Smallpox and Vaccination in the Civil War


Brigadier General
Jan 12, 2016
South Carolina
Vaccination is a topic that I was suprised to run across while digging through Civil War era newspapers. I was not aware that vaccination was in use prior to the 20th Century, so this caught my attention. This article from the National Museum of Civil War medicine was very informative, and I wanted to share it.

Inoculation was in widespread use by the 1720’s. It is the introduction of disease agents into the body to produce a mild form of the disease, usually done by using pus or scabs from infected persons that was administered to the patient through small cuts made in the skin. It was intended to confer immunity by producing a mild case of the disease. Unfortunately, not all cases were mild and deaths were associated with inoculation, but at a far lesser rate than among those naturally acquiring the disease. Despite the danger, inoculation was widely practiced throughout the eighteenth century.
Vaccination was developed in 1798 by Edward Jenner. For smallpox, cowpox serum was used, since cowpox is a closely related disease and created a resistence to smallpox. Like inoculation, the vaccine was administered through a series of small cuts in the skin, usually in the arm. The cowpox virus was obtained from animals infected with cowpox either naturally or by intent. By the 1830’s, vaccination was widely accepted, especially among physicians. Inoculation was still practiced in some places until it was outlawed by individual states. New York banned inoculation in 1816, and in 1850 Maryland followed suit. The bans were based on the fear of spreading the disease through inoculated persons since they were infectious, unlike vaccinated persons. By the outbreak of the war, inoculation was illegal in most places, but still occasionally practiced.
The preventive measures of vaccination and isolation drastically reduced the occurrence of smallpox in the early to mid-nineteenth century. By the 1840’s, vaccination was beginning to be neglected and there was a generation of Americans who had never been exposed to the disease. As a result, the incidence of smallpox began to rise in the decades before the Civil War.​
So innoculation was introduced, was somewhat effective, and then had begun to be ended as a practice by the time of the war, leading to a resurgence in smallpox. However, both Union and Confederate armies required vaccination against smallpox.

The preventive measures of vaccination and isolation taken by the Union and Confederate Medical Departments curbed the occurrence of smallpox during the war, and averted any major outbreaks. The success of the vaccination of soldiers during the Civil War lead to widespread vaccination of the civilian population after the war, further helping to control this serious disease.​

There's a lot more in the article, things I knew nothing about, so this has been a learning experience for me. I always enjoy learning something new about the war. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.