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A Time of Tragedy

All wars have tragic consequences, but the Civil War resulted in more soldier deaths than any wars since. How can that be when most Civil War soldiers had only muzzle loading rifles that could fire two bullets a minute while weapons in later wars included the machine gun and assault weapons?

Two facts explain the losses. 1. More Civil War soldiers died from disease than from wounds because of lack of medical knowledge. 2. Soldiers died from wounds that would not be fatal to soldiers in later wars.

Deaths began in the training camps before soldiers saw any combat. Men who worked on farms made up nearly half of the Union army and an even higher percent of the Confederate army. Since they were used to hard physical work, Army planners expected them to be healthier than city boys and were surprised that they became sick more often. They had spent their lives in small, isolated communities where they were exposed to few contagious diseases. In the army camps they were exposed to measle, mumps, influenza and tuberculosis.

In the early months of the war, measles swept through many training camps. In some Confederate camps in Northern Virginia “measles proved so fatal in camp that companies, battalions and whole regiments had to be disbanded for a time and the men sent home.”

Smallpox was even more devastating although vaccination against smallpox had been done in this country since the 1700s. Children in many cities had been vaccinated but it was rarely done in rural areas of either the North or South. Records of the Union medical department show nearly 19,000 Union soldiers developed smallpox and 7,000 died.

Pneumonia and tuberculosis took a heavy toll. There was no effective treatment for either and doctors, who were not aware of how TB was transmitted, did not isolate patients. In the Union army, pneumonia resulted in 20,000 deaths and tuberculosis in 6,500. Medical historians believe mortality was similar in Southern troops.

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