Civil War History 50.2 (2004) 109-144
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"This Godforsaken Town":
Death and Disease at Helena, Arkansas, 1862 - 63
Rhonda M. Kohl
From December 1861 through July 1862, the Army of the Southwest boasted numerous successful campaigns in Missouri and Arkansas, including the Battle of Pea Ridge, Missouri. Union officials considered the Army of the Southwest a powerful and dynamic force able to capture and hold Arkansas for the Union cause. However, when supply considerations necessitated the army's occupation of Helena, Arkansas, in July 1862, the army became an ineffective force in fighting not only the Confederates but also the disease-ridden Helena environment. The rapid attrition by disease caused regiments to lose strength quickly. By September 1862 the army, as a fighting force, was worthless. Sickness did not abate over the three and a half years of Federal occupation as Helena became known as one of the most insalubrious locations in the Union. By January 1865 Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, once commander of the Union armies, even recommended the post's abandonment because of its unhealthiness and unimportance.1
Though it is widely accepted that disease caused more disability and death than wounds during the Civil War, few historians have examined this aspect of military history. Paul Steiner's Disease in the Civil War (1968) analyzed the influence of infectious diseases on selected military affairs including the Department of Arkansas, yet he neglected to take into account the effects disease treatments had on the health of armies.2 Both aspects were examined [End Page 109] for this study of the Army of the Southwest at Helena from July 1862 to January 1863, which focuses on the four main diseases that beset the soldiers: dysentery, malaria, typhoid, and typhus, in the context of modern-day medical knowledge. Nineteenth-century and modern medical knowledge and treatments are related to the experiences of the men who served at Helena, taking each of the four diseases in turn. The soldiers became unserviceable, and many died, because of the lack of understanding by medical authorities of the etiological cause of the disease, the relationship among sanitation, the environment and health, and the types of drugs used. Disease helps explain why the Army of the Southwest achieved little toward impeding the Confederate forces in Arkansas in 1862.
Medical records from one Helena hospital register (HHR) and the Indiana Sanitary Commission hospital register (ISCHR), army returns and reports from theOfficial Records, and medical data from Joseph K. Barnes's Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War indicate that the Army of the Southwest at Helena was devastated by epidemics of dysentery, typhoid, and malaria between July 1862 and January 1863. The hospital records provided information on the type and distribution of diseases among the soldiers and regiments at Helena. Rosters yielded information concerning the number of deaths by disease and disability discharges of each regiment.3 Diaries and letters from men stationed at Helena during this period provide a picture of the soldiers' and medical officers' utter hopelessness in the face of so much disease. The men blamed their officers for the unhealthiness of the camps, especially Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, who was accused of having more interest in cotton speculation than in the welfare of his troops. [End Page 110]
Until the acceptance of germ theory as the cause of disease, the theory and practice of medicine were based on the Hippocratic tenet that the four humors of the human body dictated disease: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. It was believed that a bodily poison caused nervous constriction of the small blood vessels, which disrupted the flow of blood and caused disease, especially fevers. Physicians attempted to maintain and regulate humoral balance and well-being through pharmaceuticals and physical manipulation of the humors through bleeding, purging, salivating, and perspiring.4
Civil War-era physicians believed that three things created bodily poisons: climatic extremes, diet, and living conditions. All three influences determined and modified the conditions—if not the causes—of the poison, but climate came...