Hard times on the home front

by | Jul 17, 2016 | News

Monroe is in the Hospital somewhere sick. Our 1st Lieut. is now Capt. and myself 1st Lieut. J.D. Currie 2nd Lieut. and Toler holds 2nd Lieut.’s place though he is not with us. He is at home, has hemorage (sic) of the lungs. Bill Davis died on his way to the Co. with yellow fever caught while passing through Wilmington. Frank Gillespie is also dead. He died the 3rd in camp quite unexpectedly at night, no one with him when he died. He had chills and it is supposed he died with congestive chill.

That grim report from a single company, excerpted from an 1862 letter penned by a Bladen County soldier serving in Virginia with the 18th North Carolina Troops, hauls the discussion of Civil War casualties back into perspective: The typical casualty was felled by something other than flying lead.

Often overlooked, though, is that life on the home front was pretty much a crapshoot, too — especially for the women, who were in many instances viewed as breeding stock whose purpose in life was to keep bearing babies until something disrupted the process.

An example of what passed for success (not unique, but hardly the norm, either) was provided by a Cumberland County woman — a planter’s wife — who, after 15 live births, one apparent stillbirth and a couple of miscarriages, was still living and had a whole decade of freedom from childbearing to enjoy before dying in her mid-50s. Her epitaph was a model of understatement: “She hath done what she could.” The math is enlightening.

The average lifespan of that family’s surviving children was 50. But the average age of the men at death was 57. The average age of the women was 41, and only because one sister who never became pregnant lived to see her 71st birthday. Take her out of the picture and the average lifespan of the other five plummets to 29.

To be sure, medicine (including midwifery) provided other exceptions: turning breech babies, for instance, and Caesarean section. But even today Caesarean is regarded as risky surgery for both mother and baby, and ours is a time in which when infection and the importance of sanitation are well understood.

The reality, though, is that people of both genders who lived before, during and after the war lived by nature’s rules, which hadn’t greatly changed since George Washington’s physicians bled him to death in 1799. If you got sick, you waited to see whether you would get better, or die.

What middle ground existed was narrow. People knew, of course, about folk remedies, including a few that worked. Modern survival guides borrow heavily from old potions and practices, some of them ancient. Someone who knew where to find willow bark had a reasonable expectation of getting relief from headache or inflammation. Ginger and other natural substances can in fact ease gastrointestinal distress.

Fate, then as now, dispensed misfortune with a heavier hand. There were wagon and carriage and rail accidents; falls, fires and fights, even an occasional duel, like the one that influenced the drawing of the Cumberland-Harnett County line in 1855.

Nature weighed in with cholera, yellow fever and dysentery, plus the full array of more selective ills: tuberculosis, diabetes, heart disease, cancer. The bigger picture, though, is of people leading what they correctly perceived as normal lives into which death intruded with great frequency from countless directions.

Black widow spiders were drawn to outhouses the way they’re drawn to water-meter boxes today. For healthy adults, most snakebites were survivable; but that didn’t mean the bite wouldn’t cost the victim a digit or even a limb. Tick bite? If fever and joint pain followed, hang on and pray. Rabies? No cure and no real controls. Food poisoning? Emetics were likely to be administered too late. Enlarged prostate? Make a will.

There were doctors, trained in reputable schools: New York City, Chapel Hill, Wake Forest, Charleston. They were well-read and conscientious, and they made house calls. But what they had to share was limited, and once those limits were passed the healers became spectators like the friends and relatives come to pray and pay their respects. And often, the final report read something like this one:

27th _ All that is mortal of my darling child, my babe I may call him, was committed to the earth. He is the 7th child I have lost.

Her “babe” was a Confederate soldier, taken ill far away and come home to Bladen to die. At least two doctors were present during his final days.

Most doctors drew their own ration of good and bad luck.

Dr. James C. Smith, who practiced medicine off Grove Street in Fayetteville, was respected, well-liked — and dead at the age of 28, unable to save himself from an illness his colleagues could not or did not identify for the waiting press.

Dr. Raiford Robeson of Kyle’s Landing, near modern-day Wade, had a practice that extended into Fayetteville and beyond Cumberland County. He very likely treated the sick and wounded after the Battle of Averasboro. (Only a questionable spelling based on what probably was a mispronunciation allows for any doubt at all.) But Robeson outlived two young wives before dying, at 53, of what his obituary reported to be “a blocked bowel.”

Those were hard, dangerous times. And the war owned no monopoly on menace.

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