In the relentless rain and mud of a Virginia winter, the 96th Pennsylvania were ravaged by another natural force. Disease had overtaken the Union Army encampments surrounding Washington, DC. Among the diseases, typhoid fever quickly became the most feared.
… a life-threatening illness caused by the bacterium Salmonella Typhi… [It] lives only in humans. Persons with typhoid fever carry the bacteria in their bloodstream and intestinal tract. In addition, a small number of persons, called carriers, recover from typhoid fever but continue to carry the bacteria. Both ill persons and carriers shed Salmonella Typhi in their feces (stool). You can get typhoid fever if you eat food or drink beverages that have been handled by a person who is shedding Salmonella Typhi or if sewage contaminated with Salmonella Typhi bacteria gets into the water you use for drinking or washing food. Therefore, typhoid fever is more common in areas of the world where handwashing is less frequent and water is likely to be contaminated with sewage.
And that last line perfectly describes the muddy, fetid army encampments dotting the landscape around the Union capital. In an age before the discovery of germ theory, medical professionals little understood the nature of diseases like typhoid fever. Army officers, therefore, understood even less about the dangers of poor sanitation and a tainted water supply. Raw sewage passed into streams, creeks, and rivers throughout the region completely unchecked.
Symptoms of the disease included sustained high fever, weakness, intense stomach pain, and, in severe cases, a “rash of flat, rose-colored spots” that grew to cover the whole body.
And on many, many occasions in the winter of 1862, this was the unfortunate result.
Fairfax Co. Virginia
Febry 7th 1862
Mr. John Higgins
I send by the express today the remains of Patrick Kennedy, who departed this life about one o’clock last night in our Regimental Hospital. He died of Typhoid fever after 10 days illness. However there is one consolation for you to know, that he died like a good Christian, as the Priest was with him several times, and he received the benefits of our holy church. He was a good man, and I hope he will have the benefits of it hereafter.
I will see to the settlement of all his accounts and see that his mother gets all he is entitled to from the government.
Jos. Anthony, Captain
Co. F 96th Regt. Pa. Vols.
Patrick Kennedy enlisted in the 96th Pennsylvania in September 1861. Before joining the regiment, he lived with his mother, Doreta Kennedy, and worked as a “day laborer” in Schuylkill County’s Tuscarora Township. At the time of his passing, he was 22-years-old according to military records.
In total, 12 men of the 96th Pennsylvania died from disease or infection between the unit’s mustering in at Pottsville in September 1861 and the regiment’s first engagement in May 1862. Another 34 officers and men received medical discharges for illness or injury in that same span of time.
Typhoid fever and its symptoms caused most of the suffering.
And a note before signing off. The ravages of disease did not only impact the Army encampments around Washington, it impacted the civilian population as well. Two weeks after the passing of Private Kennedy in Camp Northumberland, a high-profile victim succumbed to the same illness.
President Abraham Lincoln’s cherished 10-year-old son Willie passed away from the illness on February 20, 1862, proving that no one was safe from the scourge of typhoid fever.