- The Stockman's War:Hog Cholera and the Fight for the Open Range in Reconstruction-Era Alabama
The disease first appeared in Marion County during the autumn of 1860. According to local farmers, hogs in the area looking "well and fat" suddenly became drowsy and inactive, refusing to eat or drink. Their backs arched, their tails and ears drooped, and seizures gripped their bodies every few hours. Sick hogs sought the corners of the fattening pens during these violent episodes, their muscles convulsing so rapidly the animals appeared to be shivering. Then the vomiting began.1 Infected pigs might stagger aimlessly among their herds for a few more days, increasingly emaciated, but eventually they only lay on the ground, grunting weakly. Some hogs survived, but most did not. Farmers in the county could not pinpoint the disease's mode of introduction, or how it spread, but almost every hog-raiser suffered losses in that initial outbreak. From Marion and other areas in northern Alabama, the infection quickly progressed across the state. In 1863, Cullman County reported cases of a similar contagion, and several epidemics occurred along the western edges of the state. By the end of the war, the mysterious illness had allegedly wiped out two–thirds of the swine around Montgomery. While some planters feared for their ability to sustain agricultural operations due to a sudden lack of meat rations for their slaves, other farmers [End Page 126] offered the bitter consolation that at least there was little stock left for approaching Yankees to steal.2
The livestock disease that killed droves of hogs in Civil War–era Alabama was "hog cholera." Now referred to as "classical swine fever," hog cholera is caused by an RNA virus of the family Flaviviridae and is characterized as a highly contagious hemorrhagic fever. It is pantropic, meaning it affects many different types of tissues at once, including the skin, lungs, kidneys, larynx, intestines, and lymph nodes of infected animals. The incubation period of the virus ranges from a few days to two or three weeks depending on the age and condition of the animal, but once contracted, the mortality rate often reaches seventy percent. If a hog survives, lifelong immunity is conferred, although seldom do the pigs return to full health.3 Hog cholera first appeared in the United States in the Ohio Valley in the 1830s, and because of the wide range of symptoms associated with the disease and the secondary infections it created, farmers frequently confused the virus with a variety of ailments such as anthrax, tuberculosis, pneumonia, swine plague, and lung worms.4
Before the Civil War, however, hog cholera was not generally known in most parts of the southeastern United States. There were scattered [End Page 127] reports of outbreaks in the border states of Kentucky and Tennessee, but the lower and coastal South remained relatively untouched until the 1860s.5 The devastation wrought by hog cholera in Alabama's herds was not an isolated incident but part of a region-wide epizootic during the Civil War spread by infected herds in army supply trains and depots. In fact, the epidemic so drastically reduced the ability of farmers to remain self-sufficient in their food production that one historian has argued hog cholera hurt the Confederacy more than all other diseases experienced by human and animal alike.6 During each year of the war, states across the South reported hundreds of thousands of swine dying from hog cholera. In November 1863, Major P.W. White of the Office of the Chief Commissary reported that the ravages of hog cholera meant the Confederacy's vital supply of bacon—on the verge of "exhaustion"—would not be replenished.7
The assertion that disease had serious implications for questions of logistics and supply during the Civil War will surprise few scholars of that conflict. Military historians have long acknowledged the role played by non-human forces such as weather, terrain, and disease in the outcomes of military campaigns. In recent years, a separate wave of scholarship from self-conscious environmental historians has documented the conflict's impacts on the southern landscape, as well as the often ironic...