Was black Civil War soldier poisoned?

CMWinkler

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Was black Civil War soldier poisoned?
Seth Slabaugh, [email protected] 12:07 p.m. EST December 29, 2014
B9315645292Z.1_20141229120618_000_GRF9H2NN3.1-0.jpg

(Photo: Joe Vitti / The Indianapolis Star file photo)

Story Highlights
  • The 28th Regiment was one of the troops attached to the Defenses of Washington, D.C.
  • The 28th Regiment served valiantly in the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Va., on July 30, 1864, when nearly half of the men were killed or wounded.
  • At the war's end, there was unrest in the West, especially Texas. The 28th Regiment took up duty at Brazos, Santiago and Corpus Christi, Texas, until November, 1865.
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MUNCIE – One hundred fifty years ago, Robert Townsend, an African-American man from Indiana, enlisted in the 28th Regiment, United States Colored Troops that fought in the American Civil War.

He never served in combat because it’s quite possible he was intentionally poisoned.

“This is not going to be the stuff of ‘Glory,’ the movie,” Ball State University history professor Nicole Etcheson said during a recent lecture commemorating a new exhibit of Civil War artifacts at Bracken Library.

More: http://www.thestarpress.com/story/news/local/2014/12/29/black-civil-war-soldier-poisoned/21002339/
 

CMWinkler

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I posted this, in part because it was an interesting story in and of itself, but also because I'm reading Dr. Etcheson's book. I spend a lot of time in Putnam County in the 80s and 90s and saw many of the war related items she discusses in the book. I was not aware of Townsend's story though. If he were intentionally poisoned, it is a terrible episode and demonstrates the pervasive racism of the time.
 

AndyHall

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Townsend's medical discharge (August 8, 1864) lists his diagnosis as "hypertrophy [enlargement] of the heart with valvular disease and dilation of the aorta, subclavian & carotid branches." His level of disability was listed as "total."

It's not impossible that he was murdered, although tainted food was more-or-less the norm then. There was a lot of violence directed against African American soldiers. One USCT soldier here in Galveston with the occupying troops was assassinated -- not too strong a word -- in a downtown shop in the middle of the day. Someone walked up behind him and shot him at point-blank range, and the locals insisted they saw nothing. His messmates were disgusted at the idea of his remains being sent to Potters' Field and buried in an unmarked grave, so they strong-armed the cemetery warden and claimed the body themselves, and buried it at an unknown location of their choosing.
 
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James B White

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Townsend's medical discharge (August 8, 1864) lists his diagnosis as "hypertrophy [enlargement] of the heart with valvular disease and dilation of the aorta, subclavian & carotid branches." His level of disability was listed as "total."

From the article:
The young Townsend, from Putnam County, bought a pie from a peddler selling them in Camp Fremont in Indianapolis where the 28th USCT was mustered in.

“I don’t know for sure, but the abolitionist press reports lots of stories in the Civil War about people deliberately selling poisoned foods to black troops,” Etcheson said. “He gets really ill and has to go back to Putnamville, where he dies in the spring of 1865. I don’t know what the illness was, but pension records link it to the pie.”

So if the 28th USCT was at Camp Fremont in the early spring of 1864, and Townsend received a medical discharge in August 1864 for a weak heart and died in the spring of 1865, almost a year after eating the pie, that's one slow-acting pie.
 

AndyHall

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The discharge say he had been so sick as to be unable to perform any duty for five months, so that puts the onset back into spring 1864. I do think the poisoning thing is very possible, although whether that was intentional or not is impossible to know.
 

18thVirginia

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Two of my ancestors died from an official cause of "diarrhea" in the ACW and I believe they'd been sick about 5-6 months, so perhaps that wasn't an unusual time frame.
 

James B White

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The discharge say he had been so sick as to be unable to perform any duty for five months, so that puts the onset back into spring 1864. I do think the poisoning thing is very possible, although whether that was intentional or not is impossible to know.

I do think it's possible, from a sociological standpoint, meaning that a lot of white people in the midwest didn't like colored troops. But what kind of poison would give someone an enlarged heart and make them disabled from it for months before dying?

Enough cyanide in one pie to be fatal would cause a fairly quick collapse and death, but if it wasn't enough to kill him, from what I can tell there's a good chance he would recover without long-term effects. For example, from this web page: "Signs and symptoms of cyanide poisoning range from headache, difficulty in breathing and vomiting to unconsciousness and death. People who have recovered from cyanide poisoning do not usually suffer any long-term effects."

Arsenic also kills quickly if it's going to, but if a person survives the initial dose, it looks like periphrial neuropathy is the main symptom. For example, from this web page: "If the subject survives acute high-level exposure, the neuropathy begins to manifest within weeks and may continue to worsen for a period of weeks after removal from exposure (coasting). Sensory symptoms including painful paresthesias and numbness predominate. Burning, aching, and tingling are positive sensory phenomena that occur first in the toes and feet, but later in the fingers. Similarly, weakness follows a length-dependent pattern, starting with the feet and later involving the hands. With high-dose exposure or inadequate treatment, the weakness may progress to involve the respiratory muscles and mimic Guillain-Barré syndrome. The deep tendon reflexes are depressed or absent early in the process. In addition to nervous system manifestations, high-dose toxicity often causes bone marrow suppression and skin changes."

What common poison, if taken in one dose almost enough to kill, but not quite, would cause a permanently enlarged heart in the survivor?
 

AndyHall

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What common poison, if taken in one dose almost enough to kill, but not quite, would cause a permanently enlarged heart in the survivor?

My layperson's guess is that there are a number of toxins that could cause serious and permanent heart damage. There may have been other symptoms, as well, but it was the cardio stuff that disabled him and was important from the army surgeon's perspective. I'll look around.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Townsend's cardio diagnosis was done without any of the tools we would use today -- they were limited to the patient's description of his symptoms, external examination and the use of an early stethoscope. So there's room for error there, too.
 
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