Smallpox and other deadly diseases killed more soldiers during the U.S. Civil War than cannonballs, bullets, or bayonets. It has been estimated that there was just one doctor for every 324 Confederate soldiers, and one for every 133 Union soldiers. Furthermore, there were severe shortages of medical supplies and abysmal sanitary conditions. Smallpox outbreaks were common on both sides of the conflict, and soldiers did what they could to protect themselves -- including self-inoculation. Using pocket knives or other sharp objects, a soldier would make a deep cut in his arm and then attempt to transmit bodily fluids from a sick comrade into the wound, with the objective of warding off smallpox. Not surprisingly, these rudimentary vaccination attempts sometimes resulted in serious infections or the transmission of other diseases.
An uphill battle against smallpox:
- Soldiers feared getting smallpox more than they feared the wounds getting infected. But the resulting infections did incapacitate thousands of soldiers for weeks and sometimes months.
- The indiscriminate transmission of lymph also introduced unwanted diseases into the bloodstream, including venereal diseases. Soldiers would often confuse a syphilis pustule with a cowpox sore, and end up infecting themselves.
- Most historians agree that roughly two-thirds of the men who died in the war were felled by disease.