Sunday, September 21, 2014

Disease in the Civil War

Earlier this week, I renewed my US National Archives research card. I requested Civil War pension files be pulled for two direct ancestors who served with the Union in the War of the Rebellion.

I made my way to the Archives early in the morning. The weather was gorgeous, but I didn't mind being holed up inside. In fact, I was excited to see what new information the pensions would provide. In what ways would they bring to life the war experience for my ancestors? What new information, if any, would advance my genealogy?

This was my first experience having original records pulled. When I entered the research room and signed for the first set of files, I was surprised at the size of the envelope. I thought the pension would be a couple pages. Judging by the size of the package, I was probably looking at well over 50 documents.

Both pensions were for 3rd great-grandfathers. I imagined their files to be filled with heroic accounts of battles and military accomplishments. Instead, they were rooted in something much less romantic and incredibly common - disease. They petitioned the government for pensions due to illness and poor health they attributed to their enlistment in the army.

Albert Benedick (Rank in: Private; Rank out: Sergeant)
Albert Benedick served in Company A of the 188th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. According to his pension application, he fell ill with measles shortly after his enlistment in February 1865 and suffered lasting affects.

Among the records is a hand-written affidavit from his brother John Benedick outlining the specifics of Albert's illness.

In a separate affidavit, Albert assures the pension authorities that, "I know these disabilitys are not due to any vicious habits." His request was approved, and he did receive a pension.

John W. Upton (Rank In/Out: Private)
Another 3rd great-grandfather also petitioned the government for a pension as a result of disabilities resulting from service in the war. John W. Upton enlisted with Company B of the 1st Regiment of the Arkansas Infantry.

Shortly after enlisting, John received a vaccination along with other soldiers that made him very ill. A sworn affidavit states that, "in the month of October 1863 he was vaccinated in the left arm at Fort Smith Arkansas with poisonous vaccine matter...he was vaccinated by the order of the proper officer to prevent small pox." John eventually landed in the hospital too weak to serve and suffering, in particular, from "afflictions of the eyes."

Among his records is a set of correspondence between the pension office and the War Department's Surgeon General's Office. There was an accusation that the vaccine provided to the soldiers was contaminated with syphilis.

The Surgeon General's Office confirmed that there were "222 cases of syphilis" among the 1st Regiment. The response also stated that, "The whole subject is under investigation by a Committee of Medical Officers appointed for that purpose...I forbear any further remarks at this time."

I didn't see any final response or conclusion on the matter, but John's pension application was finally approved.

Disease in War Time
In both instances, I was struck by the heavy toll that disease inflicted on the enlisted men. According to the Civil War Trust, as many as two-thirds of the 620,000 soldiers who died in the war succumbed to disease, not combat.

Mindful of those remarkable statistics, it seems Albert and John, although they remained afflicted the rest of their lives, were fortunate to have survived their initial illnesses.

Next steps include locating any existing carded medical records for John and Albert, which could shed more light on their afflictions and treatment. Archives bound...


  1. Hi! I wanted to let you know that we have featured this post on the blog in this week's edition of "What We Are Reading"!


  2. Hi,

    I want to let you know that your blog is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  3. Thanks, Amy and Jana, for the support. Much appreciated!