A couple of weeks ago I caught the premier of a documentary, Death and the Civil War, on PBS. I was somewhat disappointed that it focused so much on battlefield deaths and seemed almost to ignore the even more numerous deaths caused by disease. It also did not mention to my satisfaction that dying continued long after the war. I suppose I can understand why one might think that once the armies stopped shooting at each other and the war ended that the dying soon stopped too. Unfortunately, though that was not necessarily true.
There were tens of thousands of soldiers that had been wounded or had contracted illnesses during the war years that lingered on with their debilities in the post war years - many passing on in the immediate months - some lingering for years. Others, particularly United States Colored Troops, contracted diseases while serving out their terms of enlistment, which sometimes lasted into the late 1860s.
Records of a number of these unfortunate men who served at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, are digitized on the National Archives website. Browsing through them shows that many did die after the war closed from a variety of ailments ranging from measles to chronic diarrhea to small pox to typhoid fever to dropsy. The pictured record above shows the death and interment of Alfred Brown of Company A, 13th United States Colored Heavy Artillery, who died of pneumonia on July 10, 1865.
Like Brown, it appears that numerous Kentucky African American soldiers died of lung ailments, such as "pneumonia," bronchitis acute", and "infected lungs." Viewing these conditions over and over in these records makes me wonder if these respiratory issues were not preexisting.
In the book A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky, the author, James F. Hopkins provided a quote from a hemp growing slave owner that described lung afflictions in his slave workforce, "from 2 to 3 of the spinners constantly off since you left home there [sic] complaints has been much as usual Roy has been sick ever since you started and I doubt very much whether he lives much longer or not he is very low with an inflammation of the lungs." Hopkins commented in general that "Other manufacturers of hemp also found that their workmen were susceptible to some kind of ailment of the lungs. Dr. J. L. Phythian, who served as physician at the state penitentiary during the Civil War, applied the name 'hemp pneumonia' to what he described as 'a very fatal disease' which seemed to affect mainly those prisoners employed in hackling the fiber. He attributed the trouble to 'fine particles of dust settling upon and irritating the body' and prescribed, with complete success according to his own report, a thorough bath before bedtime for each person engaged in that work."
Regardless of whether many of these African American soldiers had a preexisting condition that was exacerbated by the conditions experienced in camps of war, or whether they contracted their illnesses anew, their deaths should be remembered as being as significant as those who died "in glory" on the battlefield.
To view the National Archives records click here, and click on "Digital Copies."