ANY DROP TO DRINK'
Problem of Drinking Water in the Civil War
by Ann Chandonnet*
“Fill your canteens
[,] boys! Some of you will be in hell
before night and you’ll need water!”— A Union Colonel at Shiloh
Although Civil War combatants tossed and turned with the
horror of nightmares of death by bullet, cannon ball or bayonet,
it is a
well-known truism of the bloody conflict that at least as many men died
disease as wounds.
Statistics for these
fatalities vary widely, however.
instance, some sources give total casualties of 618,000; others give a
Spotty record-keeping and
lost muster-rolls account for the variances.
new information is uncovered, numbers are
continually being adjusted upward.
source published in 2011, for example, cites 2.2 million men serving in
Union army and about 1 million in the Confederate, with 646,392 Union
casualties and 483,000 CSA.
are defined as killed or wounded.)(1)
Historians generally agree that
diarrhea was the leading cause of death by disease, killing 45,000 men
the 2 million—the usually cited total figure—who took part in the Civil
Stoddard and Murphy claim that twice
men died from illness as wounds.
note that an additional 25,000 died from causes like suicide,
snakebite and accident.(2) Cholera
was promoted by primitive hygiene and the poor sanitation of the men
Of course, death on the
battlefield was often the result of multiple causes: significant wounds
delayed medical care, with chances of survival lessened by lack of
disinfectants complicated by sunstroke, shock, dehydration and
At the second battle of Manassas in
August 1862 and especially nearer the end of the war, the majority of
Confederate soldiers were barefoot and had not had a square meal for
With uniforms in tatters, subsisting
mainly on cornmeal cakes, the exhausted Rebels were ripe to catch
often turned into pneumonia, which, in turn,
led to death.
Joseph Glatthaar recently
completed a statistical study of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern
Glatthaar's conclusions are that
approximately 200,000 men in this Confederate force, 12.3 percent were
in action, 11.6 percent died of disease, .6 percent died of other
6.4 percent were discharged for disability.
finds that soldiers over 40 were more
likely to die of disease than wounds.(4)
So what is the conclusion?
just as many as bullets?
Opinions continue to differ.
Andrew Bell goes so far as to say that
". . . disease and sickness from microbes killed twice as many soldiers
Of the 10,000 separate conflicts
of the war, many were fought in turbid swamps and salty tidal marshes
Florida and North Carolina and in remote bayous along the Mississippi
Wading or in boats, soldiers could
the swarms of anopheles mosquitoes in such places.
repaired to breezy seaside homes in
cities like Charleston to escape summer's heat and insects, but
no such choice.
Medical men of the
nineteenth century often thought that malaria was caused by unwholesome
"miasma" from marshy places, but modern science revealed it to be
infectious disease transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected
It is characterized by severe
chills and fever.
Malaria struck about
one-quarter of all servicemen, making it the third leading killer of
after typhoid and dysentery.(6)
John Dunban of the 77th
Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers wrote from Camp Jackson near New
July 1865: "There are a great many sick.
sickness all begins in the head & pain
in the bones.
It is called dumb ague
They shake but none
There are as high as 17 men sick in
our Company of 36 men."
mentions the plagues of lice and mosquitoes as well.(7)
Not only soldiers died of typhoid,
Noncombatants were often
Lincoln's eldest son, Willie,
11, died of it on February 20, 1862.
Ben Butler's father had died of yellow fever, another tropical disease,
one spread by the aedes aegypti
mosquito; that fact motivated Butler to clean up New Orleans.(8)
A number of authors note that since
many soldiers were recruited from secluded rural areas, the first wave
in camps consisted of infections of childhood including measles, mumps,
whooping cough and smallpox.
wave included lice, diarrhea (dysentery) and cholera.(9)
Many men suffered from bowel complaints for
their entire enlistments; some were so ill that they were discharged
active duty and served—ironically—in the cook tent.
