Monday, August 29, 2011

Galveston Research Summary #8 - Yellow Jack

"In the spring and summer of 1839, Galveston presented a scene of active progression. Houses were being erected as if by magic. But this busy scene of progressive life and animation was suddenly paralyzed and the energies of the people were instantly numbed by a dreadful fear, and friend looked into the face of friend, neighbor into the face of neighbor, with the fearful inquiry of 'Who next?' An epidemic had fallen upon them, and was decimating their ranks with a fatality more dreadful and irresistible than war." - Galveston: History of the Island and the City (1879)

Previous "Galveston Research Summaries" can be found below:

#1 - Dissent, Sedition, and Confederate Secret Police (here)
#2 - Ursuline Sisters (here)
#3 - The Pearce Civil War Museum and Collection (here)
#4 - New Orleans Archdiocese Records a the Archives of the University of Notre Dame (here)
#5 - Digital Resources at Rice University (here)
#6 - Texas General Land Office (here)
#7 - Dolph Briscoe Center for American History (here)

Summary of my Galveston/Civil War Research and Writing Project (here)

And now, for the latest in Galveston Research Summaries:

I continue my research and writing for my present book project, with the working title Galveston and the Civil War: Voices of the Island City, to be published by The History Press in mid- to late-2012.

I am dedicating an entire chapter in the book to the scourge of yellow fever on Galveston, from the first epidemic in 1839 to the severe wartime outbreak in 1864 to the devastating post-war epidemic in 1867 that claimed more than a thousand lives including a substantial number of U.S. soldiers who were garrisoned in the city.

I'm doing this for (at least) four reasons:

1) It appeals to my primary hsitorical interest of 19th-century medicine
2) As one historian declared, "No disease brought more fear and more deaths to Galveston than yellow fever" other words, it is an important part of the story of Galveston in the 19th-century
3) The 1864 and 1867 epidemics, especially, have received only cursory attention in other published books on Galveston and the Civil War, including Edward Cotham's excellent Battle on the Bay
4) It has introduced me - and hopefully readers of the book - to a variety of personalities on resources important to the story of yellow fever, Galveston, and the Civil War.

Here are just a few:

I've written before on the importance of yellow fever and the Civil War - including its effect on the Gulf Coast, Texas, and Galveston (specifically) - in my interview with Andrew M. Bell, Ph.D., author of Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2010). You can read that interview here.

[Bell's book takes its title from the fact that yellow fever is transmitted via the bite of an infected mosquito, especially the Aedes aegypti, pictured above, courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]

One of the most interesting personalities is Ashbel Smith (1805-1886), in no small part because his association with yellow fever and Galveston extends from the first deadly epidemics in the 1830s to the Civil War and after. In the aftermath of the 1839 yellow fever epidemic in Galveston, Smith wrote an influential medical treatise - Yellow Fever in Galveston, Republic of Texas, 1839 (reprinted in 1951). During the Civil War, Smith was an officer in the Second Texas Infantry, and was commanding the regiment in Galveston in 1864, when another epidemic took the lives of civilians and soldiers.

Gail Borden was featured in an entire chapter my first book, Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press, 2008). I have written about him before on this blog (here). Although not a native Texan, Borden was still one of Galveston's "favorite sons." He lost his wife and at least one of his children to yellow fever epidemics in Galveston in the 1850s. Always thinking, Borden came up with a novel plan to eradicate yellow fever on the island via refrigeration.

The wartime epidemic of 1864 - the main topic of the chapter - is recorded in period newspapers, the Official Records, soldier correspondence, documents in the National Archives, and other sources that I have consulted and will incorporate into the book.

As mentioned above, the Galveston yellow fever epidemic of 1867 took the lives of U.S. soldiers in the city during Reconstruction and administration of the Freedman's Bureau. The commander of the city, Col. Charles Griffin, died in the epidemic. One of the outstanding documents on describing this epidemic is Report on Epidemic Cholera and Yellow Fever in the Army of the United States (1868), which provides a detailed report of cases among the civilian and soldier populations, numbers of deaths, and some reports of heroism every bit as inspiring as feats of arms on the battlefield:

"Before proceeding to the summary of the prevalence of the fever, I should speak of the hospital service, during nearlv the entire epidemic season, of Hospital Steward Ernest Cauzler, U. S. A., who, unacclimated, had been placed on duty at the military hospital for the epidemic, having arrived at the station on the 22d of July. On the 5th of September he was prostrated, but early resumed his duty. For a time, when all the medical officers of the army were ill, he was the only one of the department on duty."


"I should do injustice to pass over the name of Charles H. Weeks, Sergeant, Company " I'," 17th U. S. Infantry, who, unacclimatcd, voluntarily assumed, at an early period, the immediate duty of an acting hospital steward in the convalescent ward of the hospital and barracks in the city, only ending his faithful service with his life, dying of yellow fever at nearly the close of the epidemic."

"with a fatality more dreadful and irresistible than war," indeed.

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