Civil War was brutal, foul, filled with disease

Bristol Press, Friday July 22, 2016

BRISTOL — The Civil War was the bloodiest period in American history, but streets were also choked with horse manure, making it the smelliest.

This Tom LaPorte made clear Thursday at the Bristol Historical Society.

ESPN’s John Banks had intended to speak on the lives of Connecticut soldiers who fought in the civil war, but was forced to cancel due to family emergency. Bristol Historical Society President Mike Saman called in LaPorte, who is an avid collector of Civil War memorabilia.

To lighten the mood, LaPorte offered a follow-up presentation titled “The Straight Scoop on Horse Poop.” The 10-minute documentary, accompanied by sound effects and whimsical Western music, detailed the sanitation problems caused by horses in cities during the 19th century.

But first, LaPorte discussed the tragedies of the war.

“Only one out of four enlistees survived the war,” said LaPorte, as he addressed the more than 50 guests. “The latest figures estimate that 800,000 Americans from both sides lost their lives. It was a terrible war, more people died in the Civil War than in any other war from the Revolutionary War through Vietnam.”

Most deaths were not from injuries received in battle, but from simple diseases, LaPorte noted. “In the 1860s, we were an agrarian society. Most people grew up on a farm and thus they were isolated and didn’t have developed immune systems. If one person caught something it would spread through the camp and before you knew it there were 10,000 dead from things like measles, typhoid and dysentery.”

LaPorte said the most common medical procedure on the battlefield was amputation. “A good surgeon could take off five to six limbs in an hour; I’ve seen photographs of limbs piled outside of tents. The surgeons would just wipe their hands on their aprons and, if a body was infected, they would spread it to more patients. Often, an operation was successful but the patients would still die from disease.”

In Bristol, Company K, the 16th Connecticut Infantry, was organized by Captain Newton Manross of Forestville, a chemistry professor.

“The first battle they went into was Antietam,” said LaPorte. “It was the bloodiest day of the Civil War, with 23,000 casualties in one day. Confederate General Robert E. Lee later wrote ‘It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.’ Before you knew it, Captain Manross was hit by a cannonball, which tore open his left soldier. A letter written by a man who carried him off the battlefield said that he could look into his body and see his heart beating. He died less than an hour later.”

Prior to leaving for battle, Manross wrote his wife to say “You can better afford to have a country without a husband than a husband without a country.”

“You can only imagine the shock and dismay these young, Bristol men must have felt at being thrust into such a battle with such little preparation,” said LaPorte.

After Antietam, Company K found itself outnumbered 12,000 to 1,600 in North Carolina and, after three days, were forced to surrender. Some were taken to the prisoner camp at Andersonville, Georgia, where 33,000 men were packed into 16 acres of land. They suffered from poor sanitation, crowding, inadequate diet and exposure, resulting in 13,000 deaths. Bristol men died in the camp while others returned home emaciated and frail. Before capture, members of the unit tore up their flag and concealed pieces of it on their bodies. These pieces were later sewn back together and the restored flag is now on display at the capitol in Hartford.

“By the end of the war, 28 men from Bristol had died and 13 were discharged due to their injuries, a 60 percent casualty rate from the original enrollment,” said LaPorte. “Only two Confederate officers were executed after the war, one of which was the commander of Andersonville.”

LaPorte said he would be happy to revisit the horse poop issue and related short documentary.

“The average horse makes 30 pounds of poop every day and in London in 1850 there were 50,000 horses,” he said. “That means that there were 1,500,000 pounds of poop every day to deal with.

“During wet weather, roads were transformed into swamps. During warm weather, everything in the house would be coated in a fine powder of poop dust since people didn’t have windows. There were vacant lots where manure was piled up to 60 feet high and people would stand at street corners offering to clear the road of debris for the right price. This was especially helpful for women who wore long dresses.”

In 1894, the London Times estimated that every street in the city would be buried by nine feet of manure within 50 years, and piles would reach third-story windows in New York City.

“However, as we know, civilization was not buried by horse poop. The solution was provided by man’s ingenuity. The great poop crisis was solved when horse-drawn carriages and wagons were replaced by automobiles.”

Brian M. Johnson can be reached at 860-973-1806 or bjohnson@bristolpress.com.