Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last several months, we are currently living in fear and uncertainty over a disease. This isn’t a new phenomenon and it most certainly won’t be the last time disease affects humanity. Disease plays an important role in human history. The Black Death of the 1300s and the Spanish Flu of 1918 are arguably the most infamous of global pandemics. What we sometimes don’t recognize from a distance is that disease and war go hand-in-hand. Both of these episodes of disease came during a time of large-scale war.
The Civil War is certainly no different. While there were no wide spread pandemics that people had to worry about during the 1860s, disease was ever present. Of the recently revised numbers of death caused by the Civil War pushed up to around 800,000, we find most of these deaths are still from microbes and not bullets.
Not counted among the Civil War dead are the victims of other causes during the war. One of the most feared ogres of the 19th century was yellow fever. Yellow Jack, Bronze John, the Saffron Scourge, or simply the American plague, were common nicknames for this deadly disease. The yellow references come from the yellow tone of the skin that develops in the victim as the fever runs its course. Yellow Jack is also a reference to the yellow flag of quarantine that was typically flown from ships as a signal to stay away because of the disease. One of the worst outbreaks of yellow fever during the war occurred in the Fall of 1862 in Wilmington, N.C.
Today we understand much more about viruses and study vectors of the spread of disease. 1862 is still some time removed from understanding microbes. Many doctors of the time believed that odors caused disease. While there is some correlation, it wasn’t until about 1900 that the understanding of the spread of yellow fever is from mosquitoes. The Wilmington area is known for being extremely wet during June, July, and August. During 1862, these months were extremely wet, which caused most basements to be flooded. This also left large pools of water all across the city with a tremendous amount of trash; a prime breeding environment for mosquitoes.
Wilmington was very important to the Confederate war effort. Not only was the city an important port, it also was a key intersection of the port and the railroad network that connected the Deep South with Richmond, VA. Wilmington was where the railroad coming out of South Carolina met with the different gauge Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. This unique intersection brought the arrival of thousands who would stay in Wilmington for brief periods. Seeing sailors, marines, soldiers, bureaucrats, and others was not an unusual sight to the residents. This would all change after the arrival of the blockade runner Kate on August 6, 1862.
Amidst the cheers from a crowd gathered at the docks, the vessel arrived with great fanfare. It made its way through the blockade from Nassau in the Bahamas and was one of the first steam ships to arrive in Wilmington. The ship was laden with bacon and other food supplies, but it also is credited with bringing sick sailors to the city. Those who were cheering the arrival would soon turn to cursing
Over the next several weeks, yellow fever began its insidious spread across the city. Between August and November of 1862 there were about 1500 reported cases and 654 died. Some, not knowing the true cause of the disease, came close to the mark when it was speculated in the Wilmington Daily Journal that the fever was caused by the “plot of a Yankee mosquito.” Thousands fled the city. It turned into a ghost town. Of the estimated 10,000 regular inhabitants, more than half fled inland. Fear of the spread of the disease led many municipalities to quarantine or deny entry to these refugees. Confederate military authorities worried that Union forces would take advantage and capture the port city. Union sailors were just as afraid of yellow fever and stayed away.
The estimated 4,000 people that could not leave weathered the worst of the disease. These were largely poor whites, free blacks, and slaves. People isolated themselves in their homes. Those that did go out would refuse to shake hands with those they met and would stay a respectable distance. During October, the only real movement on the streets were the carts carrying the dead to a mass grave, which is referred to today as “Yellow Fever Hill.”
As the weather began to turn cooler in early November, the yellow fever outbreak began to finally slow down. Of course with the cooler weather comes the dwindling of the mosquito population. Life slowly began to return to normal, such that it was. Wilmington increasingly became more important as more Southern port cities fell to Union forces. James Sprunt, the mayor, later wrote that blockade running was a necessary evil, that it was “both life-preserving and death-dealing for the Confederacy.”