Health Challenges in the 29th Connecticut
When confronted with the fact that the Civil War remains the bloodiest war in American history most think of the extraordinary degree of violence in that conflict’s combat. However, a larger portion of the war’s death toll was a result of disease rather than bullets. Statistics show that on average, roughly one in 14 men died from diseases. In the 29th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry alone, 177 of the approximately 1249 men (14.17%) who served in the regiment died of disease. (This compares with the 45 men [3.6%] who died from combat wounds over the course of their service.) The experience of the 29th Connecticut illuminates the hard truth that African American soldiers were essentially twice as likely to die of disease as were their white Union comrades.
In reviewing the pension records of soldiers from the 29th Connecticut, three diseases stand out for appearing with great frequency: dystenery, pneumonia, and malaria. Dysentery was one of the deadliest and most common diseases seen in the Civil War. It was caused by the poor quality of soldiers’ drinking water. On campaign, soldiers were often forced to drink from puddles, swamps, or contaminated rivers. Dysentery causes severe diarrhea which can lead to dehydration and death. Pneumonia, which is spread through respiratory droplets produced when someone coughs, sneezes or talks, causes fluid to build up in the lungs which prevents air exchange between the lungs and blood. The progression of this particular disease was rapid and soldiers often died of asphyxiation within a day of developing initial symptoms. Malaria, which is carried by mosquitoes and transmitted by bites, was common because of the humid climate found in the South. This created a perfect environment for the spread of this disease because mosquitoes thrive in areas of high humidity. When the 29th traveled to the Louisiana bayous or areas near the Texas/Mexico border following Lee’s surrender, they found themselves in areas particularly rife with malaria. These three diseases alone claimed many of the approximately 500,000 lives lost to illnesses in the Civil War.
Not all Civil War field hospitals were as well-organized as the one depicted here.
While some soldiers had access to medical attention, it was limited and often was not enough to save them. Even though diseases like pneumonia could be treated successfully in its early stages with drugs like quinine, ipecac, and opium, by the time the soldiers got attention, it was usually too late. The added factor of the soldiers being in the field, away from medical facilities and methods of treatments, also contributed to the high rate of death. This was especially true when it came to African American soldiers. Far more African American soldiers were dying of disease for many reasons. Jennifer Schussler, in a New York Times article entitled “Liberation as Death Sentence”, writes that “at least one quarter of the four million former slaves got sick or died between 1862 and 1870”. Though this statistic refers to both soldiers and non-soldiers, it is clear that while African American soldiers were fed more than they were as slaves, they did not receive equal treatment to white soldiers. This was manifested in the types of work - often back-breaking physical labor - they were often tasked with and the malarial infested environment to which they were often sent.
The 29th Connecticut spent many days building corduroy roads through malaria-infested swamps
This particular health risks absorbed by African American soldiers is seen in the experiences of the 29th Connecticut Regiment and these risks caused black soldiers to question the security of their freedom. They often felt that their lives were in danger and, as Margaret Humphrey’s writes in her book Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War, “there were [even] rumors that [the ships that brought them to the front were] really going to Cuba, [for their] officers [to] sell the black men as slaves." African American soldiers often did not have access to adequate clothing, shelter, and other resources. Black soldiers rarely had access to an adequate food supply or the nutrients they needed to stay healthy. This caused at least 128 black soldiers to die from scurvy in the summer and fall months of 1865. Scurvy, caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, was well known to 19th-century army doctors, who were also aware that it could have been prevented with a more balanced and reliable diet. It was common for white soldiers and physicians to blame these imbalances of white and black soldiers dying of disease on the inferior genetics of the black men, without considering the inequality of conditions. African American soldiers also received inadequate medical attention when they were ill, which resulted in a higher death rate compared to white people who were infected with the same diseases.
While most Civil War soldiers were twice as likely to die of disease as they were from combat, in the 29th Connecticut, illness took nearly four times more men. Possible causes for this lie in their diet, the type of work they were assigned, the locations in which they served, and the often-limited access to medical care they faced. Yet despite these conditions, the men of the 29th persisted in their service for months after the fighting ended at Appomattox.