“The yellow fever is now more or less prevalent…”: Foster directs steps to combat an outbreak

With a very deadly disease at the fore of the news today, I find an easy step from current events back to those happening 150 years ago during the Civil War. As mentioned yesterday, Major-General John Foster, while reporting to authorities in Washington on October 4, 1864, expressed concern about the threat of a yellow fever outbreak.  The following day, he provided subordinates with instructions to combat the spread of the disease.  To Brigadier-General John Hatch, in command of the District of Florida:

The yellow fever is now more or less prevalent at New Berne, N. C., and within the rebel lines along this coast.

The major-general commanding directs that immediate steps be taken to prevent its appearance within this department. You will therefore please see that the camps and all buildings and grounds within your district are immediately and thoroughly policed and cleansed, and that lime is profusely used, particularly about the sinks. The major-general commanding further directs that instructions be given to the officers commanding outposts to admit no deserters or refugees until they have been strictly and rigidly quarantined. You are requested to keep this matter as quiet as possible.

Yellow fever was, at that time in history, dreaded as a major killer.  Just over a half century earlier, Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempt to re-establish control over Saint-Dominque were crippled by losses to the disease.  For Foster, with a limited garrison and little hope of reinforcement, an outbreak could spell disaster.  Thus his emphasis on preventing the spread of the disease.

Of course we know today, thanks to the work of doctors such as Carlos Finley and Walter Reed, that yellow fever is caused by this virus:

And is spread by this critter:

My science lesson for the day, is the nutshell description of how the tiger mosquito passes the disease.  After biting an infected host, the mosquito then feeds on another person.  The disease is not, therefore, transmitted directly from human to human, but by way of an intermediary.  Quarantines, thus, only work if the mosquitoes are kept away from those infected.

But that knowledge was some 20 years or so in the future when Foster contemplated measures to arrest the disease.  The assumption was, at the time, since yellow fever seemed related to the arrival of people from infected regions, was it was passed directly from person to person.  Thus the emphasis on quarantines and to general cleanliness around campsites.

Hatch was no stranger to these measures against the dreaded “yellow jack.” Earlier, on May 11, he’d issued General Order No. 68.  The procedures, aimed at preventing the spread of several diseases, was typical for administration of a quarantine in the theater of war:

The following quarantine regulations for the port of Port Royal, S.C., will be put in operation from and after the 15th day of May, 1864:

1. The quarantine ground shall be located in Tybee Roads or Roadstead, at the “old Savannah quarantine,” the exact place of anchorage being designated by a white buoy and flag.

2. It shall be the duty of the master and pilot of every vessel coming into this port from this date until further orders, except the pilot-boat returning from her ordinary cruising ground, to hoist a signal for a health officer in the fore-rigging, 15 feet from her deck, and come to immediately below and opposite the guard ship stationed half a mile below the inner buoy, and there wait his coming on board.

3. The health officer shall visit the vessel without unnecessary delay, ascertain her sanitary condition and the port whence she sailed. And it shall be his duty to order to the quarantine ground, there to remain as long as he may deem proper, all vessels having on board cases of yellow fever, cholera, or other infectious or contagious diseases; also all vessels coming from Key West, Havana, or any other port where yellow fever may exist.

4. No communication will be allowed with the vessel until she has been examined by the health officer, and no person will be permitted to leave her.

5. The fee of the health officer for visiting, examining, and certifying vessels arriving at this port shall be collected from all vessels except those in the Government employ or foreign war vessels, at the following rates: For each vessel from a foreign port, $6.50, and for all others, $2. The money thus collected will be turned over to the medical director for the use of the general hospitals in this department.

6. These regulations will be strictly enforced by the health officer. Should there be any deviation therefrom, or should any of the orders given by the health officer to such vessels not be strictly carried out, he will report the fact to the medical director of the department, for the immediate arrest and imprisonment of the offender.

Keep in mind that yellow fever did not just apply to Federals.  It was a common enemy and one that hurt the Confederates just as much.  Earlier in the summer, Major-General Samuel Jones expressed concern of an outbreak while writing to Charleston’s mayor, Charles MacBeth, on August 3.  At that time, authorities feared a blockade runner was bringing the disease from Nassau:

I am informed that a steamer arrived at this port this morning from Nassau. I also hear that the yellow fever prevails at Nassau to a considerable extent. May I ask you if the quarantine laws are strictly enforced, and if the quarantine station is in such a position as to insure as far as possible that the disease will not be introduced into this city. The name of the steamer is the General Whiting.

Later that same day, Jones added some clarification, which again speaks to the way this disease was understood at the time.  After noting the quarantine guard on the vessel, having been exposed to the ship’s crew and passengers, was allowed to rotate back into the city, Jones added, “I would further suggest most respectfully that the guard on it be required to remain and not permitted to come to the city while the vessel is in quarantine.”

And Jones’s fears were realized later that summer with an outbreak in the city.  According to some reports the city lost twenty per day to the disease during the worst of that period.  Yellow fever cost the Confederates at least one valuable officer.  Colonel D.B. Harris, highly valued engineer who’d just been re-assigned to Charleston’s defenses, fell ill and succumbed to the disease in October.

Since this was a common foe to Federal and Confederate, Jones and Foster mentioned the disease in their correspondence.  Foster restricted the passage of civilians through the lines on September 27:

I have been officially informed that yellow fever exists at the present time in Charleston, and that there is good reason to suppose that it also prevails in Savannah. I have therefore the honor to notify you that none of the civilians who have heretofore received permits to enter the lines of this department will be received by me until the first day of November, 1864. May I request you to have suitable notice of this given to all such persons? Their permits have passed through your headquarters.

However, by November, the disease was in retreat.  Foster would report to Washington on November 14:

The health of the department is good, and with the precautions taken, and the lateness of the season, I apprehend no cases of yellow fever, even with the intercourse by flags of truce.

Of course, now we know that was mostly due to cooler temperatures which killed off the disease carrying mosquitoes.

The success, on the Federal side at least, left a sense that the disease was stoppable.  The same precautions taken across the south in 1864 were employed years later.  Quarantines remained common through the summers of the 1870s and 1880s as civilian authorities sought to keep outbreaks from spreading.  But it took military necessity to finally identify the nature of the problem.  The alarming levels of infection during the Spanish-American War, then later during the construction of the Panama Canal, lead to more research.  It was the little mosquito that Foster and Jones should have been worried about all along!

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 89-90, 303, 310-11, 329, and 602-3.)


2 thoughts on ““The yellow fever is now more or less prevalent…”: Foster directs steps to combat an outbreak

  1. Hmm…interesting article. Fascinating how they managed the quarantines back in the CW days – some of it would be effective, some of it…well, not so much because in the case of yellow fever of course those mosquitos can fly through the windows. Checking the ship’s passengers is certainly an worthwhile idea – maybe we should learn a little more from the past and apply it to modern situations.

  2. Amazing how the south is still infested with mosquitos, gnats, and other flying biting creatures and yet you never hear of Yellow Fever anymore. It’s amazing to me what advancements we’ve made in the 150 years since the CW. Thanks for the article!

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