Disease claimed many soldiers in Civil War

Alfred Atwood wrote letters to his family while hospitalized at various sites during the Civil War.

Alfred Atwood’s letters to his “Beloved Companion,” Diadama, give a unique account of a soldier’s life in the army hospitals during the Civil War. Alfred’s family preserved his letters and he saved the missives sent to him.

The letters he received give a view of life in Vermilion County during the war years. Among other things, they kept him informed about the crop conditions in Vermilion County, as well as the political climate. His brother let him know there were “traitors” in their neighborhood. The war not only shattered the national unity, it also divided families and friends.

Alfred was a lay minister before the war for several Christian congregations. His faith was reflected in the letters he wrote. He was also an experienced blacksmith and a farmer. But for the last few years of his life, even though he was too ill to participate in any battles, he was a citizen soldier. One of the hundreds of thousands who joined the ranks to save the Union.

Alfred became ill soon after the 125th Illinois Volunteers left Danville in September 1862 and remained restricted to camp or in hospitals until he was discharged in 1865.

He informed his wife, Diadama, he was in the general field hospital at Chattanooga, Tenn., on Aug. 12, 1864. He previously had been in Lookout Mountain Hospital, ward 3. His letters noted he usually received good care, but there was a shortage of doctors at times. He suffered from various illnesses through the war that often left him unable to move about. His condition would continue to deteriorate as he attempted to fulfill his three-year enlistment.

“I am getting some better and have a tolerable good appetite and plenty to eat,” he wrote, “if I get to Nashville I think there will be a chance to get such things as I need.” On Aug. 16, 1864, he was at the hospital in Nashville. “I have the best kind of a Doctor and everything that can be done for me,” he observed.

He noted some of his old comrades were at the hospital with him. “Isaac Barkman is here, he is wounded and has a very bad leg. F.L. Allhands is here, he has lost his foot. His wife and little girl is with him. Nelson Liggett is here and doing well. I feel better satisfied here than I was on Lookout.”

“I don’t want you to try to get here for I cannot get a very good place in the hospital for to take care of you,” he wrote on Aug. 22. “I am as anxious to see you as I ever was in my life, but it seems out of our power to get to enjoy that privilege.” He noted he now had a doctor who he declared was a “Drunken old Vagabond and will not do anything for us than he can help.”

On Sept. 1, he was in the United States Sanitary Hospital at Jeffersonville, Ind. “This morning still finds me able to write you and I feel in hope that my health is improving.”

He wanted to be transferred to a hospital in Illinois. He knew if that happened he might be able to visit his wife and children. That happened later in September. He spent a few days at home and then went to Camp Douglas.

On Sept. 26, he wrote from the general hospital at the camp in Chicago. He was staying in a tent and hoped to get in a building soon. He noted, “My health is about as it was when I left you.” The doctors were attempting to raise his weight level, among other things. He noted there were good doctors at Camp Douglas.

He received a letter from his cousin Evans Atwood, a Confederate prisoner in a Union prison, while at Camp Douglas. Alfred noted, “he is well and as fool hardy as ever.” He observed the prisoner of war camp there, one of the largest in the Union, was growing steadily with a flow of worn-down Confederate soldiers.

On March 8, 1865, he was still in the hospital at Camp Douglas, but he noted the doctor told him his discharge would be coming in a few days. He observed he was not as well as he had been and was in pain. In that letter he praised his “Beloved Companion,” as he did in the many letters he wrote her.

He returned home from Camp Douglas and died a few weeks later on June 2, 1865. He was 37 years old when he enlisted and 41 when he died.

More men died from disease and camp sickness than died on the battlefield in the Civil War.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.

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