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150 Years Since Civil War: A Look At How Water, Heat Affected Soldiers

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The quality of water could be as life threatening as the enemy, says Virginia Tech historian James Robertson Jr.

"Most of the shocking sickness and death in Civil War prisons is directly attributable to water," says Robertson. "Captain Robert Park of the 12th Alabama noted this of the bathing routine: the water is brackish and covered with green scum. Men stand in rows along the banks and all wash at one time. The whole scene is sickening."

In fact, Robertson says many battles were won and lost over lack of water. He says it may have led to the defeat of the Confederate troops at the Battle of Little Round Top.

"Leading the attack were Alabama soldiers under William Oates," Robertson says. "Some of his men had fainted from heat and thirst, while getting into position to make the assault. And those who charged forward shouted 'water' 'water.' And Oats concluded lack of water contributed largely to our failure to take Little Round Top."

Sometimes too much water could cripple an army. Virginia Tech historian William Davis recalls the famous Battle of New Market.

"All day rain so soaked a spot in the center action that mud sucked the shoes of the feet of advancing soldiers in what is still known today in the field of lost shoes," says Davis.

At the other extreme, Davis says oppressive heat could wreak havoc on the fighting forces of both sides.

"At its worst the sun dried out brush and wood so that sparks from rifles could set brush fires that became raging blazes," says Davis. "At the wilderness, here in Virginia, in May 1864, when spreading fires trapped and burnt to death many union wounded who were unable to get to safety."

And it wasn't just the men who suffered. Over 3 million horses were used in the fighting.

"About 1.4 million horses actually died," says John Bowen, a Veterinarian and an expert on the history of the horse. "We're not exactly sure how many of those passed on and were not very useful as a consequence of this."

He says if they didn't perish in the fighting, the animals often suffered an agonizing existence.

Sheridan is reported to have killed off in the region somewhere around 500 horses because they couldn't keep up with his march, and so rather than let them fall into the hands of the enemy, he would shoot them instead.

The next conference will be at Virginia Military Institute focusing on leadership and generalship.

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