My Worst Fears Have Been More Than Realized" :
Yellow Fever Hits The Union
By Robert Macomber

Robert N. Macomber is a nationally recognized author who writes and lectures on maritime history. He has over thirty years of sea experience on both historic and modern vessels in various areas of the world. His first book "At The Edge Of Honor" has been nominated for the Michael Shaara Award for Best Civil War Fiction and the Patrick Smith Award for Best Florida Historical Fiction. The second book in the series, "Point Of Honor" has just been released.


 By late summer in 1864, the fighting between the Union and Confederate navies included the well publicized battles of Mobile and Cherbourg, where Farragut and Winslow scored their decisive victories and earned ever lasting fame. At this same time, down on the jungle coasts of Florida, the unsung East Gulf Blockading Squadron (EGBS) was tightening its iron grip on that long, and previously porous, route of supply to and from the heartland of the Confederacy. It was a guerrilla coastal/riverine war for the EGBS, and it was an example of a civil war at its worst.

Confederate guerrillas, blockade runners, and shore batteries were not the only foes the men of the EGBS faced in that inhospitable area of operations. Natural dangers abounded also --- from storms and uncharted reefs, to jungle creatures and debilitating heat and humidity. But the most effective and dreaded of the squadron's environmental enemies was the infamous scourge of the South --- Yellow Fever. And the late summer of 1864 would prove to everyone in the squadron a severe lesson in the lethality of that mysterious enemy.

Just the mere mention of the words "Yellow Fever" was enough to cause alarm, and subsequent panic, among people of even the strongest physical and mental powers. For by the time of the Civil War, Americans knew well what happened when the Yellow Jack, as it was known by sailors, arrived at a community. Many horrific examples of the disease's mass destruction had been provided during the previous half-century in the United States.

Visits to America, from "the Black Vomit"

Yellow fever was well known by many Americans by 1861 because so many of them had friends or relatives who had been stricken during the previous fifty years. All along the Gulf of Mexico, and the South and Middle Atlantic coasts, the fearful host appeared during summer seasons. The first half of the 19th century saw some of the worst epidemics in history, which were well reported upon by the newspapers and magazines of the day. Just as today, fear sold well and wide.

The first of the large scale massacres from "The Black Vomit", as the sailors of the Royal Navy called it from one of the symptoms, came in New Orleans in 1817, when two hundred seventy four people succumbed to the disease. In 1819, in the town of Natchez, Mississippi, the yellow fever was so deadly that the general population fled in a panic and only nine hundred and ten stayed behind to take their chances. Of those, two hundred and fifty died. Even New York had deaths from yellow fever that year, with forty three dying in agony. On the other side of the Atlantic, 1819 was just as deadly. Out of a population of 72,000 in Cadiz, Spain, 48,000 took the fever and 5,000 died.

The next decade continued the pestilence, with 1820 seeing 83 deaths out of 125 patients in Philadelphia. Baltimore lost 173 of its inhabitants. Throughout the 1830's and 1840's yellow fever ravaged the Caribbean, South American, and southern United States coastal areas---shutting down entire colonies or countries because of fear and quarantine.

As the new century progressed in time, so did the malevolent curse of yellow fever. The decade of the 1850's would prove to be the worst yet. In Rio de Janiero four hundred seventy died in 1851, one thousand nine hundred and forty three in 1852, and eight hundred fifty three in 1853. The curse came to America also in that year of 1853. The target was New Orleans.

New Orleans was to experience a terror the likes of which even that venerable city of the ages had not seen. When the word spread of the yellow fever's arrival , the city dwellers panicked and many left. Of the 125,000 that remained, twenty nine thousand were attacked by the horror of yellow fever and 8,101 died. Mobile was next, with 1,119 dying out of a population of 18,000.

It did not stop. Every summer there were new body counts from cities along the coasts. In 1855, it was the turn of Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia. By October the number of people living in those two neighboring cities had dropped from 27,000 to nine thousand. The initial exodus then turned into one of the worst panics for those left behind ever seen in the country, with entire blocks of homes being burned down in an effort to stop the death from spreading. It struck everyone, no matter the race, age, sex, or amount of wealth. Companies and governments ceased to function for lack of employees able to work. By the 28th of August, even the local newspaper had to stop reporting, since it was down to one editor and one compositor and there was no one else left to print the paper. The dead began to pile up in vacant houses where entire families lay decomposing in the heat. A shortage of coffins led to an appeal to the rest of the country for help. In the end, forty five percent of the remaining population, those who did not panic and leave, or could not leave, died the tormented death caused by yellow fever.

