Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War
Andrew McIlwaine Bell
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Of the 620,000 soldiers who perished during the American Civil War, the overwhelming majority died not from gunshot wounds or saber cuts, but from disease. And of the various maladies that plagued both armies, few were more pervasive than malaria -- a mosquito-borne illness that afflicted over 1.1 million soldiers serving in the Union army alone. Yellow fever, another disease transmitted by mosquitos, struck fear into the hearts of military planners who knew that "yellow jack" could wipe out an entire army in a matter of weeks. In this ground-breaking medical history, Andrew McIlwaine Bell explores the impact of these two terrifying mosquito-borne maladies on the major political and military events of the 1860s, revealing how deadly microorganisms carried by a tiny insect helped shape the course of the Civil War.
Soldiers on both sides frequently complained about the annoying pests that fed on their blood, buzzed in their ears, invaded their tents, and generally contributed to the misery of army life. Little did they suspect that the South's large mosquito population operated as a sort of mercenary force, a third army, one that could work for or against either side depending on the circumstances. Malaria and yellow fever not only sickened thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers but also affected the timing and success of certain key military operations. Some commanders took seriously the threat posed by the southern disease environment and planned accordingly; others reacted only after large numbers of their men had already fallen ill. African American soldiers were ordered into areas deemed unhealthy for whites, and Confederate quartermasters watched helplessly as yellow fever plagued important port cities, disrupting critical supply chains and creating public panics.
Bell also chronicles the effects of disease on the civilian population, describing how shortages of malarial medicine helped erode traditional gender roles by turning genteel southern women into smugglers. Southern urbanites learned the value of sanitation during the Union occupation only to endure the horror of new yellow fever outbreaks once it ended, and federal soldiers reintroduced malaria into non-immune northern areas after the war. Throughout his lively narrative, Bell reinterprets familiar Civil War battles and events from an epidemiological standpoint, providing a fascinating medical perspective on the war.
By focusing on two specific diseases rather than a broad array of Civil War medical topics, Bell offers a clear understanding of how environmental factors serve as agents of change in history. Indeed, with Mosquito Soldiers, he proves that the course of the Civil War would have been far different had mosquito-borne illness not been part of the South's landscape in the 1860s.
predominant disease at Vicksburg. The disorganization of the Union medical department in 1862 meant that most of the soldiers sent into Mississippi were undersupplied with quinine and ran out of the drug shortly after the campaign began. In at least one case, a request sent to headquarters for more of the antimalarial medicine was turned down on the grounds of “irregularity.” When even the army hospital ran low on quinine and patients began to suffer from “new attacks and relapses,” surgeons re-
the Carolinas for most of the war, the South was able to deploy forces rapidly to threatened points on the coast and keep its eastern armies supplied with goods smuggled in from Europe and the West Indies. In short, mosquitoes were helping the Confederacy retain 71 “ t h e l and o f f l ow e rs, m agn o l i a s, a n d c hi lls” control over its interior lines (a key component of the slaveholding nation’s defensive strategy) while simultaneously shielding its shorelines. In the fall of 1862
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Nineteenth Century. Richmond: Garrett & Massie, 1933. Block, W. T. “Yellow Fever Plagued Area during 1860s.” Beaumont Enterprise, August 7, 1999. Bollet, Alfred Jay. Civil War Medicine: Challenges and Triumphs. Tucson: Galen Press, 2002. ———. Plagues & Poxes: The Impact of Human History on Epidemic Disease. 2nd ed. New York: Demos, 2004. Boyd, Mark F. “An Historical Sketch of the Prevalence of Malaria in North America.” American Journal of Tropical Medicine 21 (March 1941): 223–44. Breeden, James
arrived and halted the epidemics in Charleston and Savannah, more than sixteen hundred people were dead.17 Yellow fever plagued the Gulf Coast of Texas as well. Epidemics 17 ae de s, a nop h e l e s, a n d th e sc o u rge s o f the so uth hit Galveston and Houston throughout the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s and periodically spread along the railroad lines to surrounding towns such as Cypress, Hempstead, and Montgomery. The suffering caused by these outbreaks was horrific. In 1839 Ashbel Smith was