Saturday, April 22, 2023

Which Is More Frightening? The Disease Or The Doctor?

    So how skilled were the doctors treating sick soldiers early in the war?  Here is an interesting evaluation by Garret W Moore, a soldier in the 25th IL. Infantry

Rolla, Missouri
January 5, 1862

My old friend Achley,
    I just received your most kind and welcome letter which I read with great pleasure. I was truly glad to hear from you. I wish you could be in camp with me awhile. I think we could have a good time although you seem to think that we have a pretty hard time. Well, it is partly true, but our berth is not as hard as you think it is. We have pretty good winter quarters and we drill two hours a day and the balance of the time we play poker and euchre and put the time in pretty well and we have plenty to eat—such as it is.
    Perhaps you would like to know what we do here to eat. Well, we have plenty of fresh beef and flour and crackers and light bread and beans, rice, coffee, sugar, salt, vinegar, side meat shoulders and sometimes we get hams. We can buy eggs at twenty cents per dozen, butter 25 per pound, chickens 20 cents apiece, rot gut whiskey at one dollar per pint which is good enough for soldiers.
    It is true [that] on a march, it is pretty hard on some of the boys but I have stood it pretty well until the 28th of December when I was taken sick with the intermittent fever and I was most down sick with the fever for five days and I got over that. Then I was taken with the m____ diarrhea and the doctor gave me turpentine.  I took a half pint of turpentine and I got so sick and weak that I could not hardly stand up so the Dr. wanted me to go to the hospital but I told him that I preferred staying in camp. Then I told him that his medicine was not doing me any good and he told me that he could not do me any good but he advised me to take turpentine so I made up my mind that he was a damned fool and I would not take any more of his medicine. Then I told him that the medicine that I had been taking would kill nine out of every ten men that took it so he thought I was a damn fool. He told some of the boys that I would die before one month. He told me I had better go to the hospital. I told him that I would not go to the hospital. Then the doctor left and I have not seen him since but I am not dead nor I am not a going to die for I am getting well as fast as a man can. I have been most down sick for twenty days but if the Lord is willing and no preventing Providence, I will be the best man in camp in one month. Our doctors hain’t worth a damn. There is a great deal of sickness in camp but I think the health in camp is better than it has been for the past two months.
    We are under marching orders but I think that we will spend the winter here. There is four hundred men in this regiment that is fit for duty and that is all that can be got out on drill out of one thousand. no more on this subject now.
    You said that you and Jack tried to get on a spree on New Years and Christmas and could not make it go off. Well, if I had of been there, we would of had some fun or I would of raised hell with the preachers. I would like to be at home awhile to see you and Jack and have some fun but I would not quit the service if I could, If you and Jack were with me, I would rather be here than at home for we have lots of fun. I think you and Jack had better come and go with us. We will have some fun when we get after them damned rebels.
    Well, Jack, I have been looking for a letter from you for a long time but it has all been in vain and in your letter you offer an excuse for not writing to me sooner and oftener. Well, your excuse is a very poor one. You said that you was a poor hand to write. You write very well if you would think so. Now I am a poor hand to write but I can write so you can make it out. So can you, and I would be glad to receive a letter from you every week if I could. Now, Ach, you can spend one hour every week writing to me. It always does a soldier good to hear from his friends—at least it does me.
With these few remarks, I will close hoping to hear from you soon. Give my love and well wishes to all my friends, to Jack [ ] and by the grace of God you must keep a share of my well wishes for yourself. No more at present. Your ever affectionate friend, — G. W. Moore
— to J. A. Smith

[Letter transcription above and biographical information below is from Will Griffing in Billy Yank and Jonny Reb Letters website]
    The letter was written by Pvt. Garret Moore (1838-1865) of Co. C, 25th Illinois Infantry. Garret was the orphaned son of Garret Moore (18xx-1838) and Catherine Bailey (18xx-Bef1850) of Champaign county, Illinois. He had some older siblings but he was raised by others. In the 1850 US Census he was enumerated in the household of the Alexander Argo family. In the 1860 US Census, he was enumerated in the household of the James Swearingen family.
    Garret enlisted on 4 August 1861 at Homer, Illinois, and was with his regiment in Rolla, Missouri, from mid-November 1861 until early February 1862 when they embarked on the campaign that would eventually lead to their first engagement—the Battle of Pea Ridge in northern Arkansas. Garret was seriously wounded at Kennesaw Mountain on 23 June 1864 and died of his wounds a week later at Chattanooga, Tennessee. His muster records indicate he stood 5′ 9″ tall, with brown hair and hazel eyes.

