days afterward, Brother Aleck was in the Regimental Hospital. I was told on the morning of December 7th that Alexander Scott was dead. We are all now deprived of meeting Brother Alexander again in this world.”
In January 1863, William was promoted to Second Lieutenant. He had quartermaster duties, and he improved the menu by adding fresh berries that he and his men foraged from the woods.
The following June, illness found William. “I was unwell from the 1st to the 5th,” he wrote. “I had taken a severe cold and I came near having another attack of the lung fever [pneumonia] but I commenced taking medicine in time and thus averted it and today I am in the enjoyment of good health and am able for any kind of military duty.” I wonder what medicine he took?
That summer commenced a streak of good health for William and his men that lasted for almost a year. Then in May 1864, he reported that he had been “sorely troubled for 10 days with a sore mouth and lips. Many others are troubled in the same way and it is supposed to be occasioned by eating Pickle Pork from which all the salt petre (3) has not been extracted. My sore mouth seriously interferes with my eating and smoking and besides I can’t enjoy a hearty laugh. I hope it will soon be well again.” One month later, he was well again.
But in late August 1864, he was ill again. He didn’t give Harriet the details, but for two weeks, he was not able to write to her. The warm, humid weather in Georgia in the summer seemed to bother William. In September, he wrote, “I am in the enjoyment of good health again, since the weather has become cool and healthy.”
By January 1865, conditions had improved for William and his men. They had “good, comfortable quarters” and an abundant New Year’s dinner, including “Roast Turkey, Fresh Ham, Warm Biscuit, good Coffee, Condensed Milk, Fresh Peaches, Two Cans and one Can of Fresh Cherries, Fresh Raspberries, Fresh Butter and other things too tedious to mention and we have had an agreeable time.”
He went on to say, “I am enjoying good health at present. In fact, am getting fat, though not inclined to be saucy.” Ha. He was never fat. His granddaughter Marie McAdams described him as a 6-foot tall, broad-shouldered man who, even when he was elderly and retired, would chop wood, hoe the garden, and remove burdock weeds from the side of the road.
By the 20th of that month of January 1865, William was finally able to resign. He returned to his farm on the prairie north of Kansas, Illinois, where he lived a long and productive life. He and Harriet had two more children, Carlin and Mary Elizabeth. The McAdams family survived the long and difficult war.
Our country survived that calamitous war with the associated diseases and epidemics that killed more than battles did. The country went on to become a great union, a bastion of democracy, and it built a health care system that would, at one point, be considered the best in the world. As a nation, we will survive this pandemic as well, and hopefully we will build the most accessible health care system for all the people. My hope is that we won’t return to “normal,” but that we will do better than that.
(1) Source: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8513069/
(2) The Letters of William McAdams, https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1FrkZy8IoRjhYlkzvoSMeqbuqvvTuquQP
(3) Salt petre or salt peter (potassium nitrate) was used instead of sodium nitrate for preserving cured meats such as bacon.