Apr 1, 2006

Soldiers, Sickness, and the Swamp

Left: Painting entitled "The Battle of Fallen Timbers"

The arrival in the late eighteenth century of American troops to the Great Black Swamp gives the historical record plenty of eyewitness accounts to the extent and severity of infectious disease in the region. The soldiers’ near-unanimous condemnation of the ill health awaiting human occupants of the Swamp is testament to the idea that there was an inherent unhealthfulness to Northwest Ohio that was much more extreme than the areas from which the troops hailed.

The human toll from fighting at the August 20, 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers owed as much – or more – to disease as it did warfare. The Legion of the United States moved from Camp Au Glaize beginning August 8th through portions of the Swamp, and bivouacked near present-day Waterville on August 19th. The soldiers returned to Fort Defiance on August 27th; it was just after their return from the Great Black Swamp that malarial symptoms appeared. Lieutenant John Boyer noted on September 2 that “[t]he soldiery get sick very fast with the fever and ague, and have it severely.”

In his September 3 entry, he said that “the troops are very sickly, and I believe the longer we continue in this place the worse it will be.” Illness was not limited to the Legion, as the mounted volunteers from Kentucky also fell victim to the illnesses plaguing Swamp visitors. General Wayne noted that the “great number of sick belonging to the Mounted Volunteers” contributed to the exhaustion of medical stores.

In a letter to Secretary of War Timothy Pickering dated September 2, 1795, over a year after the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Wayne noted the extreme level of sickness among his troops. The Legion’s effective strength was diminished by the annual return of malarial illness; Wayne bemoaned both the high number of sick troops as well as the scarcity of medicines for the treatment of the fevers that the soldiers experienced:
It’s with much concern, I find the sick list increasing by rapid degrees – four weeks since the Number in the hospitals did not exceed One hundred & twenty, they now exceed three hundred, & what is truly alarming, there is not nor has there been one ounce of bark in the Medical stores, for more than six months past, nor is any to be procured…
The "bark" mentioned by Wayne was that of the cinchona tree, from which the anti-malarial compound quninine is derived.

Left: Secretary of War James McHenry

The notorious insalubrity of the Great Black Swamp was noted by Secretary of War James McHenry in a 1796 letter to General Wayne:
It has been stated to me that Fort Miamis [located in present-day Maumee, Ohio] has proved fatal to a majority of the British troops stationed there, that the sickly season is at hand – and that wine, bark, and Brandy have proved to be ineffectual to the prevention or cure of intermittents and bilious fevers, which has prevailed at that post.
Wayne, however, had little remaining time to contemplate the relative healthfulness of the region; his own deteriorating health, most likely aggravated by his numerous trips through the Swamp, ended during a trip north to Detroit in December, 1796.

Considerable military activity occurred in Northwest Ohio in conjunction with the War of 1812. There are a wide variety of extant accounts that describe conditions – both environmental and epidemiological – faced by troops in and around the Great Black Swamp. Captain Robert Lucas, later Governor of the State of Ohio, illustrated the conditions in the Swamp during his first passage through the area on May 31, 1812:
Crossed the Sandusky to Mr. Varnum – delivered my dispatches to Capt. Welch and proceeded on to the foot of the rapids [of the Maumee River] through a tremendous Swamp of about 40 miles Distance…we proceeded on to the foot of the rapids the Swamp being without intermission from knee Deep to Belly Deep to our horses for 8 or 10 mile together.
Lucas returned to the Swamp approximately three weeks later in search of General Hull’s troops; his first passage was as an advance reconnoitering. He left the following entry in his journal about the Swamp:
Started from the foot of the rapids [of the Maumee River] to meet the army proceeded through the Wilderness towards Urbanna [Ohio] – traveled about 25 miles, a very rainy day and encamped in what is Called the Black Swamp, had a Disagreeable night of wet and Musketoes.
The trips through and around the Swamp likely exposed Lucas to malarial parasites, as he began to write of illness consistent with symptoms of malaria on July 1, 1812:
The army marched on the 4th Regiment went on as Pinonners this day I was taken with a flux and fever so that I was scarcely able to ride…I had a Disagreeable night and took some medicine.
This would also be within the window of incubation for known malarial infections, which range from 7 to 30 days for persons not undergoing a regimen of prophylactic anti-malarial medications.

