There were a number of unwritten rules among the men who fought the American Civil War. Confederate soldiers were known to execute white officers who led black men in combat. While that certainly is terrible, Confederate troops also refused to use landmines, believing them “ungentlemanly.” Meanwhile, the Union Army practiced “total war” against the South, destroying the property and livelihoods of soldier and civilian alike while at the same time adhering to the Lieber Code, an early law that governed warfare much the way the Geneva Convention later would.
There was one thing, however, the soldiers on either side of Civil War battlefields would not do – they would not shoot a man relieving himself. And for a good reason.
There’s a good chance they’ve all had dysentery.
The biggest killer of Civil War soldiers was not the bullet, sword, or cannonball, it was disease. For every American troop who died at the hands of the enemy, two more would die of disease. The most likely culprits were typhoid and dysentery. The clear winner was dysentery, and it wasn’t even close. Dysentery and the diarrhea that came along with it ravaged both Armies for the entire war. It was this disease and its signature symptom that claimed more lives than all the battles of the war, combined.
It wasn’t the doctor’s fault, they actually had no idea what caused such diseases at this time in American history. The necessity of sanitation and hygiene among such large groups of people was not fully understood at the time. Doctors didn’t actually know about germ theory or how disease actually started. Camps were littered with refuse and whatnot in various states of decomposition. Soldiers lived close to their latrines, along with the manure from the army’s animals. An estimated 99.5 percent of all troops caught dysentery at some point.
With how much the disease affected both sides of the war, another rule to the war’s unwritten code of conduct emerged. No soldier would ever take a shot at a man relieving himself of the primary burden of the disease – or in the words of one Civil War soldier’s letter home, “attending to the imperative calls of nature.” when they rejoined their unit, of course, they were fair game.
Doctors did what they could to treat the illness, but given that they didn’t know bacteria existed, let alone the dozens or more that could cause gastrointestinal distress, it hardly did the job. Usually, troops were treated with opium. Not a terrible way to get back to duty but also not quite a cure, either.