|Men from the 7th and 8th Regiments of Foot. Photo Credit: Dr. Will Tatum|
Today, we are confronted with some rather heavy subject material. At the large Battle of Brandywine reenactment recently, I was fortunate enough to find myself lying on the ground, in a sense of general malaise, having just emptied the contents of my stomach into the grass next to me. I fell prey to one of the classic blunders: don't attempt to fight George Washington in 80-degree heat while suffering from a fever/sinus infection. Against the protests of my significant-other, I allowed the allure of a revolutionary war reenactment potentially numbering over a thousand individuals to draw me away from where I should have been: recuperating.
In the vein of the average-soldier series I embarked on earlier this summer, this post will examine data from a number of eighteenth-century armies, in an effort to establish how frequently sickness played a large role in the life of soldiers. To put it another way, how sick, on average, were eighteenth-century soldiers? How likely was an eighteenth-century soldier to die from disease?
|Camp life in the era of the American War of Independence,|
At first glance, it may appear as though eighteenth-century armies were quite sickly. Legends abound about the notoriously bad hygiene of these soldiers. Certainly, by modern standards, bad hygiene was rampant, although not, perhaps, in the grotesque ways often believed. As the eighteenth-century wore on, more military manuals called for soldiers to bathe frequently, and regimental orders bear this out. Many Americans picture the Continental Army when Washington took command or the months or the hardship at Valley Forge, but these were perhaps outliers in terms of sickness. However, when smallpox, dysentery, and other quickly transmitted diseases could spread rapidly the setting of a military camp, ensuring that if an epidemic broke out, it would quickly incapacitate a large section of the army.
|The Prussian Army suffered from the heat on the way to Zorndorf in 1758.|
On average, it appears that just less than 10% of any given military formation might be listed sick during the eighteenth century. During epidemics, that number could spike in a worrying way, up to about 1/3 or an army or more. Although there is not clear data for all armies in all situation, a surprising amount of data does exist regarding the levels of sickness in eighteenth-century armies. What is clear is that military forces with a clear framework for treating their sick men had an advantage over armies who were establishing organizations and treatments as war continued. The data for this post breaks down into three broad categories: estimates of army-wide sickness throughout conflicts, numbers of sick men in individuals regiments throughout a conflict, and individual regiment return percentages. Though 10% may seem like a small figure, it could quickly escalate in the face of highly contagious diseases.
In 1757 during the Seven Years' War, the Austrians suffered quite heavily at their defensive camp at Zittau, when 24,000 men fell ill, perhaps around 28% of their army in Silesia. This is an extreme example, usual army totals were likely lower. In 1751, Austrian army doctor Giovanni Gabavlio estimated that some 28% of peacetime casualties were caused by fever, 18% were caused by scurvy, 15% were caused by infection, and 11% by venereal disease. The remaining 28% were seemingly unknown. The Prussian army acquired "Hungarian fever" from Austrian prisoners after Leuthen in December of 1757, and by April of 1758, 15,000 men, or 27% of the army under Frederick's command, were still suffering from illness.
|His Excellency visits unwell soldiers (probably wounded, not sick)|
During the American War of Independence, I estimate that the average number of British soldiers sick out of the entire British army, including militia in Britain, was 4.6% of the entire army. The data used to make this estimate runs from 1775-1780. By contrast, I estimate that the average number of sick Continental Army soldiers was about 20% of the army as a whole. The reason for this extremely high number is that smallpox devastated the continental army in the early years of the conflict, with 31-37% of the army falling ill (not just from smallpox) during this crisis. After 1778 and Washington's program to inoculate the army, the average number of sick men dropped to within much the more normal levels of 13-15%. Perhaps 18,000 in the American military forces died of disease during the War of Independence. By contrast, between 1775-1780, the British lost 6,107 men to disease in North America. Despite this, British regular army losses and American losses are quite different (about 25,000 Americans to 43,000 British) so, as a result, it is possible the British lost heavily from disease in other theaters of war, in addition to battlefield casualties taken in other theaters.
|In places like Fort Niagara, the King's Regiment suffered little compared with the Continental Army|
Thanks to the industrious research of Bill Potter, we have a sense of the level of illness among the King's Regiment during the later years of the American War of Independence. All in all, 7.5% , or around 40 men, of the King's Regiment were sick during the years between 1778 and 1783. The regiment was relatively healthy in 1770 when 2.6% of its soldiers were listed sick, but in the months of 1781, Regiment had fallen prey to disease, when 11.75% (55 men) of the regiment fell ill on average. By the end of the conflict in 1783, the total number of men listed sick had returned to roughly average, around 7%. Other regiments from this era follow this trend. In May of 1775, around 6.9% of the Royal Highland Regiment was ill, or 24 men out of 346. During the Trenton Campaign, the Rall Regiment had 12.3% of its rank and file listed sick, while the Knyphausen Regiment had just 5.8% of its complement sick. When large-scale epidemics were not a factor, just less than 10% a regiment seems to have been sick, on average.
How likely was death by disease for an eighteenth-century soldier? Roughly 60% of all deaths in the Continental Army came from disease, meaning a soldier in that army was perhaps twice as likely to die from disease than in combat. Again, however, the Continental Army suffered from greatly from disease. On average, though, it was still more likely that a soldier would perish from illness than combat. Christopher Duffy argues that this trend continued throughout all eighteenth-century armies. Sylvia Frey counters by suggesting that soldiers in the British army were no more likely to die from sickness than civilians, but her figure of 6,107 British soldiers dead of disease from 1775-1780 still outnumbers combat deaths in North America in the same era. Disease, not combat, killed more men in eighteenth-century armies. Soldiers died via disease in large numbers, and their experience involved great sacrifice.
I know this post has been rather heavy, and despite charges of insensitivity, I think it best to end on a humorous note. To the question: "How sick were eighteenth-century soldiers? I think I can safely answer: "They were, like, totally sick, man."
|Photo Credit: Dr. Will Tatum|
 Sylvia Frey, The British Soldier in North America, 51.
 Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 338, 341.
 Christopher Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 204.
 The data for this estimate comes from: Frey, British Soldier, 52; Piers Mackesy, The War for America, 523-527.
 The data for this estimate comes from: Charles Lesser, The Sinews of Independence; Ann Becker, "Smallpox in Washington's Army," The Journal of Military History, (2004), 392-394, 419-420.
 Caroline Cox, A Proper Sense of Honor, 134-5; Frey, British Soldier, 52.
 Bill Potter, "Redcoats on the Frontier" MA Thesis, pg. 133-141.
 Waterford Inspection, Online Version
 David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing, 396.
 Christopher Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 170.