Death on the Wing in the Summer of ’64

Let’s face it, this summer’s weather has been a godsend for mosquitoes! Over a foot of rain in June, combined with record heat in July, has been a recipe for disaster, at least comfort-wise. As summer wore on the now familiar news reports of mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus or the even more dangerous Eastern Equine Encephalitis (“Triple E”) have become more commonplace. I believe state authorities even closed a portion of a popular state forest recently because of the threat of this latter disease.

In any event mosquitoes are a fact of life in many parts of the U. S., including Connecticut. I was reminded of this reality this week when I went walking near my home, dodging the conveyor belt of showers and thunderstorms that was Labor Day Weekend 2013. As I swatted away (there’s nothing like a little sweet perspiration to attract the pests) and considered how we deal with insects and the hazards they can present I thought back to the experience of Connecticut soldiers fighting in the south during the Civil War. Particularly for those troops stationed in the coastal regions of the Confederacy mosquitoes were more than a constant nuisance. In many areas malaria, yellow fever and other insect-borne ills were so prevalent as to impact the ability of troops on either side to fight effectively.

The CHS collection has a fascinating group of medical records kept by the surgeon of the Fifteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment while the unit was stationed in New Bern, North Carolina in 1864. Now, today New Bern is a delightful coastal river town popular among tourists, boaters and retirees. I remember visiting the town two summers ago and thinking what a great place it was. But in the summer and fall of 1864 New Bern was the epicenter of a yellow fever epidemic that made life not just miserable but clearly dangerous, no matter which side you were on.

This detail of the regiment’s “Report of Sick and Wounded” for October 1864 tells the story of the fever. The “Remittent” and various “intermittent” fevers listed refer to related fever symptoms that appear at different intervals, suggesting that perhaps malaria was also present. CHS MS 92085

This detail of the regiment’s “Report of Sick and Wounded” for October 1864 tells the story of the fever. The “Remittent” and various “intermittent” fevers listed refer to related fever symptoms that appear at different intervals, suggesting that perhaps malaria was also present. CHS MS 92085

Like other medical officers Major Hubert Holcombe of Branford, surgeon of the Fifteenth, filed monthly medical reports with the Surgeon General’s Office in Washington, and these reports tell a story of unremitting illness that ultimately cost the Fifteenth more men than combat. Over the course of the outbreak (August to November 1864), hundreds of soldiers (more than half the unit) were stricken with the hemorrhagic fever, and more than seventy died (amounting to more than half of the regiment’s total deaths by illness for the entire war). Holcombe was the only military surgeon in New Bern who had had any experience with yellow fever and he was ordered to direct efforts to combat the disease in the town, even after many of New Bern’s inhabitants had fled. Among the tactics used was a crude form of fumigation using smoky fires! Ultimately it was a killing frost (soon followed by snow!) that halted the epidemic, but by then the damage had been done, the deaths quickly tallied, the victims hastily buried.

Amid the current debate over climate change, some medical researchers are worrying that warmer temperatures might signal an increase in tropical diseases in areas not normally affected by them. Only time will tell, of course, but for the men of the Fifteenth such an experience was all too real.

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