The Invisible Enemy

The Civil War is known as the war that ended slavery in America. It was also the deadliest war in the country’s history. At the completion of the war, there were over six hundred thousand fatalities. Many soldiers are remembered for their bravery in battle and fighting for the rights of themselves and others. However, few soldiers are remembered for their individual battles against an invisible enemy: disease.

At the start of the war, armies began to assemble in order to prepare for battle. As soldiers traveled to military camps, they were often exposed to harsh weather conditions. In both the North and the South, these camps were packed with tents that each housed five to six men. The armies left their camps to fight in battle and many soldiers died in combat. Those men who returned to camp were often wounded. During the wartime, the armies of the North and the South were concentrated on each other. However, neither side was prepared for their deadliest enemy. An enemy that they both had in common.

Out of the six thousand men who died during the Civil War, two-thirds had died from disease.  These deaths were mainly caused by the terrible living conditions at camps and a lack of medical knowledge.

Civil War camp grounds provided poor living conditions for soldiers. Camps were often overcrowded and dirty. To reach these camps, soldiers had to march for miles through the blistering heat and the freezing cold. They had to endure continuous harsh exposure to the elements, which lowers a person’s ability to resist disease. The soldiers’ poor hygiene contributed to the spread of disease in camps. Their health was not improved by impure water and daily meals, which commonly lacked fresh fruits and vegetables. Food had to be distributed to soldiers across the country. Fresh food was scarcely seen by Civil War armies since their shipments of food often arrived spoiled. These conditions led to epidemics within army camps.

Although medical knowledge was improving, there was still an inadequate understanding of diseases. There was no real awareness of how germs spread. Men who had traveled to different areas of the country generally lacked immunities to unfamiliar diseases, which made it easier for them to contract a disease. Illness could become rampant within an army. Prevalent diseases included yellow fever, dysentery, malaria, typhoid fever, scurvy, pneumonia, tuberculosis, smallpox, chicken pox, scarlet fever, measles, mumps, and whooping cough. The medical professionals of the time were generally poorly equipped and unsanitary. Many doctors did not keep their medical tools clean, which aided the transmission of diseases. Sickness became worse as men returned with wounds from battle. Surgeons were in high demand, since infection was so common. However, there were never enough to meet demands. During the Civil War, the Union had ninety-eight registered doctors and the Confederacy only had twenty-four. Camps could wait weeks for the arrival of a proper surgeon. The high demand for medical treatment eventually caused armies to hire any person who considered themselves a physician. These “doctors” had little to no experience. Many of them traveled to various camps with nothing more than a few medical supplies and a military surgery manual, which was provided to them by the army. Numerous soldier claimed that the arrival of a doctor only worsened the illnesses at camp.

Disease, the unseen enemy, struck again and again throughout the war, and neither the North nor the South could stop it.

Union Army Camp in Cumberland Landing, Virginia


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