Historical Natural History: Insects and the Civil War
Gary L. Miller
This article is reprinted and adapted in part from Miller, G. L. 1997. Historical Natural History: Insects and the Civil War. American Entomologist 43:227-245.
Portions of this article are copyrighted by the Entomological Society of America and are reprinted with permission. Other reproduction of this material is prohibited.
Section 3: Gallinippers Galore
Although nonbiting flies abounded, biting flies proliferated as well, and presented their own set of problems. Species of mosquitoes can transmit disease causing organisms that cause malaria and yellow fever. The biting midges (also known as punkies, no-see-ums, and sand flies) are annoying pests of man and animals. Large numbers of blackflies or buffalo gnats can interrupt livestock feeding, actually kill animals, and bother humans. As the name suggests, biting flies have specially adapted mouthparts for biting their host to obtain a blood meal. This blood meal provides the nutrients for proper egg development in the female fly.
No story about the involvement of insects with the Civil War would be complete without referring to mosquitoes. Called "gallinippers" by the soldiers, they were considered by some Confederates to be a greater nuisance than Yankee bullets. One imaginative Confederate, commenting on mosquitoes during the Civil War, said they were a "preponderous size--almost able to shoulder a musket" (Wiley 1994). The low-lying wet areas of the Mississippi River provided an excellent breeding habitat for mosquitoes. A Rebel compared the mosquitoes of his native Tennessee to those of his current billet in the Mississippi lowlands. "The Mississippi river fellow is far larger, has a longer and sharper bill, and though he sings the same tune, he sings it with far greater ferocity"; although the Tennessee mosquitoes could only muster squads, the Mississippi mosquitoes moved in regiments (Wiley 1994).
J. H. Browne, a correspondent for the New York Tribune, confirmed the mosquito problem along the Mississippi. He not only elaborated on his disdain for the pests but even accused them of having Confederate sympathies.
The countless musquitoes in the vicinity of Fort Pillow, during the month of April, 1862, must have had strong Secession sympathies; they certainly were bitter enemies of the Nationalists and phlebotomized them without mercy. They never were so numerous and venomous before at that season of the year, in that latitude, and they bled soldiers and sailors as perseveringly as did ever Dr. Sangrado his system-murdered patients.
Those annoying insects were always vigilant, and had the honor of extracting the earliest sanguinary fluid during the bombardment.
They had no fear of gunboats or mortars, artillery or bayonets. They recognized no distinction in rank, attacking Commodores and Captains, Bohemians and Brigadiers alike.
One hundred did I slay, even while writing half a dozen lines; and yet there were thousands to supply their places. They seemed as anxious to die as the Rebels pretend to be.
The difference between them was, they did die, and the Rebels did not- - - when they could help it. Mortifying reflection to vain-glorious Man! Musquitoes are braver than the three hundred Lacedaemonians who fought and fell beneath the shade of Xerxes' arrows.
Sleep was often an impossibility, on the Fleet or in camp; and a number of the Bohemians rose one morning with their optics so nearly closed, from the attack of the musquitoes, that the poor fellows would have been entirely excusable if they had taken what, in bar-room parlance, is classically called, an eye-opener.
Confound the musquitoes! I used to exclaim every minute. They were the pests of the South, and of summer, and, like the Thane of Cawdor, did murder sleep!
Every thing was very dull about Pillow the first two or three weeks, with the exception of the constant battles between the Bohemians and the musquitoes; the latter having declared unrelenting and ceaseless war against the knights of the pen.
The strife went on without intermission, day and night; the musquitoes relieving each other punctually, and mounting guard every five seconds.
We had no bars [mosquito bars or netting] on the fleet (and none in the Mississippi, for the matter of that), and we were therefore victims to the remorseless cruelty of the venomous insects at all times and in all places.
The Correspondents, as I have said, often arose in the morning with their visuals so swelled, from the bites of the winged pests, that they looked as if they had been taking a few first lessons in the "noble and manly art of self-defense," from the Tipton Slasher or the Benicia Boy.
