With the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, Maine men rushed to volunteer. The 1st Maine Regiment mustered in Portland within days. One member wrote of a city “alive with enthusiasm.” Another reason to cheer: “No sickness has yet occurred in our corps.”

Hardly a week into war and Maine soldiers were already worried about disease.

COVID-19 has dramatically showcased the power of disease to shape the human experience. A long history demonstrates the force of disease in history, from the Justinian plague of late antiquity through the influenza pandemic of 1918. After 1492 the introduction of diseases such as smallpox and whooping cough into the Western Hemisphere devastated indigenous populations, including the Wabanaki peoples of Maine.

In this bicentennial year of Maine’s statehood, we can acknowledge the influence of disease in Maine history. Examining Maine’s Civil War experience, for instance, requires reckoning with the role of disease.

Disease was more perilous than gunfire during the Civil War. It even struck men down before they left the state. The 1st Maine Cavalry contended with contagious pathogens before facing a single Confederate soldier: measles made for a miserable winter encamped along the Kennebec River.

One the war front, Maine soldiers fell sick by the hundreds each month. Illness swiftly depleted the ranks of the 4th Maine Regiment, dispatched to Virginia to defend the capital. A mournful report revealed their suffering: “Many of the poor fellows feel sadly enough the need of a mother’s care, while lying here far away from home and friends, parched and burning with fever.”

Maine women rallied to this cause. In Augusta women opened their homes to ailing members of the cavalry. Portland’s Abba Goddard – “matron” of the 10th Maine Regiment – traversed southern Maine soliciting donations to “Aid Sick and Wounded Soldiers.” Ladies Soldiers’ Aid Societies across the state sent box after box of linens and victuals to the war front.

To confront the threat of disease, Mainers also looked to the soil. The state Board of Agriculture encouraged the cultivation of crops for human consumption over livestock. “Plant for the Soldiers,” urged the editor of the Gardiner Home Journal.

This Civil War version of victory gardening sustained thousands of Maine soldiers, relieving them from an enervating diet of hard tack. When a shipment of potatoes arrived in Barrancas, Florida, members of the 2nd  Maine Cavalry celebrated with songs and sack races. With vegetables from home they “completely outflanked Scurvy.”

Such bounty mitigated the suffering of the troops, but even Maine potatoes were no match for malarial climes. From New Orleans to the Carolina Sea Islands, far more Maine men fell to bacteria and viruses than to rebel bullets or bayonets.

Mounting mortality led Maine citizens to question the war for Union itself. Warfare prolonged by disease required continual replenishment of regimental ranks, material support for soldiers and their families, and onerous taxation. These burdens strained Mainers’ commitment to the war effort.

In response, some argued for vigorous wartime tactics to more speedily end the rebellion – namely, emancipation. John Perry, editor of the Oxford Democrat, perceived a connection between the “sickly season” in the South and the perpetuation of the war. Fellow Republicans and War Democrats posited that freeing rebels’ slaves would weaken the Confederacy and hasten an end to the war.

By contrast, conservatives in Maine – sometimes known as Peace Democrats – vehemently opposed emancipation. Better, they argued, to guarantee the legality of slavery and seek peace with the Confederacy than to consign more Maine men to meaningless deaths.

Howls claiming disloyalty and fanaticism ensued, dividing Mainers for the duration of the war along partisan lines drawn in no small part by disease. Isaac Noyes, editor of the Maine Democrat, called abolitionism itself a disease; he died of a fever five months later.

No issue polarized the Maine home front more than emancipation. That disease is interwoven into the debate over the fate of slavery may seem surprising—more so, perhaps, than the morbidity of Civil War soldiers.

Yet the current pandemic invites us to reflect on even the unexpected part disease has played – and continues to play – in our lives. Disease has shaped the history of our state, our nation, and our planet more than many of us may realize.

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