Civil War Epidemics
In the summer of 1861, John O. Willis, a 28-year-old farmer from Grayson County, arrived at Camp Joseph Holt in Jeffersonville, Indiana. He enlisted in Company H of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry as a private for a three-year term. After nineteen months, however, Willis’s military career ended in a Nashville hospital. In early-March 1863, he was issued a certificate of disability and sent home to Leitchfield.
Having returned to Grayson County, Willis experienced complications arising from diseases that he contracted while wearing Union blue. The Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWGK), an online archive curated by KHS staff, includes a June 1863 petition that details Willis’s post-combat afflictions. “[H]is Health [was] entirely gone,” Willis explained, “so much that he ha[d] not been able to do one days work since” returning from service. In fact, his neighbors questioned whether he would ever work again.
Willis, along with millions of soldiers on both sides of the conflict, faced a variety of epidemics that swept through Civil War encampments, hospitals, and prisons. Unlike Willis, many did not survive their bouts with infectious diseases. Indeed, epidemics accounted for two-thirds of the approximately 750,000 deaths that occurred during the war.
As 21st century Kentuckians confront the challenges of Covid-19, we benefit from medical knowledge and public health policies that developed after 1865. Although modern preventatives practices, such as regular hand washing and “social distancing,” were largely absent from Civil War campgrounds, we recognize that these measures can help slow the spread of contagions during our current crisis.
Read more about the combat experiences of Willis and the impact of the Civil War on the evolution of American healthcare in the full-length version of Carl Creason’s blog here. Also, be sure to explore the CWGK database for more stories about everyday Kentuckians during the Civil War, including documents related to public health and disease.
Written by Carl Creason
Research Specialist for the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition