Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the Civil War
by Andrew McIlwaine Bell, Louisiana State University Press, 2010, $29.95
“The American Civil War, like every war that preceded it and others that would follow, was a pestilential nightmare,” writes Andrew Bell in his scrupulously researched, energetically written epidemiological survey. “Mosquitoes were a major reason why.”
Disease posed a greater threat to soldiers on both sides than shell and shot. Two-thirds of all deaths during the war, in fact, resulted from pathological causes. Bell focuses on two maladies spread by certain mosquito species that infested the South. By concentrating on malaria and yellow fever, he argues convincingly that these two pestilences not only killed and sickened thousands of soldiers, they also affected the timing and outcome of key military operations and changed the lives of countless civilians residing far from the killing fields and disease-ridden camps of the armies.
Bell also provides a poignant commentary on the state of medical knowledge and services available to soldiers. Doctors often attacked both diseases with a variety of ultimately useless treatments that either killed or further weakened their patients.
Quinine was known to ameliorate the symptoms of malaria, and sufficient quantities of the drug were usually available to Union soldiers. “The Confederacy, on the other hand, experienced quinine shortages for most of the war,” and Bell concludes that “malarial fevers among Rebels went unchecked more often than not.”
Medical science knew neither cause nor antidote for yellow fever, the so-called “scourge of the South.” Bell writes that “public panics often followed the first sign of an outbreak,” and fatality rates during epidemics ranged between 15 and 50 percent. Those who survived an attack gained lifetime immunity from the disease, however.
Bell’s thorough research and engaging writing will make the interrelationship between microorganisms and military operations more apparent to a host of Civil War enthusiasts.
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.