It’s a well known fact that disease claimed many more lives in the Civil War than combat-related injuries. Poor sanitation and inadequate diet, combined with an imperfect understanding of the germ theory (even by medical personnel), all contributed to this dismal fact. But while it’s one thing to look at the broad picture of Civil War medical care, it’s another to examine how health issues affected a particular individual.
CHS has been extremely fortunate to receive a truly remarkable collection of items relating to Myron D. Webster, a young man from Woodstock, Connecticut, who answered Lincoln’s call for volunteers following the Union debacle at First Bull Run. The son of a joiner, Webster enlisted in the 11th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment in November of 1861. His unit was soon posted along the Outer Banks of North Carolina in preparation for operations against Confederate forces at New Berne. It was during this time that Webster first became seriously ill; most likely falling victim to malaria or the yellow fever endemic in the swampy lowlands of the Carolina coast. In view of his serious medical condition Webster was honorably discharged and returned home to Woodstock to recuperate. In the ensuing months his health improved measurably, prompting him to re-enlist in September 1862, this time with the 21st Connecticut Volunteer Infantry then being raised in eastern Connecticut.
As part of the 21st CVI Webster saw combat near Fredericksburg, then again became so ill as to require hospitalization at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. After his health rebounded he rejoined his regiment, now billeted in nearby Newport News on the James River. From there he and his comrades moved up the river and saw action around Petersburg in May 1864. Early June found the regiment near a small, obscure crossroads known as Cold Harbor; a name destined to be long remembered for the massive Union casualties suffered there. It was in this battle that he nearly lost his life, his head being grazed by a musket ball. In his diary he noted on June 9 that Col. Burpee of his regiment had been mortally wounded by a sharpshooter, and that he himself “Had a touch of the chills & fever.”
Within weeks Webster’s health again deteriorated to such an extent that he was sent back to the army hospital at Fortress Monroe. He kept up his daily diary entries through September 29, 1864, two days before his death. It appears that Myron Webster succumbed to the effects of dysentery, one of the great scourges of that and other conflicts. Interred in a marked grave, his family and friends arranged for his body and personal effects to be returned to Woodstock. These items—and his story—were lovingly preserved through at least four generations of the family before coming to CHS.
Myron Webster’s story is moving, yet not unique. One the 150th anniversary of his death it is important to remember that other men (on both sides) felt drawn to re-enlist after having served a tour of duty, again putting their lives on the line for what they believed to be a just cause.
Tags: Civil War