The nation was stunned by these annual depredations of its cities. The economic and social impacts were overwhelming. Fear was the predominant factor as each summer unfolded for millions of Americans, as communities waited to see if they would be next to experience the horrible sickness.

Prevention, Symptoms, and Treatments

Doctors were not immune to the panic. They did not wholly understand the disease, and they knew it. Scientific proof of its origin, its mode of transmittal, or a cure, was scanty and inaccurate. It was known that it occurred in the heat of the late summer, usually along coastal areas, and quite often those who were apparently the least susceptible were the young, persons who had already survived one attack, and African-Americans. It was said that they were "acclimated." Anecdotes and theories abounded as to the origin, resulting in many different attempts to combat the disease. Some of these attempts, particularly at prevention, were effective against the symptoms of yellow fever and other diseases, but other attempts were as deadly as the disease itself.

It was commonly thought that a good prevention was the improvement of sanitary conditions in the cities affected by the disease. Not only human sewage, but trash and animal waste was cleaned up and removed from the areas of habitation. Even the foul smelling mud of a harbor bottom exposed at low tide was sometimes considered as an origin of the disease and attempts made to remove the odor. All of these factors did result in an improvement of the air quality and a lessening of other diseases such as cholera and dysentery, but overall they did not directly impact the disease of yellow fever.

Another prevention technique was to fumigate and/or burn "infected areas" of a town or building or ship. Various combinations of noxious fumes were used, frequently with deadly ingredients, which were supposed to rid the air of the disease. Burning such concoctions as sulfides and copperas, smoking red hot bolts in tar, and spreading chloride of lime, were methods of "disinfecting" the areas where people had been stricken with yellow fever. Clothing of these people was generally burned, and the waste products of the patients were buried.

The treatment for a yellow fever victim mainly addressed the visible symptoms, which included the namesake jaundiced yellowish face, dangerously high fever, severe headaches, muscle aches, dehydration and fatigue, muscular pains, nausea and vomiting. The treatment of these symptoms included giving lots of water, cooling the victim, oral administration of Peruvian bark, calomel, sugar of lead, quinine, nitre, and tartarized antimony. In various areas different herbal and/or superstition remedies were given with diverse results upon the disease's manifestations.

Doctors who saw their patients continue to decline after four to five days then observed the most horrific symptoms: Violent vomiting of black fluid, bloody urine and gums, disorientation turning into delirium, burning sensations inside the head, convulsions, slowing pulse rate, then coma and finally death. All within a few days of the onslaught of the illness. Addressing these final symptoms was most difficult as the patients frequently became non-cooperative in their delirium and there was really nothing that could be done other than to try to reduce the pain through the inhibitors of the day such as opium and laudanum.

In the Navy, surgeons would try to get the patients out of the berthing decks and into the fresh air of the weather decks, and frequently, if enough of the crew had taken ill, the ship would head for cooler climes where it was thought that the air was healthier. For in all of the theories of the origin of the disease, the most common denominator was that the southern air was "miasmatic" when heated and humid in the late summer, and thus the air itself was sick. Therefore, leaving the air of that area was the most expedient method of helping the afflicted.

The ship was still thought to contain the sick air within her confines---so was smoked throughout by the aforementioned procedures---and quarantines were established to prevent such ships from entering places where there was no yellow fever. The signal of quarantine to this very day is the hoisting of a large yellow flag, or yellow "jack", from high in the rigging, so that all would know not to approach that ship until it was cleared by the port doctor. Once that approval is made, the ship removes the yellow signal as a sign that she is free from contagious diseases.

And so, when the first signs of yellow fever appeared in a community or a ship, extreme measures were immediately taken to try to mitigate the hideous destruction to come. The social and economic consequences upon the inhabitants of a city that had word of the sickness arriving there, or just the rumors of it, were catastrophic. The effects upon military and naval units who still had to do their duty were heart rendering. Continuing to do that duty in the face of this dreadful mysterious terror took courage beyond description.

 

 

 



 

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