He Should’ve Died (But We’re Glad He Didn’t)

Charles H. Lynch, 18th Connecticut Infantry

That’s a terrible thing to think or say. “He should’ve died.” However, with some of the medical situations during the Civil War, it’s a thought that occasionally crosses the mind of a historian. Sometimes, there was an injury or illness that could or was labeled “fatal” and the very lucky soldier survived! (And, of course, all warmhearted readers and historians are happy when that happened.)

Recently, I read the diary of Charles H. Lynch, a soldier in the 18th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. Though not a particularly eloquent journal, it revealed details about a “common” Union soldier fighting in the Shenandoah Valley region.

One particular entry stood out for its medical details. The entry begins on January 6, 1863, and seems to have been continued at a later time since it includes many more details that could possibly have happened in one sick day. It is probably best to see this section as a report of Lynch’s illness and hospital stay, covering the time between January and March. Three things stand out to me in the entry: the diagnosis, the treatment, and the hospital details. All of them revealed a situation where the odds were against the sick soldier.

January 6th. [1863] Last night, while on guard duty, I was taken suddenly ill. Had to be relieved from duty. Placed in an old barn, used for a field hospital, with a leaky old roof, the rain coming down on me. Colonel, I was informed, came to the barn, saw my condition, ordered me carried to a general hospital known as Stuart’s Mansion, afterwards named Jarvis Hospital, as the west end of Baltimore. At the hospital I was examined by a surgeon who pronounced my illness typhoid fever and the pleurisy. I was placed in Ward 4. I was very ill. My side was cupped for the pleurisy. Received good care from the nurses, one woman and four men, two by day and night. My comrades of Company C called on me quite often until the company was ordered to Fort Marshall at the east end of Baltimore, about five miles from the Hospital. In good quarters. All were very sorry I could not be with them. I also received a call from our good Governor Buckingham. Promised friends at home that he would call one me, see that I was having good care…

…On the wall, at the head of our beds, was a card with our name, company, and regiment. The loyal people of Baltimore often visited the hospital, furnishing entertainment for the patients in songs and recitations. Was very much enjoyed and appreciated as the time dragged slowly along.[i]

First, the diagnosis. A surgeon pronounced Charles Lynch’s illness as typhoid fever and pleurisy. That’s a rough illness combination and could have killed him before adding other circumstances. Typhoid fever is caused by contaminating bacteria in water; during the Civil War, it was a relatively common illness because of the poor sanitation in camps. Typhoid fever symptoms include headache, sore throat, high fever, chills, loss of appetite, and diarrhea;[ii] the symptoms usually lasted for about four weeks, leaving the patient weak and struggling to regain strength. Pleurisy is caused by a change in the membrane surrounding the lungs and results in stabbing pain as the patient breathes; it can be a complication to pneumonia and other lung ailments.[iii] Clearly, Lynch’s illness was serious.

Second, the treatment. Though nurses gave Lynch around-the-clock care and probably dosed him with medicines, he only specifically mentions one medical treatment, one that he likely wasn’t going to forget. Cupping. It was a blistering procedure used in those “good old days” of heroic medicine to supposedly draw the illness out of the body. How was it done? Usually a glass “cup” was heated and placed directly on the skin near the affected area (in this case, the side/lung area). The suction created by the hot glass on the skin would cause a blister to form; later, that blister would be sliced open so the fluid could drain. Supposedly, that fluid was causing the illness.[iv]

Jarvis Hospital, illustration c. 1862.

Third, the hospital details. Lynch made some notes about his trip to the hospital. His medical journey began at a field hospital near camp where he was sent when he became too ill to stand guard duty. That field hospital was a barn with a leaky roof. Fortunately, for Lynch, the commanding officer sent him to a more permanent hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Jarvis Hospital had been constructed in 1861 on land confiscated from the Steuart Family who were pro-Southern supporters. Lynch was placed in Ward 4 and recorded some details about his hospital stay, giving researchers another glimpse at Civil War medical history from a soldier’s perspective.

  • Examined by a surgeon
  • Received constant care – day and night – from five nurses
  • Nurses – four were men, one was a woman
  • Comrades and friends were allowed to visit as Lynch recovered
  • Medical staff practiced basic record-keeping
  • Civilians visited soldiers in the hospital.

Sometimes we forget the severity of disease during the Civil War. We tend to focus on the casualties from battles, but more soldiers died of illness than bullets during this conflict. Charles Lynch’s account is quite short and matter-of-fact, but it helped me reflect on the silent killers lurking in the camps. As I read his account and thought about other soldiers who contracted typhoid and didn’t survive, I thought that dreadful thought: “He should’ve died.”

In every step of Lynch’s medical journey, he encountered situations or complications which could’ve killed him. The cold, leaky barn. The journey to the hospital in cold winter weather. Pleurisy paining every breath. Opening the cupping blister with an unsterilized blade (could have introduced infection). Typhoid fever alone.

Tally it all, and Charles Lynch was one of the lucky ones. And I’m glad he survived.

[i] Charles H. Lynch, This Cruel War: The Civil War Diary of Charles H. Lynch, 1915, reprinted in 2016.

[ii] “Typhoid Fever” in Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health by Miller, Keane, 4th Edition, 1987, page 1276-1277.

[iii] “Pleurisy” in Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health by Miller, Keane, 4th Edition, 1987, page 977

[iv] C. Keith Wilbur, Civil War Medicine, 1998. Page 5 – specifically mentions blistering as an 1850’s and 1860’s treatment for pleurisy.