Historical Natural history: Insects and the Civil War
Gary L. Miller
This article is reprinted and adapted in part from Miller, G. L. 1997. Historical Natural History: Insects and the Civil War. American Entomologist 43:227-245.
Portions of this article are copyrighted by the Entomological Society of America and are reprinted with permission. Other reproduction of this material is prohibited.
Section 5: "Fleaing" The War
There are some 2000 species of fleas worldwide and nearly 20 species attack man in the United States (Harwood and James 1979). Because of their abundance, worldwide distribution, annoying bites, and ability to transmit disease, fleas are among the most medically important groups of arthropods. The flea does not actually cause a disease. Instead, it serves as a vector or means to get the disease-causing microorganism to its host. Fleas harbor these microorganisms in their gut. When the flea bites its host, the microorganism is transmitted in either the flea's saliva or feces.
Probably the most (in)famous flea-borne disease is plague or Black Death. During the 14th century, plague was responsible for the deaths of 25 million people in Europe (Harwood and James 1979). Caused by the bacterium,Yersinia pestis (Lehman & Newmann) van Loghen, plague is primarily a rodent disease transmitted by rodent fleas. However, during large rodent outbreaks, fleas can migrate to human populations and transmit the disease to humans. Besides plague, another important flea-borne disease is murine or endemic typhus. As with plague, fleas also serve as a vector for murine typhus. Although there are no references to causalties attributed to plague in the Official Records, there are a number of cases of "typhus" (Brooks 1966). However, the Official Records do not differentiate between flea-borne typhus and louse-borne typhus.
Fleas exhibit complete metamorphosis. This terminology is used for the kind of development that some insects undergo as they mature. Complete metamorphosis means a flea has an egg stage (Fig. A), a larval stage (Fig. B), a pupal stage (Fig. C), and an adult stage (Fig. D) in its developmental cycle. Adult fleas are small dark-colored insects that are only 1/25- 1/6 of an inch long (Ebeling 1978). Adults have no wings; they move about by crawling or jumping with the aid of specially adapted legs. Flea eggs are even smaller and measure approximately 1/50 of an inch long (Ehmann and Story 1982). Eggs are not attached to their hosts. Instead, eggs are laid in the host's vicinity. This would include the bedding and nesting sites of animals and the cracks, crevices, dust, and floor coverings in human habitats. Flea larvae have no legs or eyes and are wormlike. They move by using the bristles on their bodies. The larvae feed on organic matter. After the lava is fully fed, it spins a cocoon that incorporates grains sand, dust, or organic debris from its surrounding habitat. Pupation occurs within this cocoon. During the pupal stage, the flea undergoes changes in its body structure before it emerges as an adult. Adults are exclusively bloodsucking and have piercing-sucking mouthparts. Reaction to a flea bite differs from the species of flea encountered and the individual who is bitten. A flea bite reaction may range from a small red spot to a rash with an itching sensation.
Overcrowding and poor sanitation during the Civil War provided excellent conditions for rodent populations and their fleas. In addition, camp mascots (e.g., dogs and cats) and humans could harbor their own infestations. Some soldiers were besieged by fleas. In 1862, a Mississippian returning from furlough complained of being preferred for flea attack. "They hav most Eate me up since I came Back her," he related. "I was fresh to them so they pitched in" (Wiley 1994).
The abundance of fleas in some camps resulted in some amazing stories, and one Confederate believed fleas could provide additional entertainment. "I think there are 50 on my person at this time," he wrote to his wife, "but you know they never did trouble me." He then added, "May I have thought of you often while mashing fleas; if you were here you could have your own sport" (Wiley 1994). Another Rebel said, "they [fleas] collect in companies at knight fall for the purpos of carrying us off . . . though like the Yankeys they are repulsed by desperate efforts & great patience" (Wiley 1994).
An even more imaginative comrade contended,
"A great alarm was heard in the upper part of the regiment; hastening to the spot I enquired what was the matter. A man was asleep in his tent and a couple of fleas had taken holt on him and carried him half way to the river intending drownding [him] while asleep for he had sworn vengeance against them" (Wiley 1994).
One Unionist took even greater pains to describe his involvement with fleas. Although the following story borders on the ridiculous, it does exemplify both the abundance and nuisance of fleas.
Until I began to follow the camp, I had never known, save by auricular evidence, of those unpoetical insects known as fleas; but one night in Syracuse, Mo., "our mess" experienced the cruelty and savageness of the diminutive foes of man, to our bodies' extremist dissatisfaction.
We were all lounging in the tent, reading, undreaming of enemies of any kind, when we all became restless, and the interest of our books began seriously to diminish.
There were various manual applications to various parts of the body, multifarious shiftings of position, accompanied with emphatic expletives that sounded marvelously like oaths.
"What is the matter?" was asked by one of us of another. "What renders you so uneasy?"
"Heaven knows!" was the answer; " but I itch like Satan."