I pitied the poor fellows, but the fact that my own suffering were even greater than theirs, prevented that complete exercise of commiseration which an intact epidermis would have insured.
The musquitoes in that vicinity must have been of the true Secession order, being opposed- - -as the Richmond papers used to be- - -to reading and writing; believing it conducive to error and disobedience.
We never took up a book or commenced any manuscript but the musquitos attacked us in force, and showed the most desperate determination to drive us from our labor or our lore.
The reason of this was, I conjecture, that the musquitoes hated writing because they themselves could not write, and they therefore made their mark- -most effectually, too, as my crimson-spotted hands and face fully and convincingly and painfully attested. (Browne 1865)
The annoyance of mosquitoes also punctuated the eastern theater. Two days before the Battle of Mechanicsville (9), a Pennsylvanian recorded in his diary simply, "Went on picket at five o'clock in the evening. Got no sleep at all that night on account of the mosquitoes being so bad. No other news" (Tritt 1993). Presumably, the soldier got no sleep after he came off picket duty. A New York Volunteer stationed near Charleston, SC, described the hazards of picket duty in mosquito-infested areas.
Our worst picket duty is on the borders of the swamp. The myriads of stout ringtailed mosquitoes rush upon the detail the moment it arrives and jab their bills in chuck up to the head . . . Even overcoats are no protection from the torturing rascals, who pierce through everything. Sleep is of course impossible with such a ravenous hoard of bloodsuckers singing and biting and buzzing . . . getting up your sleeves and trouser legs, crawling slyly down your neck or dashing into your ears and throat, wearing a fellow's life out with coughing, slapping, pinching and scratching (Whightman 1863).
Enduring the mosquitoes was bad enough, but it was the ensuing malaria that could prove worse for many soldiers. Folk of the 1860s did not connect the disease with mosquitoes. One Union soldier reflected that "We are more afraid of ague here than the enemy" (Wiley 1992). Malaria was termed "simple intermittent fever" by the medical professionals, but the soldiers referred to the malady as ague or "the shakes." Malaria was so prevalent in some camps that a standard greeting was "Have you had the shakes?" (Wiley 1992). There were over 1.3 million cases and 10,000 deaths from malaria in the Union Army (Steiner 1968). Fully one quarter of all illness reported in the Union Army was malarial in character (Wiley 1992). Confederate soldiers also suffered, although fatalities from the disease were comparatively lower. In 1861 and 1862, one seventh of all cases of sickness reported by Rebel armies east of the Mississippi was malarial (Wiley 1994). Malaria greatly affected at least one campaign. The prevalence of the disease among Union troops contributed in thwarting the first Federal attempt to capture Vicksburg, MS, in 1862 (Steiner 1968); the city did not fall until the following year.
Although malaria was common in both the North and South, an effective drug - quinine - was available for prevention and cure of the disease. Union armies used over 19 tons of quinine sulfate during the war (Smith 1976). However, the Northern blockade of the Confederacy made this drug difficult to obtain in the South, which led to quinine smuggling and a black market. In 1862, an ounce of quinine cost $5.00 in New York while the same quantity sold for $60 in South Carolina. Toward the end of the war, an ounce of quinine was selling for $400 to $600 an ounce in the Confederacy (Garrison 1995). When one considers that a Confederate private made only $16 a month by the war's end, buying the drug would be prohibitively expensive but selling the drug could be quite lucrative. Federal guards detained one woman after it was found she had sewn the medicine into her skirts. She was later released when it was discovered that she was the niece of the U.S Postmaster General (Davis 1982). Another individual was evidently more succesful. He managed to smuggle $10,000 worth of quinine in a dead mule (Davis 1982).
Because of the scarcity of quinine in the Confederacy, the Confederate Surgeon General had to improvise an antimalarial potion that contained a mixture of willow, poplar, and dogwood bark; and whiskey (Wiley 1994). This may seem like an ineffective folk remedy, but inclusion of salicaceous plants such as willow and poplar (from which aspirin was originally derived) may have provided some fever relief.
