Lice and the American Civil War soldier

Throughout history, one of the many unfortunate consequences of being in the military has been a close familiarity between soldiers and  members of the lice family. Not only do lice cause discomfort but they also can be vectors of deadly diseases, such as typhus.

Most military personnel, whether they be Union or Confederate, would probably have entered the forces lice-free but with the enforced poor, and dirty, living conditions and with the inadequate facilities for them to bathe and launder their clothing lice soon spread.  The use of layered wool clothing worn continuously provides the proper temperature and humidity for body lice plus the continual wearing of uniforms positively encourages head lice and body lice. Pubic lice can be acquired through close contact but usually through sexual contact. ”Soldiers on the march often had to go for weeks without bathing. Most men became infested with lice. In camp, soldiers washed their cloths with boiling water to kill the lice.”

The three types of lice that infest human beings are from only two species as the body lice and head lice which to look at are identical, are subspecies and adults are about 1/16 — 1/8 inch long. Pubic lice are about 1/16 inch long. As their names suggest, the head louse is usually restricted to the hair on the head region; the body louse is found in the clothing and moves to adjacent areas to feed with pubic lice restricted to the genital areas. Military personnel may have suffered from any or all of the lice known to attack man, but a majority of references mention body lice with very few pubic.  Lice were also no respecters of rank so all ranks from Private to General had them.

    Pubic louse                             Head-body louse

For most the infestation started soon after joining up. In 1861 William A. Fletcher, 5th Texas Infantry contracted measles, others would have caught mumps and measles, and while in hospital with a high fever he became infested with lice. He ‘lay (in bed) there a few days with a burning fever, taking such medicine as was prescribed. I had learned the “itch” (from lice) was getting to be a common complaint in the hospital, and after the fever had somewhat abated, I found I had it, so when the doctor made his next visit I drew my arms from under the covers and showed him the whelps or long red marks of itch.’

Lieutenant Colonel R. R. Dawes, 6th Wisconsin Volunteers, 1864, having rested his men “found them stripped of coats and shirts, and engaged in killing "gray backs," pediculus vestimenti. They said it was the first shade they had been in for a week, and they must improve their opportunity. This pest was a grievous trial, and it was assuming serious proportions in the army. The only effective remedy was to boil the shirts. These garments being woolen shrunk under this process, so that the men could with difficulty get into them.”

Boiling lice                                         (K)nitting lice                                         Scratching Lice
The above illustrations from Hard Tack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life,
a memoir by John D Billings, 10th Massachusetts Volunteer Artillery Battery

The statistics of those who died during the Civil War, not from injury but from disease are unbelievable.  About 250,000 Union troops died of disease and about 194,000 Confederate. Despite this only about 2,500 Union troops caught typhus, about a thousand of whom died; figures for Confederate casualties while unknown are assumed to be similar.

Among the troops humorous names were given to what must have been something that was a most un­pleasant aspects of their lives: Bragg's body guards; cooties; crums;  grey backs; pants rabbits; seam squirrels; Tennessee travellers; blue bellies; rebels; tigers; Zouaves; vermin and big fat fellows.

There were other lice-related terms entered the military vocabulary i.e."skirmishing or fighting under the black flag" referred to the practice of lice picking.  Discarding infested clothing was called "paroling the lice or giving the vermin a parole”. Another was to turn the garment inside out this was “executing a flanking movement.”

Lice were also a source of entertainment, and income, for some. Wagers were placed on races but Sam Watkins noted that “there was one fellow who was winning all the money; his lice would run quicker and crawl faster than anybody’s lice. We could not understand it…the lice were placed in plates – this was the race course – and the first that crawled off was the winner. At last we found out (his) trick; he always heated the plate.”  John Casler, a member of the Stonewall Brigade, wrote about his time as a prisoner at Fort McHenry: There was an ant bed in the lower end of the yard, and every day there would be from five to ten prisoners around that bed, picking off lice and having them and the ants fighting. They would have a regular pitched battle, and would get up bets on them. Sometimes the ants would drag the louse off, but often times a big louse would stand them off. It was great sport for the prisoners

Needless to say ‘tall stories’ were told that lice had been seen with C. S. (Confederate States) and I. W. (In for the War) inscribed on their backs and one Rebel claimed that “I pulled of a shirt last night and threw it down; this morning I saw it moveing first one way and then another; I thought at first a rat was under it, but upon inspection found it was the lice racing about hunting for a soldier.” One Alabama soldier whos wife was going to visit wrote ”If you were here the Boddy lice would eat up both of the children in one night in spite of all we could do; you don’t have any idea what sort of a animal they are.”  Some soldiers talked of their learning abilities "so universal were they at that time, that none thought of being ashamed of them, and we have even heard the boys declare that they knew all the bugle calls and had become so expert in drill as to go through the battalion movement quite accurately, and to have their regular guard mountings and dress parades”

The best has to be of a Virginia private reciting his version of the common bedtime prayer:

”Now I lay me down to sleep,
While gray-backs oe'r my body creep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord their jaws to break.”