"My body seems on fire," observed one.
"I wonder," said another, "if I have contracted a loathsome disease!"
"Confound it! what ails me?"
"And me - and me - and me?" was echoed from my companions.
One had became insufficient to allay the irritation of our corporeality. Both hands became requisite to the task, and our volumes were necessarily laid aside.
No one yet appeared aware of the cause of his suffering. If we were not all in Tophet, no one could deny we had gone to the old Scratch. We seemed to be laboring under an uncontrollable nervous complaint. We threw our hands about wildly. We seized our flesh rudely, and rubbed our clothes until they nearly ignited from friction.
One of the quartette could stand it no longer. He threw off his coat and vest spasmodically, and even his under garments, and solemnly exclaimed- - -"Flee from the wrath to come!"
The mystery was explained - the enigma solved.
The martyr's person was covered with small black spots, that disappeared and reappeared in the same instant.
To be practically expressive, he was covered with fleas.
The rest of us followed his example, and converted ourselves into model artists.
We were all covered with fleas.
Fleas were everywhere. Tent, straw, books, blankets, valises, saddles, swarmed with them.
The air scintillated with their blackness.
We rushed out of the tent.
They were there in myriads.
The moonlight fell in checkered beams through their innumerable skippings.
They made a terrible charge, as of a forlorn hope, and drove us back.
We reared with anger and with pain, and loud curses made the atmosphere assume a violet hue.
Three of the flea-besieged caught up canteens of whisky and brandy, and poured the contents over their persons and down their throat; scratching meanwhile like a thousand cats of the Thomas persuasion, and leaping about like dancing dervises.
The more the fleas bit, the more the victims drank; and I, having no taste for liquor, began to envy them, as, in their increasing intoxication, they seemed to enjoy themselves after a sardonic fashion.
The fleas redoubled their ferocity on me, and I surrendered at discretion; and at last became resigned to their attacks, until, a few minutes after, a storm that had been gathering burst with fierce lightning, heavy thunder, and torrents of rain.
A happy idea seized me.
I caught up my saddle and bridle, and placed them on my sable steed "Festus," which stood neighing to the tempest, a few feet from the camp.
I mounted the fleet-footed horse, and, nude as the Apollo Belvidere, cried "go" to the restive animal; and off we sped, to the amazement of the sentinels, through the darkness and the storm.
Every few moments the lightning blazed around us with a lurid sheen, as we went like the wind through the tempestuous night.
"Festus" enjoyed it, as did his rider; and six swift-speeding miles were passed ere I drew the rein upon the neck of the panting beast, covered with white flecks of foam.
I paused, and felt that the fleas had been left behind.
The pelting rain and rushing blast had been too much for them; while the exercise had made my attireless body glow into a pleasant warmth.
"Festus" galloped back, and soon I was in the tent, rolled so closely in a blanket that no new attack of the fleas could reach me.
My companions, overcome with their exertions, sufferings, and potations, had lain down; but the fleas were still upon them, and they rolled and tossed more than a rural tragedian in the tent scene of "Richard the Third."
They were asleep, and yet they moaned piteously, and scratched with demoniac violence.
In spite of my pity for the poor fellows, I could not refrain from laughing.
With the earliest dawn I awoke, and the tent was vacant.
Had the fleas carried them off?
I went out to search for them; and, after a diligent quest, found them still in nature's garb, distributed miscellaneously about the encampment.
In their physical torture they had unconsciously rolled out of the tent.
One lay in an adjacent ditch; a second under an artillery wagon; and the third was convulsively grasping the earth, as if he were endeavoring to dig his own grave; believing, no doubt, that, in the tomb, neither Fortune nor fleas could ever harm him more. The unfortunate two were covered with crimson spots, and looked as if recovering from the small-pox.
I pulled them, still stupid from their spiritual excess, into the tent again, and covered them with blankets, though they swore incoherently as I did so, evidently believing that some giant flea was dragging them to perdition.
When they were fully aroused, they fell to scratching again most violently, but knew not what had occurred until they had recalled the events of the previous night.
They then blasphemed afresh, and unanimously consigned the entire race of fleas to the Bottomless Pit.
The fleas still tried to bite, but could find no new places, and my companions had grown accustomed to them.
They felt no uneasiness for the coming night; they were aware that the new fleas would retire from a field so completely occupied, and that the domesticated creatures were in sufficient force to rout all invaders.
So ended that memorable Noche Triste, an exemplification of the Scriptural declaration, "The wicked flee when no man pursueth". (Browne 1865)
As with lice, fleas also became integrated into soldiering activities. The lowly flea even found its way into a stanza of A. Pender's Goober Peas:
I think my song has lasted almost long enough,
The subject's interesting, but the rhymes are mighty rough,
I wish this war was over, when free from rags and fleas,
We'd kiss our wives and sweethearts and gobble goober peas!