(Andrew Bean of Bethel, Maine, was one of
these.(10) Others were so
disabled that they were discharged from the service altogether,
and died at
home shortly after.
Alfred Bollet writes
that diarrhea was second only to "consumption" (tuberculosis) as the
reason for medical discharge.(11) Others
never recovered from their service
illnesses; my grandmother's foster father, John Bodwell, for
instance, was six
He lived for five decades
after his service for New Hampshire, ate with good appetite—but never
more than a hundred pounds.
Ohio infantryman William Keesy has
left us a disgusting description of a Union encampment near Washington,
Within the camp boundary was a
slaughtering area that served 100,000 men: "The hides and offal of the
beeves for miles upon miles around, under a sweltering sun and sultry
would gender such swarms of flies, armies of worms, blasts of
oceans of filth as to make life miserable.
the plagues of Egypt the pestilence would
. . . pollute the very water of the pure springs . . . .
into account the dead horses that were
slain in battle
. . . and add to this the refuse, the sinks [latrines], the
garbage, the waste hides and entrails of the slaughtered beeves in
you will readily see that even the sanitary interests of the army is no
A report from the Seven Days’
Battle in June 1862 demonstrates what combat can do to water supplies.
This first-person description comes from H. E.
Brown, a Surgeon with Hooker’s Division:
June 24th, I was
engaged with the duties of the regiment, encamped on the battlefield of
. . . A more horrible place for a camp could not be conceived.
Over three thousand dead had been buried
there; the ground was covered with the remains of clothing and
Dead horses, which had been
insufficiently buried or burnt, filled the air with a noxious
the only water was that obtained from the surface by digging down a few
and this infiltrated with the decaying animal matter of the
The duties of the men were
enough to break down a strong man under the most favorable
circumstances. . .
It is not to be wondered that sickness
broke out [typhoid, diarrhea or dysentery] in the command.”(13)
A major contributor to death from
exhaustion, sunstroke, scurvy and disease was dirty water.
As Coleridge wrote in his long poem The Ancient
, "Water, water
every where nor any drop to drink."
course, Coleridge was writing about the
plight of sailors on a becalmed ship, surrounded by saltwater, and not
desperate soldiers on a summer march.
the predicaments are similar: no palatable drinking water.
Bacteria and e-coli had not yet been
identified, and men did not boil the water they put into their canteens.
Diarrhea was especially prevalent at prisoner
of war camps like Andersonville.
Typhoid is one of the ailments
caused by ingesting food or water contaminated by excreta;
specifically, it is
caused by the bacteria Salmonella tyhpi
Yanks and Rebels knew it as Camp Fever.
It is characterized by fever and intestinal
Camp physicians treated it
with mercury, chalk, opium, morphine, calomel and/or quinine, as well
compresses for fever.
Union records show
that nearly 30,000 soldiers died from it.(14)
Despite the close connection of
disease to thousands of fatalities in the Civil War, few sources
disease, typhoid or even medicine in their indices.
even fewer sources include
drinking water as a subject in their indices.
of the rare ones to do so is Gregory A.
In his The Civil War
Coco also describes canteens, which
were sized to hold 2.5 to 3 pints of water—the amount needed by an
infantryman on a daily march. Union
regulation canteens were soldered tin halves, with a metal stopper
with a chain.
Confederate canteens were
often made of wood "which had a tendency to leak after extended
Filled canteens were heavy, and tended
to slap against your ribs as you marched.
columns were marching in complete
silence, the "music" of hundreds of slapping canteens could still be
In the winter, filled canteens
might swell overnight and be ruined.
Thus a canteen—especially a full one in good condition—was
found on a battlefield.
Under the best of circumstances, a
canteen was unwieldy.
After a lengthy
march in the Shenandoah Valley in June 1862 under a broiling sun, 55th
infantryman William Keesy wrote of the difficulty of filling a canteen:
"It is a tedious experience. . . . You might as well try to hurry
mule, or frozen molasses on a cold day, as to hurry this business.
