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The Enemy among Us: Venereal Disease among Union Soldiers in the Far West, 1861-1865
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THE ENEMY AMONG US: VENEREAL DISEASE AMONG UNION SOLDIERS IN THE FAR WEST, 1861-1865 Lawrence R. Murphy THE EFFECT of nonmilitary factors on the performance of soldiers has seldom received adequate attention by investigators who emphasize leadership, strategy, and tactics to expain victories or defeats. Equally rare are discussions of sexual activity among troops or of the sexually transmitted diseases which often result from it.1 This article addresses these deficiencies by examining the prevalence of venereal diseases among Union troops in the Far West during the Civil War, The extremely high incidence revealed may account in part for the limited ability of those soldiers to defend the region against Confederates and hostile Indians. That venereal disease was widespread during the Civil War should not be surprising. Hundreds of thousands of young men, most at or near the peak of their sexual drive, were inducted into the Union and Confederate armies. In addition to performing their military duties, substantial numbers doubtless lost their virginity during the war. "The boys have always followed the flag, and the girls have always followed the boys," reports one historian. "Of this the Civil War was a textbook picture." "Freed of home constraints and facing an uncertain future," explains Bell Wiley, "such men, inexperienced as they were in the ways of the world, often felt bound to taste the sweets of sin." Catering to such inclinations, prostitutes congregated near most permanent posts; Cincinnati, Chicago, Washington, Nashville, and Memphis became famous for their numerous 1 A revealing exception, which might well be replicated for most wars, is Magnus Hirschfeld, The Sexual History of the [First] World War (New York: Cadillac Publishing Co., Inc., 1946). The first scholarly American study is Allan M. Brandt, No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985). Civil War History, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, ©1985 by The Kent State University Press 258CIVIL WAR HISTORY bawdy houses. Legions of camp followers, frequently doubling as laundresses , accompanied major troop movements.2 Because public discussion of sex was rare in Victorian America, few historical records describe soldier's sexual encounters.3 Evidence of promiscuity accumulated, however, because large numbers of men contracted sexually transmitted diseases. Whenever symptoms became sufficiently apparent or painful, soldiers sought treatment from post surgeons who dutifully recorded the number of cases of syphilis, gonorrhea, and orchitis. Most Confederate records were lost, but monthly statistical reports from every unit in the Union army preserved a substantial but largely neglected record.4 Afterward the surgeon general's office compiled a comprehensive medical and surgical history of the war. In addition to describing in clinical detail the injuries suffered by soldiers in the line of duty, its six volumes document on a monthly basis treatments for a great many ailments, including venereal diseases. These statistics reveal the extent of sexually transmitted disease among Union soldiers.5 STATISTICS Among Northern forces as a whole, the incidence of venereal disease seldom reached serious proportions (see tables 1-4 following article for statistics) . During most months between two and four men in every thousand sought treatment for syphilis; a slightly larger number contracted gonorrhea. Orchitis (inflamation of the testes) was always rarer; only once did the total annual rate of infection exceed 9 percent. In all, 73,382 cases of syphilis and 109,397 cases of gonorrhea and orchitis were treated in an army numbering about six hundred thousand men. The average yearly rate of eighty-two cases per thousand roughly paralleled that 2 Stewart Brooks, Civil War Medicine (Springfield, 111.: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, 1966), 120-21; Bell I. Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1952), 26, 257-60; Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb (Indianapolis: The BobbsMerrill Company, 1943), 51-55, Broader studies of attitudes toward sexuality in Victorian America are G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: MaleAttitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), and John S. Haller, Jr., and Robin M, Haller, The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1974), 3 Wiley, Johnny Reb, 50-51; and...