It is important to note that historians face certain etymological and literary challenges in the process of attempting to “diagnose” illnesses recorded in the period that they study. Physician Daniel Drake made the following the following observation regarding the nomenclature of malarial illnesses:
In different parts of the Interior Valley, the fevers, which we are about to study, are known under the names – autumnal, bilious, intermittent, remittent, congestive, miasmatic, malarial, marsh, malignant, chill-fever, ague, fever and ague, dumb ague, and lastly the Fever.
In the case of Lucas, it is possible that he did not record all of his symptoms, either because he did not recognize them or because he did not think them significant. Typhus, for example, shares some symptomatology with malarial fevers, but usually arrives with a skin rash. However, given his three-week head start on Hull’s army, it is not surprising to see Lucas note:
“The army getting Sick Considerably, and I fear that they will suffer the ensuing Season.”
This passage suggests that the illness suffered by Lucas and the troops may have been contracted during their respective travels in the Great Black Swamp; that of Lucas occurring during one of his two trips (May 31 to June 19) through the Swamp, and that of Hull’s army during their late June march through the Swamp on the way to Detroit. Hull indicated that, as of July 1, there were already 120 sick soldiers among his troops. Hull also noted the prevailing opinion that the soldiers “were in a country liable to the ague and fever.”

Left: Portion of extant Great Black Swamp in Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge

Nathan Boulden, regimental surgeon attached to the 28th Infantry, noticed the particularly unhealthful quality of life afforded residents and soldiers in the Sandusky area. He noted in a letter to Surgeon General James Tilton that the Swamp was a land “astonishingly fruitful in the production of marsh miasmata,” and that it was not unusual for entire families to be struck down with malarial fevers simultaneously.

Entering the Swamp from the west in mid-October of 1812, William Henry Harrison’s troops began a march up the Maumee to support the beleaguered Hull. A soldier in the company, Elias Darnell, kept a journal of his experiences. He noted the “wet and marshy” terrain that the troops encountered as they progressed through Swamp territory, and complained that it was “very difficult to get a good place for an encampment” in the marshy conditions. By November 4th, Darnell reported that a great many troops were succumbing to an illness:
Four of this army have gone to the silent tomb to-day, never more to visit their friends in Kentucky. The fever is prevalent in every camp. Nearly every day there is one or more buried.
By December 24 Darnell’s tone had become desperate, and he lamented the abominable conditions that Harrison’s troops endured. The army had been stationed about ten miles upstream from the Maumee Rapids, and winter was beginning to arrive in the Swamp. Darnell questioned the wisdom of continuing the slow trek to Malden and Detroit:
And would it not have been better if this army had been disbanded? Our sufferings at this place have been greater than if we were in a severe battle: More than one hundred lives have been lost owing to our bad accommodations! The sufferings of about 300 sick at this time, which are exposed to the cold ground, and deprived of every nourishment, are sufficient proofs of our wretched condition! – The camp has become a loathsome place…
The Swamp, indeed, was a "loathsome place" for soldiers, traders, and indigenous peoples, a place to be avoided whenever possible.


Stephanie said...

How much of the Black Swamp remains?

historymike said...

Not much, Steph. Probably less than 2% of the original Swamp.

Stephanie said...

That seems like a very good thing.

liberal_dem said...

That seems like a very good thing.

You must have stock in the bulldozer and drainage industries.

Stephanie said...

No, I just don't like the idea of malaria getting spread around and making millions of people sick. But, hey, I must be greedy to value human life more than stagnant water.

liberal_dem said...

But, hey, I must be greedy to value human life more than stagnant water.

Are these the only two options?

Stephanie said...

I guess the question is:

Have you been reading the many posts Mike's been putting up on the Great Black Swamp?