Disease and Correspondence in the Civil War

Currently, in Swem Library'sSpecial Collections Research Center (Swem SCRC), I have been working on uploading a number of small collections to the From Fights to Rights Transcription Project.  Some of the most interesting discussions I come across in these letters are about the various illnesses that permeated 19th century life.  It is incredibly eye-opening to read these accounts of illness and disease since they give an otherwise-unknown window into peoples’ lives.

One such example is Cynthia Beverley Tucker Washington Coleman’s first daughter, a girl named Sadie.  This girl, according to letters in the Tucker-Coleman Collection, died in 1862 from an unknown illness.  The letters collected by Cynthia describe the many condolences offered by friends and family members.  Letters written by her and sent to her husband, Charles Coleman, express her grief, even years after the fact.  Later, when her son Charley develops whooping cough, the tone of her letters to her husband change from admonishing to fearful, exhibiting the fact that she is obviously frightened by the prospect of her second child’s death.  Fortunately, young Charley made a full recovery and lived to adulthood.

Another example of the immediateness of death and sickness comes from a letter from the Page-Saunders Papers.  Robert Saunders wrote to his son, Robert Page Saunders, in late 1861 that typhoid fever had started to appear in Williamsburg.  Capt. Morrison, a professor at the College had already passed away from the disease and “Little Montague Tucker” was very ill and not expected to live long.  Luckily, there was only one other instance of typhoid fever in Williamsburg, and it seemed like it was not spreading much farther.

In the 19th century, diseases like whooping cough and typhoid fever could become fatal to many who contracted these diseases.  The likelihood of young children dying from disease, especially before the age of 2, was incredibly high compared with today’s standards.  Because of this difference, I find these first-hand descriptions of disease in letters and other manuscripts incredibly interesting, since it is not something many 21st century Americans have experienced.  By reading these letters, I feel closer to these people, and understand their grief, sadness, and, in some cases, acceptance of these fatal diseases as part of their daily lives.

Shannon Goings is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2011-2012 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.