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  • The Dress of the EnemyClothing and Disease in the Civil War Era
  • Sarah Jones Weicksel (bio)

As the United States was roiling in the wake of Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, American, Canadian, and Bermudian newspapers were simultaneously covering "The Yellow Fever Plot: The Preparations Made by a Rebel Doctor to Destroy the Masses."1 At the center of this sensational conspiracy involving Confederate physician Luke Blackburn were several trunks, imported from Bermuda in 1864 during a yellow fever epidemic, containing "divers large quantities of shirts, blouses, coats and other articles of clothing, infected with the virus of yellow fever and other deadly, poisonous and noxious substances, calculated and liable to produce said fever."2 The trunks, some of which were stored in Washington, D.C., were thought to be intended for distribution in several locations where Union soldiers were concentrated. A special valise was purportedly packed with infected finery—a gift for President Lincoln. Reports detailing the potential extent of the clothing's distribution ranged from the few trunks cited in witnesses' [End Page 133] official testimony to a quantity of goods said to be worth $100,000.3 Another account claimed that "other parties were engaged with [Blackburn] in infecting goods, amounting to one million dollars' worth," with not only yellow fever, but also smallpox.4

While the factual basis for these numbers was dubious and the headlines were quite sensational, citizens of the United States believed the "Rebel Infection Plot" to be part of a more "general conspiracy" of the Confederate States of America.5 That the clothing originated in Bermuda—a central base for Confederate blockade runners—would not have been lost upon many members of the northern public, and the Caribbean had long been considered a potential source of contagion that might infect the Slave South. Period understandings of transmission and broader fears about the stability of the nation, coupled with cloth's physical ability to carry and transmit disease, created a context in which it was possible to imagine infected clothing as a threat to not just individuals but the nation itself. The conspirators' plot was considered serious and horrifying because its success was actually conceivable.6

This article examines Civil War–era beliefs regarding the health problems that clothing posed and explores the connections among clothing, disease, and the nation at a moment in which physicians were still grappling with the mechanics of how disease spread and when the provision of appropriate clothing was critical to the health of armies and displaced civilians. Recent scholarship has detailed the Civil War's critical role in the development of surgical methods, understanding of disease, methods of dealing with mass casualties, and the rise of hospitals and nursing.7 Clothing, however, is usually referenced only briefly, with little mention of its critical role in the spread of, prevention [End Page 134] of, and recovery from, disease.8 Indeed, able-bodied and wounded soldiers, freedpeople, and prisoners of war needed proper clothing to protect them from the elements, and the demand for such garments spurred aid societies' efforts to sew, collect, and distribute them.

The challenges of supply and provisioning were not the only concerns related to clothing, however. The material objects themselves posed problems with which we must reckon. Material objects were not merely the abstract reflections or consequences of larger processes but, rather, actively shaped war and wartime society through their interplay with social expectations, cultural beliefs, and political circumstances. Clothing is typically regarded as an object that reflects something about its wearer; it is generally understood as an implement that a person uses in self-presentation. In this interpretation, all of the action remains with the person; clothing is a prop in a performance. To argue that clothing is also an "actant" is not to say the object's action is always a causal force. Nor is it, as Bruno Latour notes, an "empty claim that objects do things 'instead' of human actors."9 Rather, to argue that objects have the ability to act is to assert, as historian Leora Auslander does, that objects have effects in the world—communicative, emotive, expressive, performative, and, at times, violent and dangerous effects.10...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 133-150
Launched on MUSE
2017-05-02
Open Access
No
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