Nothing gives you an appreciation for the modern world like a good case of some formerly fatal disease. In my case, it was pneumonia–specifically, mycoplasma pneumonia, which spread all through both of my lungs, and stole the whole month of August from me.
Of course, disease never comes and goes politely, taking careful consideration of your schedule. My pneumonia struck just as we were starting on this issue, and kept me out of the office until we were on deadline. By then, our assistant editor, Eric Ethier, was gone–he had decided to return to college for a master’s degree in history, and it was time to get to school. He had done everything he could to help us get the issue done, but, in the end, there was no escaping a really ugly deadline period.
Getting back to the “formerly fatal” bit, though, it occurred to me more than once during my illness that, without the industrial-strength antibiotics I was taking, I would have no defense against the pneumonia. I would just have to hope I could beat it somehow; if I couldn’t, there would have been a funeral.
That’s what happened to Stonewall Jackson. He did not die from the wound his troops accidentally inflicted on him. He did not die from infection arising after the amputation of his wounded arm. He died because, in his weakened condition, he caught pneumonia. His physician had no Biaxin or Tequin to give him; even penicillin would not be discovered until 1929.
Pneumonia wasn’t the first disease-related experience that made me appreciate how fortunate we are today, with the present state of medical science. Once, my entire family (with the blessed exception of our youngest daughter, who was still an infant) got hit with a violent retrovirus that attacked suddenly with not-to-be-mentioned stomach flu symptoms. Within an hour, neither my wife nor I could stand up, let alone care for our children. We had to call for help, and were taken to the emergency room for rehydration.
That horrifying experience made me understand, if only in a small way, what happened to the approximately 500,000 people who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. Whole families were found dead in their homes; babies were found dead on floors and tables–wherever they happened to be at the last moment their sick parents were able to care for them.
Why am I going on about such an unpleasant subject? I do have a reason. I think it is important for us history-lovers to understand as much as we can about the ordinary, day-to-day aspects of life in the past. And a crucial part of life in the Civil War era was the constant presence of fatal diseases that we easily prevent or recover from nowadays.
If you look through collections of photographs from the mid-1800s, you’re eventually bound to come across one of those heart-wrenching post-mortem photos of a sweet baby in the arms of his grieving mother, or a beautiful little child in her casket. Children died at a terribly high rate in the 19th century, as did mothers in childbirth. Death was a frequent visitor to nearly every household, and even young people knew what it was to grieve. Even before the shooting began in 1861, Americans were living “in the valley of the shadow of death.” What a pity that they added to their misery by fighting a civil war of unprecedented scale and violence, only to recoil in horror when they saw the first photographs of battlefield dead.
Jim Kushlan, Editor, Civil War Times
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