Death From Disease Followed the 15th New Hampshire Infantry All the Home
While thousands of Civil War soldiers were killed in action or died from wounds, about 2/3 of the total deaths in the war were due to disease. Dysentery, diphtheria, malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid put men on both sides on the sick list for lengthy periods of time, if they survived at all. Measles, mumps, and smallpox also took their tolls. Bacteria and viruses were unknown to medicine at that time, so the causes of the diseases were also unknown. As the war went on, links between poor sanitation and health began to be made, even if the reasons for those links were unknown, and that led to some improvement in the treatment of the sick. Infections of wounds also were common as the need for sterilization of surgical instruments was unknown and they were reused without cleaning while surgeons performed mass operations in the wake of battle.
While disease was prevalent in all theaters of operations, probably the worst place in terms of casualties caused by disease was in the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana and Mississippi. The 15th and 16th New Hampshire Infantry regiments both served in Louisiana in the Union Army’s 19th Corps during the Port Hudson Campaign. Both regiments were enlisted for nine month’s service from October 1862 to August 1863. The 16th New Hampshire did not have any battle deaths during its time in Louisiana, but lost five officers and 216 enlisted men to disease, out of an original strength of 914. Seventeen men who arrived in Concord, New Hampshire on August 14th when the regiment returned home died in a hospital there.
The 15th New Hampshire participated in the Federal assaults at Port Hudson on May 27th and June 14th, 1863, and lost 27 men killed or mortally wounded in combat. The regiment lost 134 more due to disease; many of these deaths occurred on the way back home to New Hampshire.
The 15th began boarding the steamboat City of Madison on July 25th to begin a journey up the Mississippi River to Cairo, Illinois; from there, the regiment took the train up to Chicago and then east to Concord. Five days earlier, the 15th’s regimental historian noted that “Every house in Port Hudson is a hospital, and many are sick without shelter, lying on the ground. One of the saddest cases of this nature was the death today of Orderly Sergeant [Thomas] Ames, Company H, who died of diphtheria, lying on the ground, and who in his last hours, was in such agony that he begged of his attendants to end his misery with his own revolver”.
At least three more died of disease before the regiment departed on the morning of July 26th. As the regimental historian recalled “one of the saddest of our sad deaths, was that of Lewis W. Sinclair, Company E, who was a sentinel on duty at the regimental line, and who, just as orders were received relieving him for the homeward trip, fell to the ground dead, and was buried then and there without ceremonies, just as the regiment moved away; and almost at the same moment Charlie Cramm, Company C, died at the regimental hospital.”
Several ill soldiers were left at hospitals along the way home, where some died; others died on the boat or train. Here are excerpts from the regimental historian’s account of the 15th’s trip home to New Hampshire:
July 27th Left [Natchez, Mississippi] at 12:30 o’clock, and just as the boat cast off her lines death claimed her first victim, and the lifeless body of Moses E. Eastman, Company H, was hastily borne to the shore and left there rolled in his blanket, to be buried by strangers. He was a mere boy, and died lying on the bare deck where hundreds trampled around him…at midnight, Benjamin F. Swain, Company D, a mere schoolboy, died of the fever…
July 28th Vicksburg, the Gibraltar of the great Rebellion, was reached at 5 o’clock in the morning, and the steamer lay here until 7 in the afternoon…Benjamin F. Swain was buried here on the shore opposite the city, and death seized another victim, the poor boy, George F. Young, Company I, who had been safely through all the battles of Port Hudson. He was rolled in his blanket and buried just behind the levee…The voyage was resumed at 7 o’clock….
July 29th Reached Lake Providence at 10:00 o’clock, and waited there two hours, when the shore was visited and purchases made of melons, peaches, apples, and bread…Here again, death claimed his victim, Harlan P. Gilman, Company A, died of the fever, and Horace A. Burley, Company H, soon after midnight on the morning of the thirtieth. The boat drew up to land in the morning, and Gilman and Burley were both buried there at Milliken’s Bend, on an island in the dense woods a little below the mouth of the Arkansas river…
July 31st The great reaper gathered in four today, John E. Tarbell, Company A, and James Sanborn, Company D, for whom coffins were procured at Helena [Arkansas], and they were buried there on the bank of the river. John Stewart, Company C, and William H. Johnson, Company K, died in the afternoon, as the boat was approaching the beautiful southern metropolis of Memphis, where she arrived at 7 o’clock in the evening, and left thirty of the sick, of whom nineteen died, and with Johnson made twenty, who lie there in the United States Military Cemetery…Although Johnson and Stewart both died on the “City of Madison,” Stewart is accounted as having died at Memphis. He dropped dead on the boat’s deck at 3 o’clock in the afternoon…
August 1st The boat left Memphis at 3 o’clock in the morning, and after proceeding six miles, the breaking down of her pump necessitated her mooring to the shore, which she did on the Arkansas side, and await there while the engineer made his way back to Memphis and returned with the necessary repairs…While waiting here death claimed another victim, Hiram S. Baker, Company C, who expired lying beside Colonel Blair on the deck of the steamer’s cabin. His remains were taken to the Tennessee shore and buried on a bluff under a large tree…
August 2nd Isaac N. Clough…Company K, John S. Whidden, Company G, and William T. Stevens, Company D, died at Memphis.August 3rd Cairo [Illinois] was reached at 4 o’clock in the morning…Two freight trains stood in waiting here…Five of the sick were left here…George A. Page, Company B, died at Cairo; Wentworth Willey, Company I, at Memphis; Henry N. Brown, Company K at Mound City [Illinois]; Henry Butterfield, Company E. and Gilbert J. Robie, Company F, at Memphis.