Try to immerse them as much as you will
will persist in bobbing up and getting their necks out of water."(16)
Vermonter Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont
in an August 1864 letter complained, "One of the greatest evils we have
contend with is a scarcity of water."
day he traveled five or six miles and
asked at several houses but could find none.
Coco notes the unseen hazards of
water sources: "Near battlefields there was always the chance that a
supply such as a well, pool, or brook would be contaminated by human or
excrement or blood, and mud churned up from the bottoms by constantly
troops, artillery carriages and supply wagons."(17)
Marion Fitzpatrick, a New England
sergeant experiencing very hot weather near Chancellorsville, wrote ".
water was scarce, good water could not be found the creeks were low,
all the fording places were filled with dead horses or
Because of such conditions, the Union
army found that 995 out of every 1,000 men contracted
diarrhea/dysentery at some
point in their careers.(19)
John J. Pullen, in his The Twentieth Maine
of Joshua Chamberlain and his volunteer regiment, also mentions water
index, and justifiably connects it with disease.
describing the lowlands of the Chickahominy
in spring 1864, he writes, "Water for the troops had to come almost
entirely from surface drainage.
ills, known as Chickahominy fever, began to be prevalent."(20)
In describing trench life in June of that
year, Pullen writes, "For weeks there was no rain; the earth, torn up
it was, yielded itself easily to the wind; great clouds of fine, red
up and down the earthworks.
Water was hard to get,
disappearing from surface sources entirely, so that wells had to be
addition to the day and night digging that was required in the
. . .
The men of the 20th baked thin and
brown, their eyes withdrawing into their skulls, faces becoming lean
Often in the heat of battle, the
buckets of water used to cool cannon would be used up, and men would
the water in their canteens to prevent explosions—leaving them nothing
Death by sunstroke was common—but
Sam R. Watkins wrote in Co. Aitch
of the sight after
ceased: "I never saw so many broken down and exhausted men in my
I was sick as a horse, and as wet
and sweat as I could be, and many of our men were vomiting with
fatigue, over-exhaustion, and sunstroke; our tongues were parched and
for water, and our faces blackened with powder and smoke, and our dead
wounded were piled indiscriminately in the trenches."(22)
In correspondence published as Letters Home from the Iron
John Pardington of the 24th
Michigan wrote on June 16, 1863:
soldier has to drink anything.
I have drank water out of a ditch where there has been a Dead horse
lying a few
rods above in the same Water, and glad to get it.”
After being assigned to bury the
dead, Alfred Bellard of Hudson City, New Jersey, gives a clear-eyed
how inured to death one could become during war: “All the horses killed
battle [Fair Oaks], and there was quite a number of them, some
lost them all, were covered over with brush and fence rails and burnt.
Our stomachs being so strong by this time that
we cooked our coffee over their ribs . . . .
There was so many dead buried round our camp, that it was our
work to clean the ground of worms . . . ."(23)
Thirsty Confederate infantryman
Theodore Upson found the water in Mississippi unfit to drink—because it
been fouled by the enemy.
He wrote, the
"Johnny's had killed hogs and cattle in the ponds and thrown dead dogs
cats in the cisterns and shallow wells, and I actualy [sic
saw men marching along through the awful dust with thier
] hanging out of thier
In the early days of 1861, when
Lincoln was still calling for militia, a group of wealthy New Yorkers
fatal possibilities of campaigning in the South's swamps and
They formed the U. S. Sanitary
preserve the health of soldiers, cure their wounds and diseases, and
them with comforts like soap, writing paper and combs.(25)
Even in the first months of the
war, lack of water could be a difficulty.
July 17, 1861, as part of the Army of the
Potomac marched out of Washington, D.C., headed for Fairfax Court
men found that their diet of salt pork produced a great thirst.
