Some two-thirds of all deaths in the Civil War were from disease. Army camps were rife with chicken pox, scarlet fever, measles, mumps and whooping cough. Then there was the mysterious ague (pronounced AY-gyu) with symptoms similar to the flu: fever, chills and fatigue.
I’ve had the flu for the last 10 days, and it is as unpleasant as expected, but I did have the advantages of a warm bed, plenty of clean drinking water and excellent medical care. The average soldier in the Civil War who came down with ague had few or none of them.
He was most likely living in a crowded tent or a dugout suffering from teeth-chattering chills and burning-hot fever. If there were doctors available, they each had their own cure such as blood-letting or massive doses of poisonous mercury compounds. The soldier was more likely to die from the doctoring than from ague.
The term ague had been around from at least the 14th century. American home remedy guides of the Civil War period devoted pages to the subject. In “100,000 Facts for the People: Or Household and farmers’ cyclopedia,” author Daniel R. Shafer recommended using, “20 grains quinine with one pint diluted gin or port wine and add 10 grains subcarbonate of iron. Dose [with] a wine glassful each hour until the ague is broken, and then two to three times a day until the whole has been used.”
Ira Warren, writing in his “The Household Physician: For the Use of Families, Planters, Seamen, and Travellers,” suggested giving the fevered patient a cooling drink with opium added. And if that didn’t work, use, “the web of the black spider, rolled up into five-grain pills and taken, one pill at a time, once in two hours,” when the ague has subsided.