“Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight”

by Sarah Webb. 0 Comments

                  I knew John Trout was a survivor.  A field trip to our very own National Museum of Civil War Medicine helped me confirm the statistics of death by disease that eluded me from my high school history class.  As I strolled through the exhibits, the caption caught my attention: “The deadliest enemy a Civil War soldier faced was disease.”    Out of 620,000 deaths in the Civil War, two-thirds of those were from disease.  Only one-third of the deaths were from battle.  Staggering. 

 Out of those diseases, the biggest killer was diarrhea. 

 Fully 500,000 survivors exited the war with a permanent disability.  Fifty thousand of those survivors were amputees.


Citizen volunteers helping wounded on the battlefield.   

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Given that John Trout was pensioned according to the FNP, and given that he survived a Confederate prison, I knew he experienced some kind of malady.    The Museum gives great detail about the hazards soldiers faced.  Unsanitary conditions contaminated water supplies; refuse and excrement attracted fleas and lice; inadequate diets also led to more disease.  Typhus, typhoid fever, scurvy, diarrhea are some of the listed ailments.  Often treatments included mercury- based drugs, “blue mass” or ”blue pills” which could sometimes be more dangerous than the original infection. 

If a soldier didn’t contract one those diseases, oftentimes malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis (consumption) ran rampant throughout camp due to the dense living conditions.

Addressing illnesses was hit or miss in the 1860s. The Museum explains that contemporary medicine was called the "Heroic Era."  It was thought that diseases, especially those causing fever, were caused by a collection of bodily poisons which caused a constriction of blood vessels.  A variety of methods was employed to treat illnesses by reducing the "toxins": bleeding, sweating, cupping, and blistering the skin.  Drugs were sometimes given to also induce vomiting.  In her interesting blog, Lori Eggleston, curator at the Museum, elaborates more about the history of medicinal artifacts and tools on display in their museums.

    I hoped John’s pension records might clarify more of his health issues for me. Typing “Andrew J. Trout” I was able to find his pension index card on ancestry.com. 

             My elation quickly turned to dejection.

 In addition to the usual certificate numbers and next of kin, I saw an additional number “XC 941.357.”  Having come across a similar code in my own Civil War ancestral research I knew that to be the code which indicates the original records are not at the Archives!

This meant instead of taking a trip to the archives and seeing the records first- hand, I had to write a letter to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to release the records.  In earlier research of my own ancestors I waited two months to receive records, but the long wait was rewarded when I got an inch-thick package of my ancestor’s Civil War pension.

           However, let me just say patience is not one of my stronger virtues.

           Because some of my research is ahead of my blog I wrote that FOIA letter in September, and unfortunately I am still waiting for John Trout’s pension records from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. 

           Is there a collective “Argh!” out there?


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