Guest Blogger: Chaplain Dave Thompson on Non-Combat Casualties

Our blog-friend Chaplain Dave Thompson joins us for another post. This time, he writes about the matter of non-combat casualties of war since the Civil War.

As you are well aware, I have been trying to tell the story of disease in our wars…especially WW I ( The Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 in WW I), which cost more lives than combat in that conflict, For every American war before WW II, this largely was the case… death to disease trumped all combat deaths in these conflicts!.

In the Civil War a similar phenomenon of more deaths to disease than combat occurred (see: http://www.civilwarhome.com/casualties.htm ). Of the 618,000 soldiers who died in the Civil War, 2/3rd’s of them died of disease (414,152) and only 1/3 died in combat (204,070).

Then there were an additional 24,866 soldiers who died in prison due to disease and mistreatment as POW’s by both Union and Confederate forces!Outside of McKinley Kantor’s Pulitzer Prize Winning novel of a Confederate POW camp in SW Georgia,  Andersonville (see: http://www.amazon.com/Andersonville-Plume-MacKinlay-Kantor/dp/0452269563/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1362578878&sr=1-1&keywords=andersonville ), much of  the darker story of neglectful treatment of POW’s in the Civil War, on both the Union and Confederate sides, is rarely told today in general American History texts covering the 19th Century. See the Camp Sumter/Andersonville POW Prison story ( http://www.nps.gov/ande/historyculture/camp_sumter.htm ), where 45,000 union POW’s were imprisoned (see:http://www.nps.gov/ande/historyculture/camp_sumter.htm ), and where 13,000 died of a variety of diseases (see: http://www.nps.gov/ande/historyculture/causesofdeath.htm ).

Andersonville’s decrepit conditions were chronicled in the diary on P.O.W Newell Burch. Burch of the 154th New York Infantry, was captured the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg and imprisoned at Belle Isle and then Andersonville. He is credited with being the longest held Union Soldier during the Civil War, a total of 661 days in Confederate hands (usgwarchives.net). His diary is currently possessed by the Minnesota Historical Society.

The breakdown of casualties to disease and battles was quite interesting. Again, the stunning statistics of disease in war (over 66% of Civil War soldiers died in bed not in battle) that is often airbrushed out of our American histories, only telling the “glory” side of war.  More Civil War soldiers died of dysentery and diarrhea alone (way over 200,000) than were killed in all the battles and battlefields of the Civil War. Yet, you don’t see that kind of detail dealing with sickness in Civil War museum exhibits or re-enactments of battles…no field hospitals are built in rear areas in these re-enactments, nor any effort made to tell the general public the story of disease that accounted for the deaths of 2/3 of all the Civil War deaths in the Union and Confederate Armies. Many Americans are ignorant of this fact as we near the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.

The “other war” against disease in conflicts is the kind of military history that is not talked about a lot in our “battle-centric” telling of war stories. Fundamentally, I sense, especially among military historians a problem in methods of historiography which focuses on battles as the easiest and most interesting things to report in a conflict, as well as an easy way to add up winners and losers by territory conquered or numbers killed (KIA) or  wounded (WIA). Meanwhile, lurking in the background are less jazzy statistics, like death dealing diseases in rear area cantonments, that cumulatively would trump the numbers of any combat casualties of a particular battle, campaign, or war.

Thus, we often ignore this larger background story of disease in war that dismally claims massive numbers of victims by a 2-1 margin in rear area field and general hospitals and POW camps, because it may have little to do with a 2 or 3 day battle like the Battle of Gettysburg. Unless a disease struck in the middle of a battle (like the 1918 Flu Pandemic did at the height of the Meuse Argonne Campaign in WW I, where General Pershing’s AEF was being decimated by this malady that made so many troops ineffective in  that battle), little is ever said in the course of a war about the role of disease in a war (except that written by medical historians and buried in medical record archives of the Army and Navy). Only in long Civil War sieges like that of Vicksburg or St. Petersburg, or the discovery of terrible health conditions in POW camps, would reports of sickness creep into a battle history, and then only in a sentence or paragraph of historical commentary, before getting back to what really was interesting…the movement of the chess pieces of armies and stories of bravery of solders, marines or sailors in combat.

