Thursday, September 11, 2014

150 Years Ago - Yellow Fever Comes to Galveston

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of a terrible yellow fever epidemic that struck Galveston, TX, during the Civil War.  By the time the epidemic ended with the first frost in November 1864, more than 250 soldiers and civilians had died from the disease, with several times that sick and debilitated. 

I'm so honored that the Galveston County Daily News saw fit to publish a feature article this week that I wrote for them to commemorate the anniversary.  The article was based largely on a chapter in my book, Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom (The History Press, 20102), that is devoted to the epidemic.

I happily provide an extended excerpt of that chapter below, with illustrations and hyperlinks to relevant sources.

Chapter Ten

“We were attacked during the summer of 1864 by a silent and insidious enemy against which our heaviest guns availed nothing.  The yellow fever invaded our camp and soon became epidemic, carrying off numbers who had courted death on numerous battlefields and endured the hardships of many campaigns, only to succumb at last to this dreaded scourge.” - Ralph J. Smith, Private, Second Texas Infantry, CSA

Dudley H. Ward was born in 1845 in Austin, Texas, to one of the state’s most notable citizens.  His father, Thomas William “Peg Leg” Ward, was an Irish immigrant who fought in the Texas Revolution (losing a leg to a cannonball in his first battle in 1835; thus the moniker), served as mayor of Austin, state land commissioner, and as United States consul to Panama.  As a teen, Dudley lived with his mother, Susan Marston Ward, but owing to his parents’ marital problems he returned to Texas with his father in 1860, forever estranged from his mother.

Although Thomas Ward was a Unionist and had cast a vote against secession in February 1861 (as did a majority of Austinites), Dudley succumbed to “war fever” and enlisted in the Second Texas Infantry of the Confederate States Army in late 1862.  The regiment distinguished itself in the defense of Vicksburg, Mississippi, but the young Ward and his comrades became prisoners of war when their commander, Lt. Gen John C. Pemberton, surrendered to Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863.  Paroled a few days later, Dudley returned to Texas and stayed a few months with his father in Austin until he was officially exchanged in November.  He then rejoined his regiment (much reduced in numbers) at Galveston in its mission to guard the Texas coast. (1)

A faithful correspondent with his father, Dudley wrote in early September 1864 that he had just returned from a short trip to Houston only to learn from his comrades that he “had just got back in time to leave with the Regiment, which was ordered off on account of the yellow fever.”  Dudley, “thinking there was not as much danger as they apprehended” went to his commanding officer, Col. Ashbel Smith, and secured permission to stay in Galveston.  In the same letter, Dudley explained the reasons for his decision:

I think that one will be just as liable to take the disease at camp which is only five miles off, as in the city.  Besides, all the supplies will have to be brought from this post, and if a person happens to be sick in camp he will be almost sure to die from want of nurses, which I understand are more necessary to the cure of the fever than even medicine…and I think it better that if I am to have a visit from the fever it had better come at once when I am young and able to bear it.  There is no certainty however that the yellow fever is here.  There is a great diversity of opinion in regard to the matter...Which side to believe I do not know but will write to tell you with certainty in a few days as soon as the truth can be known, for I am going to stay and “see the elephant.” (2)


In his letter, Dudley Ward was describing – and sadly underestimating - a deadly yellow fever epidemic that struck Galveston in the summer and autumn of 1864.  The disease would take many more lives than his regiment lost in their defense of Vicksburg or that fell in Magruder’s victory on New Year’s Day 1863.

