Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Sickliest Soldiers in the Army: The Vermont Brigade at Camp Griffin

Fall colors dot the landscape this time of year across Northern Virginia.  But feeling a little scratch in my throat, and hearing co-workers cough and sniffle, I am reminded that fall also brings colds and flu.  Our contemporary sickness, however, is nothing compared to what young soldiers experienced during the first autumn and winter of the Civil War.  The Union Army camps around Washington were breeding grounds for disease, which spread rapidly from one person to the next in unsanitary and crowded conditions. 

The Vermont Brigade suffered from a relatively high rate of illness during its stay at Camp Griffin near Lewsinville, Virginia from October 1861 to March 1862.  The outbreak of diseases became noticeable starting in November 1861, as typhoid and other fevers, measles, pneumonia, and diarrhea spread through Camp Griffin.  State authorities in Vermont soon became aware of the epidemic, and the governor dispatched Dr. Edward E. Phelps to investigate.  In December, he observed:
. . . of the men of the five regiments, numbering 4,939 on the ground, no less than 1,086, or about one-fourth, were excused from duty in consequence of sickness. Of these, 201 were sick in hospital, 245 sick in their tents, and 550 able to be up and about though unfit for duty. (Benedict 237.) 
Dr. Phelps considered that the rate of illness was possibly due to the fact that "the regiments had been too long stationary in their camps, on soil which had became saturated with noxious elements."  (Benedict 238.)

By January 1862, the Army of the Potomac's medical director, Charles S. Tripler, reported:
[T]he Vermont regiments in [Gen. W.T.H.] Brooks's brigade give us the largest ratio of sick, of all the troops in this army, and that ratio has not essentially varied for the last three months. They suffered in the first place from measles. Since then they have been and are the subjects of fevers, remittent and typhoid. (in Benedict 238-39.)
The reasons provided by doctors for this high ratio is laughable by 21st century standards.  Because food and clothing were allegedly adequate at the time, Tripler attributed the disease among the Vermonters to some ill-defined "nostalgic element" that affected them "unfavorably."  (in Benedict 239.)  The confidence of the Union Army's doctors in the Vermonters' constitution never rose very high.  In an 1863 report on conditions during his time as medical director, Tripler noted that "[t]he frequent alarms in some portions of our lines were considered by some of the medical officers as a cause of disease. This was particularly the case in front of some of the Vermont troops in Brooks' brigade."  (OR, 1:5, 83.)  So much for Yankee toughness.

Disease affected the various regiments of the Vermont Brigade differently.  Benedict's account of Vermont in the Civil War records that before the end of November 1861, the 6th Vermont had around one-third unfit for duty due to disease, with forty felled by sickness each day.  (Benedict 211.)  Tripler reported that in January 1862, "the Fifth Vermont, 1,000 strong, had 271 sick; the Fourth, 1,047 strong, had 244 sick; while the Second, 1,021 strong, had but 87, and the Third, 900 strong, had but 84."  (OR, 1:5, 92.) 

The exact cause of the variation in rates of disease within the same brigade is the subject of speculation.  The 4th Vermont, which suffered from a great proportion of sick, was encamped near a brook that received runoff from ground where the cavalry had kept about one thousand horses.  (Benedict 160-61.)  When the 4th Vermont moved to a better spot in December, the disease rate began to drop.  Benedict attributed the lower overall rate of illness in the 2nd Vermont to the "more healthful location" of its camp and the "excellent care taken of the men by its colonel and his medical staff."  (Benedict 100.) 

Hospital tents in the vicinity of Washington, DC (courtesy of Library of Congress)

The dreadful conditions in camp had a profound impact on the men.  They never quite knew whether they would be next to fall ill.  As one soldier of the 2nd Vermont remarked upon the appearance of smallpox, "I hope and pray that we shall not be visited by this awful disease." (in Zeller 52.)  And pray some of the men did.  The 6th Vermont, surrounded by the death and suffering associated with disease, held well-attended prayer meetings every evening.

The state and federal authorities took various steps to remedy the dire situation faced by the Vermont Brigade.  Tripler felt that removing the sick Vermonters from the view of their fellow soldiers would boost morale and lessen susceptibility to illness.  The medical director therefore sent convalescents to Philadelphia to free up room for the Vermont Brigade in the general hospitals around Washington.  Five additional surgeons were sent to the brigade, log cabins were built to replace hospital tents, and soldiers were supplied with adequate clothing.  Officers also worked to improve camp sanitation.  In all, these palliative measures helped to decrease the sick rate by the time the Vermonters moved out of Camp Griffin in March 1862. 

Aside from the OR, the following sources were helpful in compiling this post: George Grenville Benedict, Vermont in the Civil War, Vol. 1 (1886); C. Keith Wilbur, M.D., Civil War Medicine (1998); Paul G. Zeller, The Second Vermont Volunteer Infantry Regiment, 1861-1865 (2002).


kevhar72 said...

Great post! I have linked to your post on a blog post I have just written about disease in my great-great grandfather's regiment (the 36th Indiana). You can read my post at

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks! I just took a look at your post, and it was a very interesting account of a similar situation out West. I would encourage my readers to check it out. Thanks for sharing!