Men disregarded their officers' orders to run
into farm yards looking for water.
the retreating Southerners had cut the ropes which held the
buckets in the
wells. Some of the men stopped to eat blackberries to assuage their
General McDowell was not happy
with the way
the men did not keep their ranks.(26)
Sullivan Ballou of Rhode Island
wrote home on July 19, 1861, to his wife Sarah: “We are about five
I am sitting under a few green
boughs writing on a drum head . . . .
am very tired but perfectly well; and would give a hundred dollars if I
get a good meal of victuals.
are muddy & water very poor—however I am able to get a little
put in it and that is all.
[hardtack] & joints of meat are all we can get to eat, and that
goes hard 3
times a day.”(27)
Water had to be found for animals,
Watering-Call or Water-Call was
part of the daily routine, coming right after Sick-Call, each signaled
own bugle tune.
Billings gives a full account of the difficulty of watering horses used
artillery and cavalry.
It was easy when
soldiers were camped on a river like the Potomac.
at other times, things were quite
For instance, in 1864, the
Army of the Potomac was served by 56,499 horses and mules.
"But, of course," Billings writes,
"they were not all watered at the same pond or stream, since the army
stretched across many miles of territory.
the summer of 1864, the problem of
water-getting before Petersburg was quite a serious one for man and
No rain had fallen for several
weeks, and the
animals belonging to that part of the army which was at quite a remove
James and Appomattox Rivers had to be ridden nearly two miles . . . for
and then got only a warm, muddy, and stagnant fluid that had
The soldiers were sorely
pressed to get enough to supply their own needs.
would scoop out small holes in old water
courses, and patiently await a dipperfull [sic
of a warm, milky-colored fluid to ooze from the clay, drop by drop.
Hundreds wandered through the woods and
valleys with their empty canteens, barely finding water enough to
Soon shovels and pickaxes
were issued to dig wells 10 to 12 feet deep.(28)
When water was scarce, liquids
like milk, clabber, whiskey, and apple jack were liberated by foragers
thirst-quenchers were supplied by sutlers—private entrepreneurs who
traveling general stores out of wagons.
July 1864, a Confederate captive observed a sutler dispensing lemonade,
ice cream and other luxuries in the oppressive Georgia heat.(30)
This must have seemed like a mirage straight
from Coleridge after the conditions the captive had been taken from.
Cozzens, Battlefields of the Civil
C. Stoddard and Daniel P. Murphy, "Casualties,"
www.netplaces.com/American Civil War
S. Coopersmith, Fighting Words: An
Illustrated History of Newspaper Accounts of the Civil War, p.
Lawrence, "Lee's Army by the Number," review of Joseph Glatthaar's Soldiering in the Army of Northern
A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served Under Robert E. Lee,
in Civil War Times, December
Blumberg, review of Andrew Bell's Mosquito
Soldier: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War,
in Civil War News, October
Care, Battle Wounds and Disease," www.civilwarhome.com/civilwarmedicine
Chandonnet and Roberta Pevear, "Write
Quick": War and a Woman's Life in Letters, 1835-1867, p. 151.
Tyree, "On Lice, Disease and Quinine," http//wigwags.wordpress.com
Bollet, "Scurvy and Chronic Diarrhea in Civil War Troops: Were They
Nutritional Deficiency Syndromes?"
Journal of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 47, Issue 1
(1992), p. 49.
D. Billings, Hardtack & Coffee:
Unwritten Story of Army Life, p. 42.
Denney, Civil War Medicine: Care and
Comfort of the Wounded, pp. 119-120.
Chaney, "Civil War Diseases: Consumption and Typhoid Fever,"
A. Coco, The Civil War Infantryman:
camp, on the march, and in battle, p. 57.
A. Coco, p. 58.
Care, Battle Wounds and Disease."
J. Pullen, The Twentieth Maine,
Donald, Editor, Gone for a Soldier:
Civil War Memoirs of Private Alfred Bellard, pp.85-86.
Perret, Lincoln's War: The Untold
of America's Greatest
President as Commander in Chief, p. 45.
Young, For Love and Liberty: The
Civil War Story of Major Sullivan Ballou and His Famous Love Letter,