Sunday, September 12, 2010

Disease and Helena, Arkansas

If Camp Nelson was one of the worst places for Confederate soldiers in the trans-Mississippi, then Helena, Arkansas, must have been close to the equivalent for Union soldiers. One of my favorite Union memoirs is Leander Stillwell’s, The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War, 1861-1865 (1920). Stillwell spent some time at Helena, and here are some of his comments about conditions there:

“We [the 61st Illinois Infantry] arrived at Helena, Arkansas, on July 31st [1863], debarked and went into camp near the bank of the river, about two miles below the town. There were no trees in our camp except a few cottonwoods; the ground on which we walked, sat, and slept, was, in the main, just a mass of hot sand, and we got water for drinking and cooking purposes from the Mississippi river….I never understood why we were not allowed to camp in the woods west of the town. There was plenty of high, well-shaded space there, and we soon could have sunk wells that would have furnished cool, palatable water. But this was not done, and the regiment remained for about two weeks camped on the river bank, in the conditions above described. A natural result was that numbers of the men were prostrated by malarial fever, and this time I happened to be one of them (p. 150).” Stillwell then wrote about his severe illness and concluded “…the situation in those Helena hospitals was unusual and abnormal. The water was bad, our food was no good and very unsatisfactory, and the conditions generally were simply wretched. I am not blaming the military authorities. They doubtless did the best they could” (p. 154).

Andrew McIlwaine Bell in Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course Of The American Civil War notes that two Union regiments in particular had a rough time at Helena. The 6th Minnesota Infantry left Cairo, Illinois, in June 1864 with “900 healthy soldiers” but “by September only 144 men were fit enough to fight” (p. 93). The men were afflicted mostly by malaria as well as dysentery as they wasted away in Helena. Altogether 165 of the 6th Minnesota died of disease, but I do not know how many of these men perished at Helena; by contrast, 12 men of the 6th Minnesota died as a result of combat. But the most appalling record of deaths by disease regards the 56th U. S. Colored Infantry. This regiment was organized in the spring of 1864 and spent most of their career in the Helena area. Altogether 649 soldiers of the 56th U. S. Colored Infantry died of disease and 25 died as a result of combat. These are shocking numbers—it would be interesting to know why officials did not pull these units out of the area.

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