Kathryn Shively Meier: A Civil War Soldier Beats the Odds on the Virginia Peninsula

Nature's Civil WarToday we welcome a guest post from Kathryn Shively Meier, author of Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia. In the Shenandoah Valley and Peninsula Campaigns of 1862, Union and Confederate soldiers faced unfamiliar and harsh environmental conditions—strange terrain, tainted water, swarms of flies and mosquitoes, interminable rain and snow storms, and oppressive heat—which contributed to escalating disease and diminished morale. Using soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs, plus a wealth of additional personal accounts, medical sources, newspapers, and government documents, Meier reveals how these soldiers strove to maintain their physical and mental health by combating their deadliest enemy—nature.

In today’s post, Meier describes the struggle of Lt. Charles B. Haydon as he wards off disease during the early years of the Civil War.


Stationed on the Virginia Peninsula in March 1862, Lt. Charles B. Haydon of the 2nd Michigan Infantry lamented the death of his brigade’s signal officer from brain fever: “No one need shun death on the battlefield when such as he so young & full of strength & hope fall by disease.” He spoke not only from grief at losing a friend, but also from personal trepidation.

Haydon himself was suffering from a severe cold, which rendered him “so hoarse I can scarce speak a loud word.” He could hardly guess what his body had in store for the coming week: “My bowels are turned upside down, the contents are running out double quick.” Nevertheless, Haydon avoided sick call, during which the regimental surgeon might have ordered him to the hospital—an alien, remote site of care, almost universally despised by soldiers, who as civilians had been accustomed to home care from family members. When Haydon finally consulted the surgeon as to his condition, he received medicine—likely mercury- or opium-based—that only made him worse; he proceeded to vomit “no less than eleven times to day.”

Haydon’s experience was hardly unique that spring. From the summer of 1861 to the spring of 1862, each Confederate or Union soldier was sick an average of three times. It was also the norm for soldiers to shun official army medical care, as they found the medicines loathsome and dreaded being separated from their regiments, often familiar faces from back home. Though contemporary physicians were still caught up in such theories of disease causation as the four humors (the conception that illness occurred when the four main bodily fluids were in need of recalibration), laypeople preferred environmental explanations for sickness that could be confirmed by observation and personal experience.

Haydon, for instance, wrote of the soldier experience with disease, “This lying on the ground all the time is similar in its effect & the diseases it produces to those caused by moving into a new country.” Not only did he believe a sudden transition to a new environment instigated illness, but so did consuming putrid water: “the water is very bad. It is all stagnant & covered with green scum.” Combat and mobilization associated with the war also produced unique environmental threats to human health. “When we first came here a great number of cattle, sheep, hogs &c were killed all about the woods & fields, the offal of which with dead mules & horses as well as the necessary accumulations of filth abt large camps all combine to render the air unwholesome.” This in combination with “the low marshy nature of the ground, the heavy rains & hot sultry days” were certain to produce crippling sickness in the ranks, to Haydon’s reasoning.

Despite the circumstances, Haydon proved an active advocate for his own health, seeking out clean water, “We now have three good wells which supply an abundance of excellent water adding greatly to our health & comfort,” and even keeping “a paper of quinine in my pocket & every m’g take a little on the point of my knife. It keeps off fevers.” As a result, Haydon avoided serious illness for the entire Peninsula campaign, during which the Confederate and Federal armies suffered at times from a 40% illness rate.

By war’s end, two-thirds of soldier mortalities would be from disease rather than combat. Those soldiers who, like Haydon, managed their own health by adapting to the environment of war had a better chance of surviving the ordeal of soldiering than did those who passively suffered.

For more on Charles B. Haydon, see For Country, Cause & Leader: The Civil War Journal of Charles B. Haydon, ed. Stephen W. Sears (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993).

Kathryn Shively Meier is assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her bookNature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginiais available now. Read her previous guest post, “Civil War Soldier Trauma in Unexpected Places.”