Dysentery & Diarrhea Banner

[Source: Atlas Editions; Civil War Cards]

Civil War conditions created a perfect environment for dysentery and diarrhea to thrive. Men lived crowded together; ate poor diets of fried meat, bread, and coffee; used the same pan to cook their meal that they used to wash up; and went to the latrine upstream from their camp. Bowel disorders were the most prevalent illnesses on both sides of the Civil War and they killed more men than battle. Dysentery and diarrhea, called "quickstep" by soldiers, and "alvine flux" by the doctors, with dysentery being distinguished by blood in the stool. Doctors knew neither how soldiers contracted the condition nor how the diseases should be treated.

The number of soldiers who died from loose bowels is staggering. According to Union records of 1,739,135 cases, 57,265 Yankee soldiers died of dysentery or diarrhea, compared with 44,238 men dying in battle. Sometimes regiments had three-quarters of their men stricken at one time. Usually there was one sick soldier for every four well ones except in July and August, when more suffered.

The Confederate Army of the Potomac, with some 50,000 men, reported 36,572 cases of bowel disorders in the first nine months of the war. At Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, one out of every 10 of the diarrhea and dysentery patients died. Andersonville Prison in Georgia sometimes had 130 men die daily from the disorders.

Treatments to open or close the bowels varied from home remedies of tea made from dogwood bark to outrageous prescriptions. One pamphlet advised, "Let your beard grow so as to protect the throat and lungs." Many doctors treated dysentery with opium, and diarrhea with "blue mass", which was a mixture of chalk and mercury. Other treatments included: strychnine, castor oil, laudanum, camphor, turpentine, calomel, lead acetate, silver nitrate, quinine, whiskey, ipecac, and even cauterization of the anal opening.


Excerpt from a handbook prepared for Union surgeons by the U.S. Sanitary Commission:

"Of the prevention of Dysentery in camps, &c.-This subject may be considered, 1, in relation to the means to be employed for preventing the occurrence of the disease; and 2, in relation to those which are adapted to lessen its malignity, and oppose its extension, where it has already broken out. The ample instructions furnished by the publications of this Commission in regard to the sanitary regulations of camps and hospitals, render it unnecessary to lengthen the present paper by any details upon either branch of the subject. It will be sufficient to remark that dysentery is most efficiently prevented by dryness and purity of the air; the absence of malarious and putrescent effluvia; warm clothing; the avoidance of the hot mid-day sun, and of chill by night air, or sleeping on the damp ground; by active exercise, to promote warmth, rather than by trusting to artificial heat, and therefore by games and sports, as well as by frequent drill; by camp fires, to dry the clothing in damp weather, and by stoves, to dry the tents, rather than to heat them. In summer, the men should be obliged to bathe frequently, and at all times to observe the most perfect personal cleanliness."