Lincoln's Fifth Wheel: the Political History of the United States Sanitary Commission

By William Quentin Maxwell; Allan Nevins | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER IV
Ambulance Corps, General Supplies, and Medicines, 1861

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THE Sanitary Commission fought a pestilence that walked in darkness more than destruction that wasted at noon. The Commissioners believed that pure air safeguarded good health. But war meant overcrowding of soldiers. Army regulations permitted the crowding of regimental camps at the rate of 86,000 men to a square mile. Commissioner Elisha Harris wrote: ". . . in hospitals and transports the natural evacuations and bodily excretions, the suppurating wounds, the gangrenous parts, and uncleansed persons and clothing of vast numbers of soldiers in an unhealthy condition, are combined to vitiate the local atmosphere."1 Given these circumstances, Harris feared the "worst of endemic infections."

Theoretically the medical officer could control, anticipate, and prevent disease if he took proper precautions. By repeated physical examinations he could help rid the army of weaklings; by revaccination of troops he could minimize the threat of smallpox. In reality a conscientious surgeon might go to the trouble of setting various receptacles in boiling water, fumigating his patients' uniforms, washing their underwear, ventilating his hospital, and separating his patients; then, as though in defiance of his efforts, he frequently watched the symptoms of epidemic disease develop in the

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1
Elisha Harris, Hints for the Control and Prevention of Infectious Diseases in Camp, Transports, and Hospitals ( 1863), p.14.

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