Yellow Fever Tests One Man's courage.(SATURDAY)(THE CIVIL WAR)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 21, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Yellow Fever Tests One Man's courage.(SATURDAY)(THE CIVIL WAR)


With the courage of youth, a 21-year-old surgeon's steward serving in the Federal blockade off Galveston, Texas, volunteered for a risky mission: to nurse a crew of yellow-fever victims, the surgeon himself having recently succumbed to the disease. The quarantined ship flew a yellow flag to warn passing vessels to keep their distance; hence the title of this slim journal, published for the first time in book form.

Yellow fever was an often lethal disease, best medicated with quinine water. (The British in India made the quinine palatable by adding gin, and thus was invented that summer favorite, the gin-and-tonic). Because the disease's cause remained unknown until the 1890s, when Gen. Walter Reed proved it was mosquito-borne, C. Marion Dodson's selfless action compensated for the puritanical zeal of a young man who led his ship's Sunday choir and berated the wine-lust of sailor and captain alike, yet made extra cash medicating the venereal diseases sailors caught in New Orleans.

Dodson's journal is like the Cliffs Notes version of Richard Henry Dana's maritime classic "Two Years Before the Mast," but it lacks the virtue of good literature.

His terse style, often stilted diction and frequent misspellings give it a rustic American flavor that those with a ken for authenticity for authenticity's sake will value. Because it is short, generally entertaining and informative, it makes good reading - perhaps while one is vacationing in the Eastern Shore, Md., town of St. Michael's, from whence Dodson came.

Leaving his then-backwater village, which is now a tony burg of boutiques and bed-and-breakfasts where celebrities such as Paul Newman own homes, Dodson enlisted in the Navy in March 1864. Presumably he pined for adventure, though his journal does not say so. After all, his is an ordinary diary, kept without the intention of being published.

When he returned 15 months later, he went on to became a doctor, lived in St. Michael's for another 64 years and died a leading figure among Maryland's Union veterans. His journal showcases a less popularized theater of the Civil War; his Maryland residency provides regional interest.

In our process-bound age of specialization in which a man is unfit for most employment without a degree or two, Dodson's easy entry into naval service is striking. He quickly secured an appointment aboard the USS Pocahontas in Philadelphia, his only calling cards being an interest in medicine and a good family pedigree. (His relatives made up St. Michael's leading family, and his brother was a Union artillery officer.)

As the surgeon's steward - basically a pharmacist - he procured the ship's medical supplies, prescribed medicines and assisted the surgeon. His descriptions of the surgical procedures and medicines for various ailments give a somewhat gloomy glimpse into the last age ignorant of germs, let alone aspirin. While some of the medicines were plant-derived and are still used today, others were mere "snake oil."

Unsurprisingly, many sailors - especially those faking illness to avoid duty - preferred the traditional naval cure-all: a tout of whiskey or rum. Where Dodson does not fully describe ailment or cure, the editor, a longtime contributor to this page, gives helpful footnotes.

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