How a Yellow Fever Outbreak Exacerbated the Civil War Refugee Crisis
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Throughout the Civil War, the North Carolina Piedmont served as a haven for Confederate refugees, as thousands fled war zones to the relative safety of the Southern interior. Many came from Virginia or from northeastern North Carolina, which had been occupied by a Union forces under General Ambrose Burnside in early 1862. By the summer of 1862, the influx of refugees had caused rampant overcrowding. Even Varina Davis, wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, had difficulty finding housing when she fled Richmond for Raleigh during the Peninsula Campaign.
In August 1862, a yellow fever outbreak in Wilmington compounded the refugee crisis in central North Carolina, as its residents fled the city for the interior. Although Wilmington’s most prominent and wealthy residents had already left during Burnside’s invasion, at least nine thousand residents remained when yellow fever arrived aboard the blockade runner Kate, carrying “bacon and other supplies” from Nassau. According to the Wilmington Journal, more than half of the city’s population left for the North Carolina interior during the epidemic. Of the 4,000 who remained, 650 died of the disease. In his diary, Wilmington resident Nicholas Schenck described “a panic to get away – citizens and family – going in all directions … Every body – who could get away – left town.” Another Wilmington resident noted in September 1862 that “The fever is much worse here and getting worse every hour…. Everyone that can get off are leaving.” When Schenck briefly visited at the height of the epidemic, he was shocked “to find almost a deserted town … every house on Front Street – closed and shut-up – did not met or see a soul.” William Calder, a Confederate soldier from Wilmington stationed in his hometown, wrote to his mother that “The physicians advise families to leave town, and all who can are doing so.” Frightened by the Union invasion of New Bern months earlier, Phila Calder had already left Wilmington for Warrenton, where both she and her sons felt she would be safer. In April 1862, William Calder had written her that “you can’t imagine the joy we feel that you have at last secured a place of refuge, and one that promises to be so pleasant. We could never content ourselves as long as you remained in Wilmington liable to be left alone and unprotected at any moment.”
Many inland communities worried that refugees would bring yellow fever with them. How yellow fever spread remained a mystery, and medical authorities debated whether it could be contracted from infected patients. When Nicolas Schenck fled the city for Warsaw, NC, some sixty miles to the north, he found “every hotel quarantined against us – coming from Wilmington.”
In a September 1862 meeting, Fayetteville’s mayor and city council declared that “yellow fever exists in the town of Wilmington in a most malignant form, and a general apprehension having seized upon the inhabitants of this town that the disease may be communicated by continued intercourse between the two places.” To prevent its spread, they ordered that “all intercourse between the town of Wilmington and Fayetteville be and is hereby suspended,” requiring that refugees from Wilmington remain outside of the city limits and imposing a forty-eight hour quarantine and medical inspection for all vessels that had passed through Wilmington. Recently elected North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance also worried that refugees would bring yellow fever to the interior. In a letter to his wife, Vance warned her that “The yellow fever is raging so at Wilmington that some fears are entertained it may spread. The fugitives have already carried it to Fayetteville & there is one case reported here [Raleigh], though it is supposed it will hardly be communicated in that way.” Vance warned his wife, then in far western Buncombe County, not to come to Raleigh until later in the year, when winter cold would lessen the risk.
News of the deaths in Wilmington reached refugees who had fled the city. Along with many others fleeing, the Cronley family settled in Laurinburg, more than one hundred miles to the west. Safe from both the direct effects of the war and the disease, they nonetheless experienced the epidemic vicariously, as “Every day the train brought the small sized bulletin containing little but the list of the sick and the dead, and always among the latter the name of some familiar face that should never be seen among us again.” Eliza Hill, a refugee from Wilmington who had fled during Burnside’s invasion, contrasted her new home in Chapel Hill with the news she received daily from the coast, writing in her diary that “Everything looks so bright & cheerful today that I can scarcely realize the melancholy truth, that hundreds are down in my native town with yellow fever…[By] last accounts, Wilmington was said to be one vast Hospital.”
Many of the white refugees fleeing the yellow fever epidemic in Wilmington left their slaves behind. When the DeRosset family fled the outbreak, they left their home under the care of a few slaves. At the height of the epidemic, Eliza DeRosset, safely ensconced in Hillsborough, received a letter from William Henry, one of their slaves whom they had left in Wilmington. He informed her that “i hav bin sick all this week But ar gitting Better,” but that several of their other slaves had “Bin vey Sick with the yeller fever for sevel days pass.” William Henry’s letter also included a note from another sick slave, Bella, who noted that “Provisions are very scarce here & nearly all the stores are shut up. The town looks lonesome most all the people has left.” When Eliza DeRosset wrote to her daughter in Charlotte about the suffering that William Henry and Bella described in their letters, she reassured her that “I have heard that the fever seldom proved fatal to negroes.”
The Wilmington yellow fever epidemic proved to be only one of many ways in which disease shaped the contours of refugee life during the Civil War. As historians Chandra Manning and Jim Downs have demonstrated, thousands of African American refugees died from overcrowding and disease in refugee (contraband) camps. As historians come to grips with the complexity of refugees’ experiences during the Civil War, they are rethinking how we understand both emancipation and the Confederate home front.
About the Author
David Silkenat is the author of Driven from Home: North Carolina’s Civil War Refugee Crisis (2016) and Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina (2011). He is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.Tags: David Silkenat, Refugee, Refugee Crisis, Yellow Fever Posted in: Uncategorized