Other biting flies also earned the respect (and damnation) of the soldiers. Because part of the life cycle of some these insects are spent in an aquatic habitat, soldiers who were stationed near those habitats soon became aware of the insects' presence. No-see-ums were one of biting flies contributing to the discomfort of some soldiers.
Almost too small to be seen they inflict a bite which appeared larger than themselves- -a positive wound, more torturing than that of the mosquito. These tormentors elevated dress parade to the dignity of a military engagement. I had to stand motionless while tears rolled down my face . . . Had I stirred a finger the whole battalion would have been slapping its cheeks (Higginson 1865).
J. H. Browne (1865) had his share of biting fly problems. While maying near the banks of the Mississippi, he soon felt the full wrath of the Arkansas sand flies and gnats.
Not a minute had we reclined our fatigued forms before the sand-flies and gnats assailed us in force; and before we could effect our escape, we looked as if we had just recovered from an attack of the small-pox.
One of my optics was closed, and my companion's lips had assumed the proportions of a full-blooded African's.
The winged pests covered us in swarms, and for five minutes our motions resembled the wild movements of dancing Dervises. Indeed, I doubt if the Dervises ever danced as we did.
With our swinging limbs and ceaseless gyrations, we must have seemed like human windmills, turning to every point of the compass at the same time.
We leaped ourselves out of our boots and hats and coats; and, in the midst of his bewilderment, I found my associate endeavoring to put on a cotton-wood tree, and myself trying to draw a large swamp over my burning feet, and cover my head with a mud-bank.
After a while, we began to grow used to it; but, at the same time, seriously arrived at the conclusion, that, however interesting such excursions might be to the natives, they were not altogether fascinating to civilized beings.
So we went off precipitately through marshes and morasses, breathing gnats and sand-flies as if they had all our lives composed our natural atmosphere; trying to wipe off the blood that had started from our faces with our boots, and to cover our pedal extremities with our handkerchiefs.
While we were struggling along like men under the pressure of forty cocktails, we heard a sharp rattle, and looking before us with what eyes the gnats had left us, we saw two huge snakes coiled, and ready to spring.
Rattlesnakes had no terrors for us then. We were desperate.
At that moment I believe I would have walked in the roaring mouths of a battery, or even up to the matrimonial altar, without shrinking.
We regarded rattlesnakes as symbols of Secession, and we knew the sandflies and gnats were of the Rebel tribe. So we attacked the venomous serpents with our boots; beating to the right and left, quite indifferent whether we struck them, or they struck us.
We had leather pyrotechnics, boot Catherine wheels, for a short time, when the hateful rattling ceased, and we saw the snakes were dead.
We thought we had killed them; but I know now the flies and gnats had swarmed down their throats and strangled them.
Little inclination had we to investigate the matter, but rushed on through the swamps, and at last reached a skiff- - -whether ours or not was a question of indifference- - -and, leaping into it, rowed over the river again.
When we had reached the Tennessee shore, we fell in the back water, and ultimately got on board the Flotilla, with one boot between us, no hats, physiognomies that would have set Lavater mad to contemplate, and bearing a close resemblance to the horribly tattooed faces so greatly in favor with the New Zealanders.
I looked into the glass--a thing I rarely do, for I hate repulsive spectacles--and, as far as my defective eyesight could determine, I thought I discovered a striking resemblance between myself and the Egyptian Sphynx, and that I appear as if I might be a brother of the grotesque figure with four heads, by which the Brahmins sometime represent their chief deity... To be afflicted with boils is bad enough; but to be besieged by Arkansas gnats is absolutely beyond endurance.
Mules and horses of both Union and Confederate armies also suffered greatly in the Mississippi Valey (Webster 1904). During the spring of 1862, General Furgerson [probably Ferguson] noted that gnats were exceedingly troublesome to horses and mules of a Confederate artillery battery in Greenville, MS (Osborn 1896). A former overseer stated that mules were even killed by gnats near Refuge, MS, in 1861 and 1862 (Osborn 1896). Insects were adding to the ravages of war.
- June 26, 1862.