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Soldiers didn’t have hand sanitizer in the Civil War

Ned Jilton II • Mar 18, 2020 at 9:15 PM

All the talk about the coronavirus and the closing of schools, businesses and sporting events reminded me of sickness passing through a Civil War camp, especially in the early years of the war.

After volunteers gathered in Knoxville to form regiments for the Provisional Army of Tennessee in 1861, it didn’t take long for disease to tear through the camps. City dwellers who had been exposed to various illnesses in their youth fared better than the country boys who grew up isolated on their farms.

The newly commissioned 19th Tennessee suffered seven deaths in Knoxville. Men who died before they ever fought in battle or heard a shot fired in anger. Among them were James D. Burson and William Bailey from Washington County and Thomas McLain from Hawkins County.

Leaving Knoxville, the 19th Tennessee ended up in the Cumberland Gap area. It was here the men had to deal with exposure to the elements and bad water, which again sent waves of sickness through the camps.

Capt. Carrick Heiskell from Rogersville, (who would go on to become a colonel) recalled how one trip for supplies resulted in illness among the men.

“The scarcity of salt was so great that the 19th Tennessee, with a great train of wagons, was sent from Cumberland Ford to Goose Creek Salt Works for a supply.” He said. “On this expedition the rain poured upon us with such fury, that it was with great difficulty we made our fires at nights. And when these were made, without tents, we stood around them through the night, wet through and through, to march next day through swollen streams and roads shoe-mouth deep in mud.”

Following the expedition, Heiskell reported, “Measles, diarrhea and all the diseases camp life is heir to, seized upon us. The hospital fills and roll-call shows many absentees.”

Eventually the body’s immune system adapts to its environment. This is true for the men of the 19th Tennessee, who wouldn’t see another serious wave of sickness roll through the camps until they left the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky for the swamps of Mississippi and Louisiana.

After the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, the 19th Tennessee eventually arrived in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The men were impressed with the beauty of the place. “Her several hills were covered with beautiful residences, with large yards full of flowers and shrubbery, and many gardens,” recalled regimental musician William Worsham.

But they didn’t camp in the city, as Worsham recalled. “Our encampment was out from the city about two miles. Our water supply for the first few days was from an old pond, full of green moss and wiggletails, and we had to filter the water we used.”

In the following weeks, illness replaced beauty for the men of the 19th Tennessee.

“Our stay in Vicksburg was, for us, romantic and full of thrilling events, though some of them were of too shaky a nature to be pleasant,” said Worsham. “Towards the close of our stay here nearly all the men contracted chills, which constituted the shaking part of our experience. The weather was very hot and sultry. Dr. Montgomery, of Mississippi, assisted our surgeon, Dr. Delaney, and had charge of the chill department.”

Capt. Heiskell recalled, “We stayed for weeks at Vicksburg plagued by mosquitoes, chills and fevers and shells from the Federal gunboats. How our ranks were decimated. To see that magnificent body of high spirited young men, dwindle to a tithe of its former number, and those on duty mere shadow of their former selves. Oh! It was pitiful. But when the order came to go to Baton Rouge the regiment was ready. Sick as it was.”

Worsham recalled how the sick regiment still distinguished itself in the Battle of Baton Rouge in Louisiana, and especially remembered Lt. William Etter, Company K, from Mooresburg in Hawkins County.

“The Old 19th Tennessee, while she could not boast of her numbers engaged, could boast of grit and nerve, for many of our regiment were barely able to walk. Lt. Etter fought through this battle with a chill on him, shaking so he could hardly go, and following this ague was a high fever and intense thirst, yet through the heat of the day and the torture of this chill and fever he never left the ranks. All of the sick of the regiment who remained in camp at Vicksburg had the nerve and would have gone into this fight, but did not have the physical strength. Many who did go, ought to have remained in camp.”

The men of the 19th Tennessee would continue to fight on in the war with sickness being joined by infected wounds, amputated limbs and dead bodies as some of the horrors that soldiers must face before the war ended and they could go home.

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