The soldiers called it the Virginia Quick Step or the Tennessee Trots. It would be unlikely to find some Confederate soldier who did not suffer some complaint of dysentery or diarrhea throughout the war. At Chimbarazo Hospital in Richmond, there were 10,503 cases treated there throughout the war, or, one sixth of all admissions. For one out of ten, it was deadly.[i] What is the difference between dysentery and diarrhea? Margaret Humphreys writes “Dysentery was diagnosed in cases with fever, bloody stools, and tenesmus, colonic and rectal cramping that caused a continuous urge to defecate. Absent the blood and cramping the case was categorized as diarrhea…”[ii]
What happens when the same maladies hit the ranks of the high command? How incapacitated were some of these generals? Finding detailed information about some of these generals is a hard task. Unless they wrote home of their conditions or were bad enough off to be relieved of command, we really don’t know. But there are a few cases. Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch wrote home of suffering from dysentery from June through at least early August 1862. During the days leading up to the battle of Cedar Mountain, Branch was being hauled around in an ambulance. Only as his brigade was called upon to go and stabilize Jackson’s left did Branch drag himself out to take command. Bull Paxton, commanding the old Stonewall brigade, wrote home in January 1863 that he was unwell, and had been since August the proceeding year.[iii] E. Porter Alexander suffered through the summer and fall, and doctored himself with a mixture of chloroform, brandy peppermint, and laudanum. [iv]
|Bull Paxton L.O. Branch
Probably the two most interesting cases concern Robert E. Lee and Richard Ewell. Of course, these two men are not your average, run-of-the-mill soldiers. From June 1862 until the end of the war, Lee commanded the principal Confederate army in the east, while Ewell was one of his top lieutenants, taking over Jackson’s corps after the death of the latter in May 1863.
Lee’s first recorded bout with dysentery came at Gettysburg. Two different officers, including W. W. Blackford of Stuart’s staff, noted that Lee was ill. Combine this with whatever heart ailment Lee had during the campaign, and we have a very sick commander. The second round was worse. On May 23, 1864, during the Overland Campaign, Lee was ill once again with “bilious dysentery.” Charles Venable, writing in 1873, lamented the opportunity that slipped away: “in the midst of these operations on the North Anna, General Lee was taken sick and confined to his tent. As he lay prostrated by his sickness, he would often repeat: ‘We must strike them a blow—we must never let them pass us again—we must strike them a blow’”.[v] We know that Lee, prostate in tent, missed a grand opportunity to wreck a portion of Grant’s army.
Richard Ewell’s case actually cost him his command, sort of. By the time of the Overland Campaign, Ewell was not performing the way Lee wished. Ewell was reported sick on May 26, and while he reported personally to General Lee at the end of the month, Lee refused to reinstate Ewell to command. The Second Corps was now under Jubal Early. Ewell protested, even meeting with Jefferson Davis, but to no avail. Ewell never regained active field command.
There are probably many other cases of dysentery or diarrhea and Confederate generals. Mild cases were something seldom mentioned in letters or official reports. Given how one case in particular changed the course of the war, maybe the “bloody flux” should be given more consideration.
[i] Wiley, Life of Johnny Reb, 252.
[ii] Humphrey, Marrow of Tragedy, 99.
[iii] Paxton, Letters, 72.
[iv] Welsh, Medical Histories of Confederate Generals, 4
[v] Venable, “The Campaign from the Wilderness to Petersburg,” 535.