Samuel Arnold Describes the Yellow Fever Epidemic

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In the brief space of a month after the killing of Winters our small island and inclosure was visited by yellow fever. It made fearful ravages among the limited number stationed there, sweeping nearly every officer at the post away. It struck from earth our best officers and permitted the heartless ones to recover, to repeat again, I suppose, more of their cruelties upon humanity under their command. The ways of Providence are mysterious, and no doubt it was done for some good and wise purpose.

Among the first to succumb to the dread disease was Brevet Major J. Sim Smith, surgeon in charge. Dr. Smith, on his arrival at the post, which was but a few months before, corrected in various instances the abuse and reigning terrors which abounded there. He was, indeed, a man of humanity and kindness, a gentleman by birth and culture — the soldiers' and prisoners' friend and protector, and, his memory lives in the mind and the heart of all by whom he was then surrounded as all that was good, pure, upright, and noble. He worked with untiring zeal whilst the fever raged, until the fatal malady struck him down upon the bed of sickness, where he lingered but three days and died. He received every attention from Dr. Mudd, who, at that period, had charge.

Mrs. Smith was lying in an adjacent room, sick with the fever. Dr. Mudd paid her every attention and worked unfalteringly to save her life. His efforts were crowned with success and she recovered from the disease. During the period of the sickness of Dr. Smith and family there was neither an officer nor an officer’s wife that came near them to administer to their wants, their cases devolving upon the care of Dr. Mudd, and faithfully did he perform all that lay within his power.

In a short time the fever proved epidemic, and men could be seen falling down in every section of the fort, as the dread malady seized them. When in former times officers were parading about devising plans wherewith to torture the soldiers and prisoners nothing was seen or heard of them, they keeping themselves closely closeted, a pall like unto death seemingly hanging over the officers' quarters. Fear was depicted upon the countenance of everyone on the island, each looking for his turn next.

Two of the companies were removed to the adjacent islands, thereby being saved from the fever's fearful ravages. Two companies were retained to guard the fort and prisoners. Prisoners had to stand the brunt of the fever, their only safety being in an overruling Providence. Out of the 52 prisoners confined there but two died, whereas the garrison lost in officers and men 37.

Men at first, when taken sick, were carried to the small key termed Sand Key, upon which a small temporary shed had been erected as a hospital, the commanding officer thinking thereby to prevent the garrison from being infected. Sick patients, seated in a small boat, were conveyed over, confronted by coffins which were piled up in the bow of the boat. This of itself was sufficient to cause alarm, and even to kill the fainthearted, of whom there were quite a number collected on that small area of seven and a half acres.

With but a few exceptions those who were conveyed to the key in the small boat fell victims to the disease, and are buried beneath the sandy soil. When Dr. Mudd was given charge he stated to the commanding officer that it would be advisable to discontinue this practice; that the fever was in our midst, and that it could not be dislodged until the poison had expended itself, advising that all cases be brought to and treated at the hospital. This was acceded to, and, from his manner of treatment in the disease, a great change was soon to be noted.

From this period until the arrival from Key West of Dr. Whitehurst everything was progressing favorably, no death occurring. Dr. Whitehurst, perfectly conversant with the mode of treatment, he having had immense practice in the disease, approved Dr. Mudd's manner of treatment, and it was continued throughout the period the fever raged in our midst. The fever began to assume a more virulent type, and in spite of the untiring exertion of both began to make sad inroads into our numbers.

Everyone now thought of self alone. There was not respect shown by the attendants, they being soldiers taken from different companies, to either the dead or the dying. No sooner had the breath left the body than it was coffined and hurried over to its last resting place, there being a boat, with a crew detailed as the burying party, always awaiting. In many instances coffins were brought into the hospital and placed alongside of the bed to receive the body of some one expected to die, and had to be removed again, the patient still tenaciously clinging to life.

Men less sick were startled viewing these proceedings, it having a tendency to cause their own condition to become worse. During the terrible ordeal of the fever the garrison kept itself, duties being neglected by both officers and soldiers. During its progress the island assumed a different aspect. The island, which before was more like a place peopled by fiends than anything else it could be compared with suddenly became calm, quiet and peaceful. Fear stood out upon the face of every human being.

Some attempted to assume the tone of gaiety and indifference, but upon their faces could be read traces of other feelings. For two months the fever raged in our midst, creating havoc among those dwelling there. During this time Dr. Mudd was never idle. He worked both day and night, and was always at post, faithful to his calling, relieving his sufferings of humanity as far as laid within his power. The fever having abated through the want of more subjects, a contract physician from New York arrived at the post and relieved Dr. Whitehurst of his duties. When the new doctor took charge there were but two or three sick, and they were in a state of convalescence.

Soon thereafter Dr. Mudd was taken down with the fever in his quarters, and during the entire period of his illness was never visited by the New York doctor, the surgeon in charge, he remaining closeted in his room. The only medical treatment received by Dr. Mudd during his illness was administered at the hands of Spangler and myself. True, neither of us knew much about the disease or its treatment, all the experience either possessed being derived from observation during its prevalence, and the mode of treatment having been learned from personal experience in the nursing of patients under our charge.

Dr. Mudd was watched over by us both day and night in turns. We adopted the same method of treatment in his case as had been administered by him in ours, through which he happily recovered. He stated upon his recovery that had it not been for our care and watchfulness he would have died, and, and thanked each of us in unmeasured terms for our friendly consideration.

Dr. Mudd had worked during the prevalence of the yellow fever with an unfaltering zeal, until nature was well-nigh exhausted, relieving in every way at his command and knowledge the sufferings of humanity, but when afflicted himself he was left entirely to the mercies of his God and the limited knowledge of his two companions, which fact had the appearance of a desire for his death on the part of those at the head of affairs.

We all felt from the first that we had been transported to Dry Tortugas to fall victims to the many dreadful poisons of malaria generated in that climate. Happily we lived through it all, and I am permitted to give to the world at large some inkling of the many wrongs, tortures and sufferings inflicted upon us during the period of nearly four long years of exile. In the month of October, 1867, the fever having exhausted itself and finally stamped out, and with it, to a great extent, the harsh and rigorous measures which had heretofore been adopted in the manner of our imprisonment, some of the privileges which we had taken during its prevalence were curtailed, but for the most part the others were not countermanded by the officers in command.

The officers who garrisoned the fort at this time, with the exception of two, fell victims to the disease. A lieutenant recovered alone through the kind care and watchful nursing and attention of Colonel Grenfell who remained with him day and night, administering to his slightest want. The officers died of the disease were coffined and borne to their last resting place by the prisoners of the post, no respect being shown by the other officers. Even wives were carried in like manner, the husband remaining in his quarters.

- Samuel Arnold

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.