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Disease becomes greatest Civil War foe

On this date in 1862, the 7th Kentucky Confederate Infantry was in Corinth, Miss., out of range of Yankee bullets.

     But the Jackson Purchase regiment was battling an even deadlier foe: disease. “While encamped in and around Corinth, Miss., the whole command was very seriously afflicted with sickness,” Henry George of Graves County wrote in History of the 3d, 7th, 8th and 12th Kentucky C.S.A. “…Hundreds had to be sent away to Lauderdale Springs and other places where hospitals were established for the sick.”

     Among the ailing was Capt. W.J. Stubblefield, commander of Company G, a Calloway County outfit. He and his men were part of the Rebel army defeated at the battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862.

     The Confederates retreated southward to Corinth. “I was not well from the time I had the ague [fever] in March till I started this fight,” Stubblefield wrote in his diary, a typescript copy of which is in the Pogue Special Collections Library at Murray State University. “But I felt better and continued very well through the rains, hard marching and fighting.”

      Stubblefield soon felt worse. He added that he “was attacked by a flux which lasted until about the 26th of April and then I began to have fever every day and soon saw that I had a severe case of yellow jaundice.”

     Stubblefield’s suffering was typical of thousands of Civil War soldiers on both sides. Disease killed or incapacitated more troops than enemy gunfire.

     The Civil War was America’s bloodiest conflict. Approximately 618,000 Union and Confederate soldiers perished. Of that grisly total, more than 413,000 died from diseases, notably typhoid fever, diarrhea, dysentery, pneumonia, tuberculosis and measles.

     “The American Civil War involved suffering,” wrote Frank R. Freemon in Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care During the American Civil War. “The degree of suffering overwhelms all military glory. The exhilaration of battle dissipates under the load of fever, diarrhea, maggots, blood, dysentery, blindness, pain, pus and putrefaction.”

     Few diseases were more dreaded than what Stubblefield called “the flux,” meaning diarrhea or dysentery. Soldiers on both sides euphemistically called the malady “the quickstep.”

     Today, health experts know dysentery is linked to contaminated food or water. Civil War doctors weren’t as wise.

     Indeed, the U.S. Sanitary Commission suggested that dysentery was “most efficiently prevented by dryness and purity of the air; the absence of malarious and putrescent effluvia; warm clothing; the avoidance of the hot mid-day sun, and of chill by night air, or sleeping on the damp ground; by active exercise, to promote warmth, rather than by trusting to artificial heat, and therefore by games and sports, as well as by frequent drill; by camp fires, to dry the clothing in damp weather, and by stoves, to dry the tents, rather than to heat them. In summer, the men should be obliged to bathe frequently, and at all times to observe the most perfect personal cleanliness."

-- Berry Craig is a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. The books are being sold to raise money for scholarships at WKCTC. They are available by contacting Craig by phone at (270) 534-3270 or by email at berry.craig@kctcs.edu.

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