August 4th Absalom Ford, Company B, and John Bishop, Company C, died at Memphis.
August 5th Chicago was reached at 1 o’clock in the morning of the fifth, where some sought beds in hotels to pass the rest of the night. Changed to passenger cars, and left Chicago at 8 o’clock in the morning…Hyles Hackett, Company B, died at Memphis, and W. B. Taylor..of Company D…was left in hospital in Chicago, and died there this day. Josiah Swain, Company G, died at Mound City. John Marcott, Company F. at Memphis.
August 6th Left Toledo an hour and a half past midnight…arrived at Cleveland at 8; left at 9…Arrived at Erie, Pa., at 12, where a dinner was served to the regiment by the citizens, and wines and all kinds of delicacies to the sick and wounded. Buffalo was reached at 5, and there…a banquet was in waiting, said to have been provided by the city; a number of sick were left here. Left at 7 with the body of Jacob Willard, Company A–who died at Dunkirk, N.Y. aboard the train–lying on a railroad track, rolled in its blanket. Geo. T. Jackson, Company A, died at Mound City, Jonah Camp, Company B, at Memphis…and John C. Mason, Company G at Cleveland.
August 7th Cyrus Burbick, Company B, and Benj. F. Burnham, Company C, died at Chicago…The train reached Syracuse at 6 o’clock in the morning of the seventh…passed through Springfield,Mass, at 10 in the evening; Worcester at an hour or two past midnight of the morning of the eighth…and arrived at Concord at 8, in a rain storm… It is doubtful if any New Hampshire regiment, on its arrival from the seat of war, presented so sorry a plight as the Fifteenth…very many of the sick and wounded men, were merely breathing skeletons, unable to walk or even stand upon their feet without assistance… Captain [Thomas] Cogswell [of Company A], who was, when in health, a very large man, weighed now only one hundred six pounds, and his only brother, searching for him at the station on his arrival, did not recognize him. [Cogswell survived].
On the day of arrival, John Richardson of Company D, died at Concord, and on the ninth, David S. Huse, Company G, died at Mound City, Ill.; William Nudd, Company I, died at Exeter; Francis A.Oaks, Company C at Benton; and John W. Millen, Company C, at Bath. On the tenth, all who were able had gone home. There died this day Harlan P. Sanborn, Company H, at Sanbornton; William L. Stanton, Company K, at Buffalo; Walter G. Bracket, Company D, at Memphis; John C. Smith, Company E, at Hollis; Royal Boynton, Company A, at Lake Village; and Levere L. Duplessus, Company E, at New Orleans.
On the eleventh there died Thomas W. Merrill, Company A, at Concord; Joseph Brown, Company B, at Campton, John Clark, Company C, at Bath; and J. Burbank, Company E, at Memphis; and on the thirteenth, the day of the muster out–Dewit Clinton, Company A, at Gilford; John A. Powers and Andrew J. Roberts, Company C at Concord; John Hill, Company G at Buffalo; and John H. Roberts, Company I, at Concord. There were but few present at the muster out.
Although they had reached home, disease claimed several more men through the rest of the summer and into the fall of 1863. One of these was Rockwood. G. Merrill of Company B, who “Dropped dead just as he reached his own door” on August 25th; another was David L. Annis of Company E, who died on Christmas Day.With the state of medicine at that time, even those who survived illnesses during Civil War service often required a period of months or even years to fully recover, if they did at all. “Captain [William] Gordon [of Company F] was completely prostrated, and lay two weeks in bed at Concord before going home, and a full year passed before he could walk with assistance” the regimental historian recalled. [The regiment] “had withstood all the perils of the malarial regions of the Louisiana low lands, its fevers, and nameless climatic pestilences, in addition thereto borne the very brunt of the most exacting service, and in many respects the severest and most prolonged siege of the war”.
A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion by Frederick H. Dyer
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson
History of the Fifteenth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers 1862-1863 by Charles McGregor
Men of Granite: New Hampshire’s Soldiers in the Civil War by Duane E. Shaffer
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