“Feel a little better but have the diarrhea very bad,” Corporal Henry Keiser wrote in his diary on June 2, 1862. Keiser and the 96th Pennsylvania were deep in the bottom lands of the Virginia Peninsula, just a few miles southeast of the Confederate capital at Richmond. They were among the 100,000 soldiers of the famed Army of the Potomac.
Disease was rife in this important Union Army. Outbreaks of illness were common as men lived, fought, and died in the mosquito-infested swamps of Virginia. Something known among the soldiers as “Chickahominy Fever” also wracked the army as it attempted to lay siege to the enemy’s capital.
“The sick reports were sometimes large than we cared to have them,” reported the Army of the Potomac’s medical director, remembering the time period leading up to the Seven Days’ battles in June 1862. “My recollection is that the whole sick report never exceeded 8 percent of the force, and this included all sorts of cases, the trivial as well as the severe.”
This provided little comfort to men like Corporal Henry Keiser, who spent the months of June and July 1862 suffering from chronic diarrhea.
Keiser’s daily diary entries provide us with a day-by-day accounting of the experience of a sick soldier in the Army of the Potomac. Through the month of June, Corporal Keiser suffered as the 96th Pennsylvania and the Union Army inched closer to the Confederate capital at Richmond.
“I got sick but would not go to the hospital,” he wrote on June 18. “I had my knapsack hauled and held onto the feed trough of the wagon.”
Five days later, he was suffering yet again and called on the regimental doctor for assistance. “I got two pills and a dose of oil from the doctor which made me very sick all day,” he reported. The regiment was out making corduroy roads the greater part of the day. I was not able to go with the regiment.”
The pills and oil referred to by Keiser were likely mercury and castor oil. These two poisonous compounds were often prescribed for diarrhea and dysentery in this age before germ theory. It’s no wonder that this soldier felt very sick that day.
Military events were about to overtake Keiser and the 96th Pennsylvania as they lingered with the Army of the Potomac little more than 10 miles east of Richmond. The Pennsylvanians assisted in digging new rifle pits near their encampment. Keiser remained in the regiment’s hospital. Here’s how Henry Keiser experienced the bloodiest series of battles in the Civil War to date:
Wednesday, June 25, 1862. Our company is in guard today, I being excused from duty. Bought liver for which I paid 25 cents. Heard firing to the left this forenoon.
Thursday, June 26, 1862. Received a letter from Brother William dated Springfield, Tennessee, May 5. Our regiment went to the front to dig rifle pits and did not return today.
Friday, June 27, 1862. The regiment came to camp his morning but had to leave immediately in light marching orders. The regiment went to our right to Gaines Mills where they had a severe fight. I was in camp which was shelled by the Rebs during the day. There was cannonading along the whole line. About five o’clock the following members of our company came to camp wounded: our 2nd Lieutenant Souerbree, wounded in the heel; Louis Romick, in the head just grazing scalp; William Strausser, wounded in the leg; and George Nester, wounded in both feet. The regiment came to camp at ten o’clock tonight. [Battle of Gaines Mill]
Saturday, June 28, 1862. I feel pretty well today. We packed up and marched about one mile and pitched tents. We were barely through with our tents when the Rebels opened on us with a battery at short range and made us “git.” We had no time to take our knapsacks. We went back a short distance and then a small squad went over at intervals and brought our knapsacks. The Rebels shelled but no harm was done. After we all had our knapsacks we marched around all day. After night came on we had to fell trees and block up roads.
Sunday, June 29, 1862. About two this morning we stopped felling trees and started toward the James. The regiment encamped about six this evening having marched about fifteen miles. Owing to my sickness I could not keep up with the regiment and I had a great time until I found it, which I did after dark. We were all tired and needed rest.
Monday, June 30, 1862. We got up this morning pretty well rested. We marched back to Charles City Crossroads to cover the retreat. Our division had the centre. Our brigade (5th Maine Infantry, 16th New York Infantry, 27th New York Infantry, and our regiment) supported a battery of 18 guns on the edge of the woods. Our batteries kept the rebels in check all day in our front, but had hard work. The rebel’s batteries were mowed down like grass with grape and canister. We, as infantry, did not fire a shot. The rebel batteries shelled us severely but done no harm with the exception of knocking off limbs of trees on us. Before dark we were run to the left but had no engagement. Heavy fighting right and left.
Tuesday, July 1, 1862. Toward morning there was heavy firing to our right and left. The rebels got possession of the road on which we were to fall back to Malvern Hill on last night. Gen. Phil Kearny of New Jersey charged the rebels and drove them from the road again. Before daylight we muffled the artillery wheels and had orders to march very quietly as we were very nearly surrounded, only having about four hundred yards width to pass through. We were very nearly “bagged” but were safe out of the trap by day light. We marched until nearly noon when we arrived at Malvern Hill where we pitched tents, but soon the rebels were there and commenced shelling us. Our division then packed up and went to the rear a short distance and pitched tents, but soon had to pack up and support the pickets. We also threw up rifle pits. Very heavy firing and fighting on Malvern Hill. Not sorry that we are away. Our position was to the right and rear.
Wednesday, July 2, 1862. We laid behind our rifle pits until two o’clock this morning when we started on the march toward Harrison’s Landing. At daylight it commenced raining and continued most all day. I “played out” and could not keep up with the regiment. About five o’clock this afternoon I got to Harrison’s Landing where all the troops are encamped. I had a great time in finding the regiment, but at last found it encamped in a wheat field and in the mud to our knees. A miserable place. I was wet to the skin. We marched about eighteen miles since morning and were pretty well played out.
Thursday, July 3, 1862. Our company, ground being so muddy and disagreeable, we were today ordered to pack up and march about one mile to a higher camp ground where it was not so muddy.
Friday, July 4, 1862. The bands played and salutes were fired in honor of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Our regiment was detailed to make a road, a nice way of celebrating the 4th of July.
Corporal Keiser’s illness kept him out of his unit’s first taste of the Civil War’s bloody combat. His perilous journey down the Virginia Peninsula, with the Confederate Army at his back, took him close to forty miles from Gaines’ Mill to Harrison’s Landing.
Keiser was very lucky. Others suffering from serious illnesses and recovering in Union Army hospitals on the Peninsula were not always evacuated in times. A field hospital near Savage’s Station was nearly entirely gobbled up by Confederate forces shortly after the Battle of Gaines’ Mill.
Keiser’s chronic diarrhea gradually cleared up once the 96th Pennsylvania reached Harrison’s Landing. His chance to “see the elephant” on the battlefields of the Civil War would have to wait until his regiment reached Maryland soil in September 1862.