May 24, 2014
150th Anniversary of Battle of Cold Harbor: Connecticut Civil War Re-Enactor Puts It in Context
This weekend will bring the 150th anniversary commemoration of the horrific battle of Cold Harbor, which on its very first day led to the death of some 140 soldiers in the Connecticut Second Heavy Artillery. Most of the men came from Litchfield County towns.
Litchfield will be the site Saturday, May 24, of “Reverberations,” a collaboration of communities North and South that were heavily afflicted by the battle and of the National Park Service. In the lead-up to this affecting day of remembrance, the Kent Historical Society paused last Sunday to look at what it was like for men who were injured or who fell ill in the service of their country during the 19th century’s greatest conflict.
Harwinton resident Dane Deleppo, who has been a Civil War re-enactor for the past 25 years—democratically taking part in re-enactments on both the Union and Confederate sides, as need demands—slipped on his surgeon’s frock coat Sunday and detailed for a rapt audience what medical men knew and didn’t know about treatment in the 1860s. The tale was appalling, but Mr. Deleppo also noted that lessons learned during the war led to better medical techniques later.
He invited members of the audience to stand and raise their hands over their heads. He directed them to wiggle their fingers, to smile and then to stand on the right and then the left foot. “You have just taken the basic Civil War medical exam,” he said with a smile. “If you had your hands up, wiggling your fingers, the doctor could see you had all of them. If you smiled, he could see your teeth. If you lifted one foot and then the other, he could tell if you had a hernia. Connecticut cashiered 2,000 men because they couldn’t do these things.”
He explained that this was important because the Army did not want to pay pensions for men who could not serve. “Lots of people had hernias in those days,” he explained, “you needed teeth to tear the paper cartridges to load you guns and you needed all your fingers. They would check to see how far your chest flexed out—if it was not far enough, they felt you couldn’t carry a backpack.”
Once men were mustered in, he said, poor hygiene in camps led to rampant disease. Yellow fever, malaria and a variety of insect-borne fevers laid men low, as did camp dysentery. He noted that the Crimean War, which preceded America’s Civil War, had a mortality rate of one in four soldiers—most of those caused by disease. The death rate was marginally better during the Civil War but still made heavy inroads among young men who had probably never been far from the family farm.
“One problem was they were bringing men from cities and putting them in with men from the country,” Mr. Deleppo said. “Men from cities had already survived diseases like smallpox, chicken pox and measles and had immunity. But men from the country may not have been exposed and they were dying like flies.”
The war, which burst upon a nation ill prepared for it, had few resources for treating the men. There were no antibiotics and no awareness of the transfer of disease through germs. There were few hospitals and little care paid to preserving the men’s health in camp. Mr. Deleppo said that churches, private homes and public buildings were used as hospitals. “They would bring boards into churches and nail them to the pews for beds. Lots of churches in the South still have nail holes,” he sai
It fell to civilians to step into the fray. Even though women were initially rejected as nurses, the New York Women’s Aid Society—ironically, headed by men—organized to send supplies to the soldiers. At first these “care packages,” filled with socks, underwear and food supplies, often were not delivered before their contents had gone bad. The boxes were simply emptied and the contents burned.
Later, all packages went to central locations to be opened and their contents shipped to where they were most critically needed. Included in some of these shipments were portable washing machines, which were often accompanied by “camp followers.” Mr. Deleppo explained that these women were not prostitutes but laundresses or cooks who were often wives of soldiers in the unit.