A Deeper Understanding

I have spent the last couple of days immersed in old newspapers – nothing particularly new there, but it occurred to me as I read my 12th official list of deaths in as many newspapers that most people do not get this look at the past. In our hurry to find our ancestors, the right John Smith, it is easy to overlook what times were like for all the contemporary John Smiths.

I think most of us realize that the 1918 flu killed more people than World War One and that the war caused the flu to spread more easily from country to country. We also know that conditions in civil war prison camps were terrible and that disease of all kinds was rampant. Many of us have family stories of soldiers dying in camp, some on the first day. But wait, the first day in prison camp? How many perfectly healthy soldiers could possibly succumb to disease so quickly? Of course the answer is that the soldiers were not in perfect health when they arrived at the prison.

Upon first reading the lists of “Deaths Reported in the New South Newspaper” you could be forgiven for assuming, based on the regiments given for the dead soldiers, that these lists show captured Union soldiers. Disease claimed far more of these men than wounds, what an awful camp that must be. It might take a little while for you to realize that the New South was a newspaper published by Union postmaster Joseph H. Sears from the post office at Port Royal, South Carolina. Your understanding of the lives of these soldiers becomes a little deeper. These men did not die in the hands of the enemy, most died in the Union hospital, but they died of the same diseases we are used to seeing in the prison camps.

Some of the men were listed as “civilian, late of …” and a regiment is given. Without delving into their compiled service records to check, it would appear they had been discharged from service but died before they could return home. Were they already dying when their enlistment ended or was the wait for safe passage to the north long enough to both contract the disease and succumb to it? Either way, it is a tragic end to the life of a man who had perhaps dreamed of being a hero, or, more likely, just dreamed of going home to his loved ones.

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