“No disease brought more fear and more deaths to Galveston’s early residents than yellow fever,” one modern historian has justly declared.  No less than seven major epidemics struck the island city between 1837 and 1860, killing more than two thousand people.  One early island historian, writing of the first epidemic in 1839 which claimed 250 lives, uses the fitting imagery of war to describe the scene:

[The] 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. (3)

Victim of an 1854 yellow fever epidemic buried in Galveston - photo by James M. Schmidt
In 1839, Dr. Ashbel Smith (the very same man who was Dudley Ward’s commander in 1864) was one of the state’s leading physicians and was present in Galveston during that year’s deadly epidemic.  He treated the sick for several weeks, all the while taking copious clinical notes of his patients’ symptoms, postmortem examinations of victims, and his own experiments.  In a treatise on the epidemic, Smith’s descriptions gave grim witness to why the disease engendered such “dreadful fear”: it came not just from the fact that people died; it came from the way they died: a gruesome days-long march to death with fever, nausea, pain, bleeding from the nose and gums, jaundice that gave the disease its name, and – especially - the signature “black vomit.”

Smith’s treatise, Yellow Fever in Galveston, Republic of Texas, 1839: An Account of the Great Epidemic, was praised by scientists then and has even been acknowledged since by modern medical historians for its “essential clinical information.”  Still, the actual cause of the disease remained a mystery to Smith, and would remain so for other physicians and scientists for another half-century.  For, like other physicians of the era who attributed diseases to invisible “miasmas,” the otherwise talented Smith also believed in “unseen deadly poisons on the wings” of breezes that blew over the island. (4)



In fact, scientists discovered that yellow fever is a virus transmitted by the bite of the female Aedes aegypti mosquito.  The disease was brought to the New World in cargoes of slaves from Africa.  Indeed, yellow fever has been called one of the prices this country paid for slavery by abolitionists of the 19th century and historians of the present century.  Once only the scourge of the ships themselves - sometimes decimating whole crews, their human cargo, or both - the virus soon began to devastate town after town on the eastern shore of the Americas.  As a locus of the Gulf Coast slave trade, it is not surprising that Galveston also inherited the disease.

To make matters worse, the citizens of Galveston were also ill-served by their city fathers, local physicians, and the press who seemed to have a congenital aversion to basic sanitation or to recognize and admit the early warning signs of an epidemic.  Basic precautions such as draining stagnant pools of water and enforcing quarantines on incoming ships would have saved lives.  Furthermore, when the “sickly season” arrived in Galveston each summer and rumors of yellow fever began to be whispered in the streets, it had been “the usual custom of the newspapers…to ignore the evil or to imply that the epidemic was one of minor proportions,” as one historian stated, all in order to preserve the island’s all-important trade and commerce. (5)
During the Civil War, the disease-carrying insects – dubbed by one historian as “mosquito soldiers” - served as a sort of “mercenary force, a third army, one that could work for or against either side depending on the circumstances.”  Owing to that “army” and the historical indifference to sanitation and quarantines on the island, yellow fever played a tragic role in the history of the Civil War in Galveston. (6)

[See my interview with Dr. Andrew Bell, author of Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War here]

On May 12, 1864, Confederate surgeon Gustav Holland wrote Brig. Gen. James M. Hawes, in command of the island garrison, of a letter he had been shown “from an old citizen of this place.” Dated April 30, 1864, from Havana, Cuba, the writer stated that “a large number of cases of yellow fever had already occurred there and that they were of such malignant type as to justify the opinion that this would prove a very sickly season.”  The letter would prove prescient, indeed. (7)

The letter from Havana also stated that the writer and others intended “to run a regular line of steamers during the coming summer between Havana and this port.”  Ironically, the Union blockade probably saved lives in Galveston in the first years of the war by preventing some infected ships from reaching the island.  But as the island’s port became one of the few still in Confederate hands, Holland admitted to Hawes  that “the necessities of the country and people are such that we cannot afford to prohibit this intercourse although we may reasonably suspect that it will expose us constantly to the danger of having yellow fever imported among us.” (8)

