Category Archives: U.S. Civil War

Irritable heart

Besides chronic rheumatism, my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull may have suffered from irritable heart — a combat-related debility that emerged during the the U.S. Civil War.

Dr. Jacob Mendez Da Costa studied what was then seen as a cardiovascular disease among Union soldiers at Turner’s Lane hospital in Philadelphia. It became known as Soldier’s Heart and, later, Da Costa Syndrome.

Da Costa probed the war-related origins of irritable heart and found that, in some cases, it could transition into organic heart disease  — discoveries that would become important to my great, great grandfather in his later years.

Union Reenactors Gear
Union Army reenactors load heavy knapsacks, Spotsylvania Court House, Va., 4 May 2014. Overexertion before and during the stress of battle under burden of packs, gear and arms contributed to irritable heart. Photo by Molly Charboneau

What the Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion says about irritable heart  jibes closely with Arthur’s description of his llness:

“Among the affections of the heart a functional disturbance known by the name of irritable heart or cardiac muscular exhaustion was the most notable product of the war.”

“Irritable heart appears to have been a result of active field service” including “drills and double-quick movements of camp, effected under the full burden of arms and accouterments” as well as “some over-action of the heart during a particular battle or campaign.”

“The affected soldier was subject to fits of fluttering cardiac action, accompanied by pain in the praecordia, shortness of breath and perhaps haemoptysis, dizziness and dimness of vision; sometimes these were so severe as to occasion insensibility.”

With advances in medicine and diagnostic testing, the irritable heart of the Civil War era is now regarded as a stress-related neurological/anxiety syndrome — the first identification of a post traumatic stress disorder among U.S. combat troops.

After Arthur “gave out” he was sent to De Camp General Hospital for two months of treatment — consisting of rest, a therapeutic diet and an intriguing regimen of pain relievers and unusual-sounding tonics that predated modern medicine.

What were these analgesics and potions? Are any still used today? What was the diet like? The detective work continues.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved. 

 

Killer knapsack

Just as field commanders logged each Civil War battle, the U. S. medical corps submitted reports to the Surgeon General on war-related injuries, illnesses, diseases and patient care.

Their chronicles — published as The Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion (1861-65) — contain valuable clues about causes and treatment of my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull’s heart and lung complaints and chronic rheumatism.

BookReaderImagessoldiers2
Recommended placement of knapsacks, gear and weapons by Union soldiers to avoid injury and illness. Source: MSHWR

In an 1889 declaration in his pension file, my great, great grandfather said his rheumatic illness  — particularly pain in his right shoulder and arm — was caused by “exposure and hard marching, having to carry his knapsack and other accouterments, bearing more especially from straps placed on right shoulder.”

Turns out this may have contributed to Arthur’s heart and lung problems, too.

In a section on “Morbid Conditions Attributed to the Weight of the Accoutrements,” the MSHWR  discusses “haemoptysis” (spitting up blood) “after a paroxysm of accelerated cardiac action and oppressed breathing” — which sounds very much like Arthur’s illness.

The passage continues: “In many cases, the soldier, and frequently the medical officer, attributed the haemoptysis to exercise under the weight of knapsack and pressure of the belts.”

Veteran Union soldiers on the march had learned to jettison their 40-50 pounds of pack and gear — traveling light with just a rifle and ammo, weighing about 10 pounds, and some undergarments rolled into a blanket slung over their shoulder.

Arthur was an inexperienced recruit unaccustomed to doing this. So he may have succumbed from the exertion of soldiering on with his heavy, killer knapsack — an occurrence common enough to be noted in Civil War medical literature.

And he might also have been among the large number of Union soldiers who were affected by a newly diagnosed, war-related syndrome. More on this as Arthur’s saga continues.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved. 

 

 

Mother of three

While my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull was in the Union Army (1864-65), his wife Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull was left in charge of their household in Conklin, Broome Co., N.Y.

Union Reenactors 4 May 2014
Union Army reenactor and his wife, Spotsylvania Court House, Va., 4 May 2014. Photo by Molly Charboneau

What was life like for my great, great grandmother during the Civil War years?  It’s hard to know with few records to go by.

Elizabeth, as she was called, was 27 in 1865 and a mother of three young children — Emma, 7, born in Pennsylvania; Carrie, 5, born in Delaware Co., N.Y.; and Milo, 3, born in Broome Co., N.Y. The family had moved several times since her 1856 marriage to Arthur in Liberty, Susquehanna, Pa.

Arthur received a $300 bounty when he enlisted — equivalent to more than $5,000 today — so there would have been money to live on. But for Elizabeth, as for many women of that era, her husband’s absence also brought new responsibility to run things as she thought best.

Census records show she had family living nearby to turn to for help — her older sister Rhoda Ann (Blakeslee) Whitney, Arthur’s parents Jeremiah and Mary Bull and Arthur’s sister Mary Emma (Bull) Tamkins, whose husband Edward was also away in the 137th Regiment N.Y. Infantry.

Mary Bull signature
Signature of Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull, 53, on 9 May 1892 affidavit in Civil War widow’s pension application file. Photo by Molly Charboneau.

But I have inherited no diary or letters from Elizabeth to illuminate her inner life. I have only her signature on documents from her application, decades later, for widow’s benefits.

What were her thoughts, her hopes, her worries as a young woman during the U.S. Civil War? How did she cope with having a husband in harm’s way? What did she tell her children?

How I wish she had found the time to leave answers to those questions.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

 

 

Bloody Angle

4 May 2014: Union forces launch assault on the Bloody Angle during Battle of the Muleshoe reenactment. Photo: Molly Charboneau
4 May 2014: Union forces launch assault on the Bloody Angle during Battle of the Muleshoe reenactment. Photo by Molly Charboneau

During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on 12-13 May 1864, a legendary struggle occurred between North and South at the Bloody Angle — the tip of the Muleshoe salient.

The 4 May 2014 reenactment of this confrontation was powerful. Union soldiers charged uphill into the angle, were repulsed, and then ran up again in the face of Confederate rifle fire. Casualties fell on both sides. Artillery boomed, a steady reminder of my ancestor — Union artillerist Arthur Bull.

The day was sunny, though — not like in 1864 when pouring rain turned the fields to mud, and the waves of attacks gave way to intense hand-to-hand combat lasting nearly 24 hours.

“You know, that’s the actual battleground across the street behind those trees,” said a guy sitting next to me. “I found it even more impressive than the Wilderness.”

So after the gun smoke cleared, taps was played and the soldiers marched off the field — I drove with my friend Jane down the Brock Road to the Spotsylvania Battlefield.

Researching my great, great grandfather’s unit, I spent hours studying descriptions and maps of the battlefield, yet I was totally unprepared for its enormity.

“Where is the Muleshoe?” I asked a park ranger, expecting to see an obvious horseshoe shape somewhere.

Sweeping his arm in a wide arc he replied, “You have to understand, it’s about two miles long.” Two miles long? I was stunned.

Amid gently rustling treetops, faint bird song, sunshine and shadow, I stood at the Bloody Angle and absorbed the sheer immensity of the battleground’s hallowed landscape and the lingering spirit of thousands of soldiers like my ancestor who stepped up that day to change the course of history.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.