Yet at the end of the war, when you add all the casualties related to cause of  death, we are shocked to discover the overwhelming numbers of those who lost their lives to disease…and a fair minded person asks, “where did that come from?” This big under-reported story of disease during the progress of a war is often ignored in our battle-centric focus of war reporting and military history inquiry, causing this “end of war statistic” to jump out at us after the war is over… but the military histories have already been written excluding this stark fact.

This dismal and boring aspect of disease in war largely goes under-reported in war…just like the story of logistics in war…the thousands of logistics ships and convoy escort ships that kept our forces going for four years to Europe and across the Pacific in WW II (a really big story of one of the main reasons we won WW II, which was lost in the historical glitter and clutter of reporting only 2 day to a week battles at sea…at Midway, Coral Sea, the “Slot” off of Guadalcanal, and Philippine Sea…or the terrible Pacific Island campaigns fought by sailors and marines that each took several weeks to a month per island). My eyes were opened to this little told “boring” logistical history, when I served on the USS Sacrament (AOE-1) that kept a whole aircraft carrier battle group going in beans, bullets/bombs and ship and jet fuel and supplies and mail  for a deployment in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Sacramento_%28AOE-1%29 ). Wars and combat operations would grind to a halt in weeks without this logistical tail working well. Rarely is that story told in our histories.

You are then struck with the challenge of historiography…how we select what we report on and what we ignore in our telling of military history. My sense is disease has not been given equal billing…or at least paid its due, in many of our American war chronicles of military history. It would make a great topic at a convention of military historians…and hopefully the presenter would not be thrown out of the presentation room for pressing for better reporting of this often lost story of the “other war” with disease that goes on in every one of our conflicts. The diseases change from war to war, but the challenge remains: Today we still face the danger of a variant of the 1918 flu pandemic bug getting away for us with CDC estimates of 100 million casualties…or “super drug resistant bugs” that can overwhelm a military hospital full of wounded military personnel and kill through infection many servicemen in record time.

As a former Navy Fleet Hospital Chaplain for a 500 bed combat zone fleet hospital,  I am impressed with this side of war that a lot of chaplains in military hospitals, as well as military doctors, nurses and medics/corpsmen, see with great regularity. It is not the glory side of war, but the gory side of war…with field and general hospitals filled with wounded warriors and service personnel stricken with all manner of death dealing diseases, soon forgotten as the battle moves on…and the story quickly moves on to the next battle or campaign.

The big lesson of history in our wars is the critical role our military medical departments play in dealing with wounds of war and infectious and debilitating diseases of the battlefield that can swallow large portions of armies and navies over the course of a war. It is a cautionary tale to military leaders not to neglect paying attention to disease in war that easily can kill more service personnel than any combat they may encounter. The record of history is clear that to ignore the medical aspect of military operations is to traverse into a deadly kill zone at one’s own peril with often devastating consequences. Only as we report this “other war” against disease and it becomes part of our military histories and learning from past conflicts, will we remain vigilant and prepared to fund and support efforts to deal with future medical challenges of disease on the battlefield.

Well, I have waxed long on the topic of disease getting better billing in our military histories. You are welcome to float this topic at a convention of military historians, but I am not sure what kind of reception you will receive. The “glory story of war” bias is alive and well among many military historians who see reporting diseases during wars as a distraction from what really is important in military history…reporting battles, campaigns and politics of war.

All I would hope would happen is an act of inclusion of reporting on disease among military historians…not exclusion …not diminishing the acts of valor or sacrifices of combat…but including better reporting of the role of disease in war in keeping with the scope and dimension of the problem… in the larger sphere of military history reporting.

©2013 David Thompson

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Comments

  • Genealogy Lady  On 14 Mar 2013 at 12:38

    I have a couple civil war ancestors (actually the brothers of my direct line) who died of disease not battle wounds. One was a 15 year old drummer boy.

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