As a precaution, General Magruder issued an order on August 3, 1864, for a strict quarantine on all ships from the West Indies, Mexico, Central America, or New Orleans, until November 15, 1864.  The next day – perhaps owing to protests from the city’s merchants – Magruder reduced the quarantine to eight days, and only for those ships coming from places known to be infected.  As one historian declared, “these watered-down precautions would prove to be woefully inadequate.”  The same historian – an expert in Galveston maritime history – has suggested that the 1864 epidemic was brought to Galveston on blockade runners from Havana. (9)

Soon, rumors of a yellow fever epidemic began hitting the streets and the usual pattern of denial by the city’s physicians and press prevailed.  Greensville Dowell, M.D., a surgeon attached to a Texas artillery regiment, recalled:

When [yellow fever] originated in Galveston, in 1864, I know it was disputed until there were at least seven deaths from black vomit, and four of our yellow fever doctors signed a statement that there were no cases in the city…I was threatened with a court-martial for declaring it was yellow fever. The positive assertions that it did not exist, kept many persons in the city who would have left, and prevented the post commander, General Hawes, from removing the troops out of the city. (10)


Like a veteran returning to an old battlefield, Col. Ashbel Smith - who had famously documented the 1839 epidemic – found himself in Galveston during other island yellow fever epidemics in 1847, 1853, 1854, and the wartime epidemic of 1864.  He also complained of the delay, writing in a letter that, “The army surgeons have appeared to much disadvantage, doubting and denying the existence of the disease, while persons are dying of black vomit in rapid succession…it was impossible for me to mistake so distinctly characteristic a disease.” (11)

In mid-September, Dudley Ward wrote his father, “The physicians one and all have pronounced the prevailing disease yellow fever; there are upwards of a hundred cases of it and although it is in rather a mild form, of it two to five persons are buried every day."  According to Galveston internment records, the first official death credited to yellow fever (previous deaths were certainly misdiagnosed, perhaps purposely) was that of the Rev. H. Browning, a 40-year old minister from Germany, on September 5, 1864; the first soldier fell to the disease eight days later.  The death toll then accelerated quickly, in a “gradual, persistent and fatal march from house to house,” as one doctor remembered. (12)

The yellow fever hit the soldiers as hard as it did civilians: of the 259 yellow fever deaths recorded from September through November, 117 were soldiers and sailors, 126 were citizens of the city (split evenly between those ten years and younger and those older than ten), and sixteen were African-Americans.  Among the soldiers, Dudley Ward’s regiment – the Second Texas Infantry – suffered the most, losing thirty-one men.  In his memoirs, Ralph J. Smith, a private in the Second Texas with Ward, wrote of the epidemic:

This was a time that tried men's souls beyond the test of battle shouts. No surging crowds of men to urge one on to victory or death yet now what heroic bravery it required to sit alone through the sad and silent watches of the night beside a plague-stricken-comrade's bed and minister to the dying wants of one whose very breath exhaled death into the surrounding atmosphere. (13)


On September 14, Gen. Hawes put out a call for help in the Houston Telegraph, asking citizens “to organize a corps of nurses for Yellow Fever patients” as there was not a sufficient number of “acclimated men” under his command to furnish the necessary nurses and attendants.  Ralph Smith wrote kindly of the soldiers and women who attended to the sick:

But men were found in camp and women too in the city whose thoughts of self were drowned in other's cup of trembling so that not one was left to suffer and die alone. And here during this, epidemic was displayed equally as much heroism if not more than is required to go in to battle both by soldiers and also the good women of the city, true heroines indeed who so kindly cared for and ministered to the sick and dying soldiers. (14)

The epidemic also affected law and order in the city.  If there was a dearth of “acclimated men” to assist in the hospitals, there were fewer still for guards and military police.  Patrols of the city were necessarily neglected and burglaries, murders, and rapes increased.  Undoubtedly some of the crimes were perpetrated by soldiers, further increasing tension between the city and the garrison.
Mercifully, the 1864 epidemic ended when late November brought heavy frosts.

