“The amount of sickness in this command … is deplorable”: August 30, 1864 – Savannah needs quinine

On August 30, 1864, General Lafayette McLaws, commanding the District of Georgia, wrote to Major Charles Stringfellow, Assistant Adjutant-General for Major-General Samuel Jones in Charleston, in regard to a pressing matter in Savannah:

 I regret to state that the amount of sickness in this command has been and still is deplorable, and being aware of the great benefit of quinine as a prophylactic, strenuous efforts were made in the commencement of the season by my predecessor, Major-General Gilmer, and since his departure by the medical officer in this district, through the proper channels, for a supply of quinine for the District of Georgia, all of which have been totally unsuccessful. In the District of Georgia the medical officers have been unable to procure quinine even as a medicine, and officers and soldiers have been sick and suffering for the want of it, at times being entirely without any at all. Under such circumstances it is needless to add that it could not be used as a prophylactic. On the other hand the Third Military District of South Carolina has been superabundantly supplied, insomuch that within the past week, to alleviate the sufferings of officers and men in this district, I have ordered a transfer of 100 ounces to the District of Georgia. This last I bring to the attention of the major-general commanding to show that while one part of the command has had the benefit of this all-important preventative, another portion has, from some unexplained cause, suffered extremely for the want of it, even as a remedial. The requisitions for the quinine will again be made without delay, and should it be procured in sufficient quantities to be used as a prophylactic, I have little doubt that the health of the command will be much benefited.

In the 19th century, quinine was the only effective drug to counter malaria.  Derived from the bark of the cinchona tree which grew in Peru and Ecuador.

While some had attempted to smuggle seeds or seedlings out of those areas, for the most part in the mid-19th century those South American countries held a monopoly in the bark.  Thus the only means of acquiring the drug was by circumventing the blockade.

Notice that just 100 ounces was sufficient to meet the immediate for McLaws.  Such quantities came through the blockade as cargo on many runners.  But there were always worries that might not be enough to meet demands or be cutoff in the middle of the season.  In July, Jones ordered the purchase of 400 ounces of quinine on the market in Charleston.  But he ordered that supply regulated where supplies of medicated whiskey and “the infusion of indigenous bark was furnished.”  With manpower stretched thin already, the Confederacy could not afford to lose numbers to malaria in the summer of 1864.

Yes, disease was the major killer during the Civil War.  And if so, perhaps the dreaded mosquito did more damage to the armies in South Carolina and Georgia than any bullets or shells.  A few hundred ounces of quinine were just as important as hundreds of yards of breastworks, one might say.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 617-8.)

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