WASHINGTON – Twice as many Civil War soldiers died from insect-related disease than direct combat — an obscure fact Laurel resident Gary Miller has discovered in his unique, decades-long hobby.
Since the 1970s, Miller, 48, has pored over books, soldiers’ letters and regimental histories for insect references. He found that mosquitoes, body lice and flies were a constant nuisance to Union and Confederate soldiers. Roughly 60,000 soldiers died from malaria on the Union side alone, he said.
“I think the beauty of looking at the insects is it’s a topic that we all can relate to,” he said. “Few of us can relate to combat.”
Miller will share his research Friday evening in a public presentation titled “Insects and the Civil War” at the Locust Grove Nature Center in Bethesda.
Miller is a professional entomologist who describes new species for the United States Department of Agriculture. His blend of bug expertise with the War Between the States is strictly a hobby, he said.
The bugs-and-war fascination started in college, he said, when research for a Civil War course paper on “soldier life” led to an unexpected trend.
“Here were all these references to insects,” he said. “You find out insects played a role in every part of soldiering.”
Civil War soldiers were encamped in conditions that were awful for humans, but great for insects.
“One of the things that most people aren’t aware of when they think of the Civil War is the number of people and associated animals,” Miller said. “(Armies) weren’t mechanized. They had to rely on horses and mules.”
Soldiers would sometimes travel with 8,000 to 10,000 head of cattle, providing plenty of food for flies, he said. Soldiers already wracked by diarrhea or dysentery often had to deal with mosquito-borne malaria as well. If that wasn’t bad enough, he said, soldiers’ food was usually infested.
Miller owns an original letter by a soldier after the fall of Vicksburg, who wrote there were insects in “every biteful of food.”
Desperation led to quirky delousing methods. Soldiers practiced “skirmishing,” squishing bugs and lice with their thumb and forefinger on their bodies. Often, they boiled their clothes.
Historians say the Civil War was the last major war fought before scientists realized microbes carried disease, so treatment was limited, Miller said. Quinine imported from South America was the best treatment for malaria, but the Union blockade on the coast led to price gouging.
In 1862, an ounce of quinine cost about $5, Miller said. By the end of the war, the going price in some places was $500 to $600 per ounce. The average Union private made $16 per month.
In his presentation Friday, Miller will show Civil War-era photographs that depict these harsh conditions. Viewers must look closely to notice the details, but the suffering of battle will be evident.
“I try not to sugarcoat things,” Miller said. “I’m not overly graphic with the info, but the topic is war and it’s not fun and games.”
Geri Drymalski, a naturalist with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, saw Miller present his research to the Maryland Entomological Society 10 years ago. She had him present his work at Locust Grove then, and now Miller is back.
“Well I think it’s really amazing,” she said. “We are so ignorant of how directly and indirectly insects are part of our lives. There’s so much more to this whole drama of fighting a war than guns and bullets.”
“It’s a connection to the past and that’s what you build upon,” Miller said. “When I can bring natural history into our national history, the picture becomes more colorful.”
To attend the event, register with the park and planning commission at www.ParkPASS.org. The program starts at 7 p.m. and costs $10.