    Was Pvt. Moore justified in questioning the doctor’s medical advice?  Who would not want to drink turpentine?  
    An informative article on the medical use of turpentine is found in Oil of Turpentine: Sheet Anchor of 19th Century Therapeutics by Vincent Cirillo, Medical History Society of New Jersey 2021:
    “Oil of turpentine is an essential oil extracted and distilled from the gum resin of several species of pine trees. It was used by laypeople for relief from blisters, burns, corns, lumbago, sciatica, sore gums, abscessed teeth and insect bites. Physicians, on the other hand, employed oil of turpentine to treat some of the major diseases of the nineteenth century. It was an effective, orally administered therapeutic agent against intestinal disorders such as typhoid fever and worms (esp. tapeworms), and somewhat effective topically against hospital gangrene, and myiasis [infection in the body by maggots].” (p.2)
    “Typhoid fever, endemic in 19th–century America, was a major killer of U.S. soldiers during the Civil War (1861-1865) . . . It is a contagious disease characterized by prolonged fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain, skin rash (rose-colored spots), prostration and, toward the end, delirium.” (p.5)
Unsanitary conditions mixing with contaminated flies easily allowed the spread of typhoid from the latrines to mess halls and hospital wards.
    Cirillo cites Charles Johnson (1843-1928), a hospital steward with the 130th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, in his Civil War memoir Muskets and Medicine (published in 1917): “In that era most medical men regarded turpentine as little short of a sheet-anchor in the treatment of typhoid.... It was a standard remedy in our regimental hospital.”  “Sheet anchor” is an old nautical term for a large spare anchor used only in emergency to save the sailing ship.  The term came to describe something or someone viewed as ‘very dependable and relied upon as a last resort in a dangerous situation.’  So, in this context, turpentine oil was viewed as the last best medical hope to deal with the dangerous disease of typhoid.
    Cirillo’s article has a lot of additional details both positive and negative about the use of turpentine oil during the Civil War by both Northern and Southern medical personal. In a time of limited medical medicinal resources, it was viewed as a “good option” to combat certain deadly diseases.  Turpentine oil was part of the standard medical supplies issued during the Civil War.  Its side effects were not well understood at that time, but in the face of death “use what you have.”

    Clearly Private Moore does not have a high opinion of the medical advice he is getting.  You have to give him credit for following the medical instructions at first.  He drank a half pint of turpentine – that’s 8 ounces (one cup) of it – a lot more than I would want to drink.  Then because of his reaction to the “prescribed drug” he chose to go a different route.  His refusal about going to the hospital is not unusual.  Soldiers often refused to go to the hospital unless in dire need because the treatments there were often not positive in results.  From Moore’s letter we see that he is recovering.  Possibly Moore’s drinking of the turpentine did help him if he had a touch of typhoid even though he only drank it once.  Evidently his body was strong enough to recover from whatever he was dealing with.

    Typhoid fever cuts deep into General Sherman’s heart -- an example of its dangerous speed in cutting short a life.  Peter Cozzens shares this example of a death from typhoid fever in his book The Shipwreck of Their Hopes – The Battles for Chattanooga (1994) pp.113f:
    “Grant’s complete confidence in Sherman was obvious for all to see.  Yet his friend was not himself.  His soul ached from a deep personal tragedy that had shattered his façade of gritty manhood.  In late September [1863], after learning that he was to march his army to Rosecran’s succor, Sherman had hastily packed his family aboard a streamer at Vicksburg bound for Ohio; he would accompany them as far as Memphis.  As the boat prepared to cast off, Sherman noticed that his son, ten-year-old Willie, was missing.  The general had supposed Willie to be with his wife, Ellen; she assumed he was with the general.  An officer of the Thirteenth United States Infantry, which had given Willie a sergeant’s uniform and adopted him as one of its own, disembarked to look for him.  A few minutes later he returned, leading the young boy who, all smiles, was carrying a small double-barreled shotgun with the pride of a soldier about to sail off on a grand adventure.
    As the steamer puffed languidly up the hot, malarial river, Sherman passed the time pointing out to his family old campsites along the bank that his troops had occupied during the Vicksburg campaign.  Glancing at Willie, he noticed that the boy’s face looked strangely pallid.  Ellen hurried the child off to bed and army surgeons were summoned.  Their diagnosis: a life-threatening case of typhoid fever.
Willed died twenty-four hours after the boat docked at Memphis.  It was the most painful emotional blow of Sherman’s life.  His marriage had long been strained, he and Ellen had stayed together largely for the sake of their children.  And of all their children, Willie was the general’s favorite.  He was ‘that child on whose future I based all the ambition I ever had,’ To Halleck, Sherman wired: ‘His loss is more to me than words can express.’”
    This short glimpse into Sherman’s family loss does show why the treatment of the disease was a serious concern for Civil War doctors.  In desperate situations you use whatever you have as a sheet anchor to stop it.  Maybe it stops the shipwreck or maybe you still get swamped and drown, but it’s worth a try.

    Don’t overlook his brief descriptions of camp life and food.  He lists a nice variety of rations, as well as options available for purchase.  This variety is likely because they are in encampment and not on the march.  When looking at the 20 cents per dozen eggs, remember his pay for the month was $13.00.  Camp life seems a bit relaxed, with creativity providing variety, but again this is during winter encampment.

Children’s Projects
1)  Explore the tension between medicines can be helpful yet have negative side effects.  Cirillo makes this observation [p.3]: “Not unlike today’s patients, their nineteenth-century counterparts expected to be prescribed medicine when they presented with an illness. A physician could not simply genuflect before the precept vis medicatrix naturae (the healing power of nature) and do nothing. He had to be a man of action; in short, a therapeutic interventionist.”

2) Explore why turpentine oil became tagged as a “sheet anchor.”  It was helpful in combating certain deadly disease like typhoid, even though its negative effects could do damage.  Then explore the broader concept of “idiom” (words grouped together to convey meaning that the individual words don’t convey).  I grew up hearing and saying “take the whole shebang” (= take it all) but didn’t know its Civil War background was from one soldier taking all for himself the poor quality shelter of a half tent or hut to the detriment of his comrade who also needed shelter in tough circumstances.   You might explore other idioms like “the whole nine yards” which has a WWII background.

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