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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,171

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This is the mass grave for victims of the 1862 Wilmington, North Carolina yellow fever epidemic.

Yellow fever is a horrible disease. Before the discovery of that it was mosquito-borne, it was even more horrible because no one knew why they were dying or what to do about it. In the U.S., it was disturbingly common in the summer months. Perhaps the most notorious yellow fever epidemic hit Philadelphia in 1792, which had the impact of transforming American politics. That’s because the wealthy Federalists tended to leave town and the Jeffersonians stuck around caring for the dying. This changed public opinion about the parties in that city, caused many working voters to vote for the Jeffersonians, and changed this swing state of early America into a solidly Democratic-Republican state.

Well, seventy years later, not much had changed. Yellow fever would hit in the late summer and the rich would leave if they could. That was harder in 1862. North Carolina had committed treason in defense of slavery. Wilmington was on the coast and the American blockade was strong enough by then. Moreover, Wilmington was not known as a yellow fever center. The city hadn’t had an outbreak of any size since 1821, unlike other southern port cities such as New Orleans and Charleston where this was a common problem. Now, Wilmington became a base for blockade runners during the war. So it received more foreign commerce than normal during the war, at least for small, fast boats sending supplies to an increasingly beleaguered Confederacy.

That summer, one of the boats to arrive in Wilmington was the Kate, coming from the Bahamas. This is probably the ship that brought the yellow fever to the city that July. This was one of the blockade runners. Soon, some of the sailors on the ship were sick with the disease. It didn’t take long to spread into the city’s population. The epidemic began sweeping through the city. Now, the Confederate government was pretty ineffective in a lot of ways, in part because of the reality of the war and in part because they really did believe in this small government stuff when it came to doing anything to help people. But to shut down Wilmington would be an enormous blow to an already struggling South. So the government in Richmond sent Dr. W.T. Wragg down, who was probably the premier yellow fever doctor in the U.S. at this time (we’ll leave the treason out of it for now). But that didn’t mean Wragg really understood what caused yellow fever. That would have to wait another 40 years for the work of Walter Reed.

But just because no one understood in 1862 that mosquitoes were the vector for the disease doesn’t mean that they were totally clueless. Enough understanding did exist that it was recognized stagnant water was a problem. And indeed it was, even if not for the reasons they thought but because it was prime mosquito breeding habitat. So Wragg ordered a complete cleaning of the town, the removal of all stagnant water, and had the authority to order people around. And yeah, it helped for sure. It also took the blame off the sailors from the Caribbean, as it wasn’t happening because they were dirty or something. On the other hand, he thought that the disease happened because of noxious gases in the city, which was of course inaccurate. But this was top science at the time and after the war, Wragg published widely about his experiences in Wilmington, promoting these ideas. The reality was that it split the difference–it was the sailors who brought the epidemic to Wilmington but not because they were dirty or foreign or something. Anyway, such was the medicine of the mid-nineteenth century.

Somewhere between 650 and 800 people died of yellow fever in Wilmington in 1862. This out of about 4,000 people living there after the discovery of yellow fever there and out of maybe 1,500 to 2,000 who contracted the illness. Before the epidemic, Wilmington had about 10,000 people. So over half the population–anyone who had the resources–got the hell out before they contracted yellow fever. To say the least, this mass grave is only for the whites. I don’t know where the slaves were dumped. But dumped they no doubt were. Mass graves are necessary in cases of mass death. Ultimately, the point of burial is a sanitary issue, not a sentimental one. But the whites were remembered, the Blacks were not. Such is normal in a racist society. On the other hand, the epidemic allowed more slaves to escape to nearby Union ships, as discipline and control faded with disease and death. If you survived the yellow fever, you had a better chance of escape. This was especially true as the coastal areas were hard for the Confederacy to defend and were the easiest places for slaves to escape to Union lines early in the war.

The Union Navy tried to take the Kate while it was in quarantine, but Confederates in Wilmington defended it. The epidemic was a hit to Confederate war efforts, as it ended the blockade running for awhile. Sometimes, epidemics are a good thing I guess.

The Wilmington yellow fever mass grave is in Oakdale Cemetery, Wilmington, North Carolina.

If you would like this series to visit other victims of communicable diseases, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Harold Lockwood is in The Bronx and Horace Dodge is in Detroit. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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