Despite the epidemic raging around him in the late summer of 1864, Dudley Ward declared cheerfully in a letter to his father, “my health continues to be good and I hope will still be so for some time in spite of epidemics...I am doing remarkably well and have not felt the least inconvenience as yet…I have no fears of the disease.”  He concluded by asking his father for some “specie” (“Confederate money is literally worth nothing,” he acknowledged) in the event that “Yellow Jack lays his hands on me” and he should need some medicine. (15)

It was the last letter the young soldier would write to his father: the yellow fever did “lay his hands” on Dudley H. Ward.  He died on September 19, 1864 – only five days after writing the letter - and was buried a day later in the “Soldier’s Rest” section of the Old Potter’s Field in the city cemetery.  The exact location of Ward’s grave - and those of other soldiers - was lost in the 1900 hurricane.  In 2000, a marker was erected to commemorate the final resting place of Ward and more than two hundred other Confederate soldiers who died of disease during the war in Galveston. (16)


(1) The best source for information on Ward and his family is David C. Humphrey’s Peg Leg: The Improbable Life of a Texas Hero, Thomas William Ward, 1807-1872 (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2004).
(2) Letter, September 7, 1864, Galveston, TX, Dudley H. Ward to Thomas H. Ward, Dudley Ward Papers, Texas General Land Office (hereafter TGLO),  Austin, TX.
(3) Hardwick, Susan W. Mythic Galveston: Reinventing America’s Third Coast. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, p. 27; Hayes, Charles W. History of the Island and the City of Galveston, 2 vol., Austin, TX: Jenkins Garrett Press, 1974, Vol. 1, 387.
(4) Ashbel Smith, Yellow Fever in Galveston, Republic of Texas, 1839: An Account of the Great Epidemic (reprint of the original, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1951), pp. vi-vii, 18.
(5) Fornell, Earl W. The Galveston Era: The Texas Crescent on the Eve of Secession. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961, p. 66.
(6) Andrew M. Bell, Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010), p. 4.
(7) Letter, May 12, 1864, Galveston, Texas, Dr. Gustave Holland to Brig. James M. Hawes, M331, Compiled Service Records (CSR) of Confederate General and Staff Officers, and Nonregimental Enlisted Men, NARA.
(8) Ibid.

(9) Andrew Hall, “Did Denbigh Bring Yellow Fever to Galveston?” “Dead Confederates” blog,
(10) Greensville S. Dowell, Yellow Fever and Malarial Diseases: Embracing a History of the Epidemics of Yellow Fever in Texas (Philadelphia: Medical Publications, 1876), 26.
(11) Cotham, Edward T. Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998, p. 166.
(12) Letter, September 14, 1864, Galveston, TX, Dudley H. Ward to Thomas H. Ward, Dudley Ward Papers, TGLO; Peggy H. Gregory, comp., Record of Internments of the City of Galveston, 1859-1872 (Houston: privately printed, 1976), 42; Dowell, Yellow Fever, 43.
(13) Ralph J. Smith, Reminisences of Civil War (Waco, TX: W. M. Morrison, 1911), 18.
(14) Galveston Weekly News, September 15, 1864; Smith, Reminisences, 19.
(15) Letter, September 14, 1864, Galveston, TX, Dudley H. Ward to Thomas H. Ward, Dudley Ward Papers, TGLO.
(16) Gregory, Record of Internments, 44.“A Guide to the Dudley Ward Papers, 1863-1864,” Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO),


Mark said...

Man...Yellow Jack is fascinating because every society seems to have been effected by it, and it has killed far more people than any war. Food for thought.

David Connon said...

Hi, James.

You did a nice job of researching and writing about Galveston's Yellow Fever epidemic in 1864. The quotes were vivid. I first learned of the epidemic when researching one of the army doctors who assisted. I plan to tell that doctor's story on my blog, "Confederates from Iowa: Not to defend, but to understand" on March 15 and 29. Keep up the good work!