Muskets might be burnished bright, straps pipe-clayed gleaming white, and boots smartly blacked but a private soldier’s uniform was often dirty and lice infested. Uniform replacements were issued infrequently, at uncertain intervals, so coats and pants were often patched and worn long after they should have been discarded. Lice bred freely and every morning soldiers gathered in groups to rid each other of the pests. Yet eggs hidden in seams hatched and by the end of the day the problem was back. Holding their clothes over campfires forced legions of the vile creatures to leap into the flames, exploding like kernels of popcorn, but often left the already threadbare clothing badly singed. The only truly effective remedy was boiling the uniforms in heavily salted water. This wiped out the lice but was very hard on already tattered uniforms and so was not done nearly often enough.
Lice carried typhus, a deadly disease, but far from the only one which plagued soldiers. Armies were cities in themselves, far larger than most, but without any built in municipal safeguards for health. Thus militaries served as force multipliers for disease. Dysentery and typhoid were common killers, usually arising from drinking polluted water; often caused when fecal matter from the latrines penetrated hastily dug regimental wells or seeped into a local stream used for drinking water. Flies who had been feeding on dead men and horses bore all manner of diseases; in low lying swampy areas, clouds of mosquitoes carried malaria. Prolonged diarrhea, caused by poor food and bad water, was a surprisingly common killer, doing its deadly work through simple dehydration. (Read more.)Share