‘Vaccination Has Been Greatly Neglected”: Smallpox in Wartime Mississippi


With the Coronavirus on everyone’s mind of late, I thought I would share this article I wrote some years ago concerning the effort to vaccinate Mississippians during the Civil War against one of the 19th century’s worst killers…

During the Civil War, the most lethal killer of Mississippians was not bullets and shells, but the unseen bacteria and viruses that crippled, disfigured and killed thousands of soldiers and civilians. There were numerous diseases that struck during the war years, but none was more feared than smallpox.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smallpox is “A serious, contagious, and sometimes fatal infectious disease. There is no specific treatment for smallpox disease, and the only prevention is vaccination. There are two clinical forms of smallpox. Variola major is the severe and most common form of smallpox, with a more extensive rash and higher fever. There are four types of variola major smallpox: ordinary (the most frequent type, accounting for 90% or more of cases); modified (mild and occurring in previously vaccinated persons); flat; and hemorrhagic (both rare and very severe). Historically, variola major has an overall fatality rate of about 30%; however, flat and hemorrhagic smallpox usually are fatal. Variola minor is a less common presentation of smallpox, and a much less severe disease, with death rates historically of 1% or less.”

For Mississippi soldiers, most of whom were raised on farms or in small towns, the introduction to military life in crowded camps exposed them to many infectious diseases to which they had no immunity. In the first month’s of a new regiment’s service, it was not uncommon for hundreds of men to be struck down by pestilence.

Article from The Vicksburg Weekly Citizen, June 3, 1861, urging that new troops be vaccinated.

Confederate military authorities were aware of the dangers posed to soldiers by communicable diseases, and they did appoint medical officers to fight their spread. One such officer was Doctor William Henry Cumming of Georgia. Appointed a surgeon in the Confederate army in July 1861, Cumming was relieved as medical director at Savannah, Georgia, in March 1862 to oversee the vaccination of soldiers in his home state. By the fall of 1862 the surgeon had been made superintendent of vaccination for the Department of South Carolina and Florida, and he used his post to spread the message on the need for vaccination to other parts of the South. [Compiled Service Record of W.H. Cumming (General and Staff Officers).]

In November 1862, Cumming sent the following letter to Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus, stressing the importance of protecting his citizens from smallpox and proposing a plan to increase vaccinations in the Magnolia State:

Marietta (Ga), Nov. 1st, 1862

Gov. Pettus,

 Sir, Permit me to address you on a subject of great importance to the people of Mississippi at the present time. Living at a distance from the great thoroughfares of travel, in small villages or in widely scattered dwellings, the majority of your people have in former times felt themselves secure from the ravages of small-pox – for this reason, vaccination has been greatly neglected, being usually deemed an unnecessary precaution.

But now their condition is in this respect greatly changed – sick and wounded and disabled soldiers are returning from the camps to towns and villages and hamlets and isolated dwellings – the most secluded log house has given a soldier to the camp – these soldiers, returning from the field, may carry the infection of small-pox to the most remote and obscure abodes – as you are probably aware, this disease has already made its appearance in our army in Virginia, and has in a few cases been brought within the borders of this state.

Allow me to request that you will as Governor give to this subject your serious attention. The Governor of this state has promised me that he will make every exertion to have officers appointed and arrangements made in general accordance with the plan herewith enclosed – the tract on vaccination I consider very important, for the ignorance of the people is a great hindrance to the universal adoption of this protective measure.

I trust that you will not deem me presumptuous in this addressing you – my position as Superintendent of Vaccination for the Confederate troops within this Military Department has enabled me to see the great need of a general vaccination of the people – any aid that I can give will be cheerfully rendered, and trusting that this subject will receive the attention its importance demands,

I remain

Yours Respectfully,

Henry Cumming, Surgeon, P.A.C.S.

Superintendent of Vaccination for Dept. of S.C. & Ga.

Included with Cumming’s letter was his plan for vaccinating the citizens of Mississippi:

Plan for Carrying Out the Preceding Recommendations

1st – An officer should be appointed to superintend the business throughout the State – He should direct and control the subordinate district officers, supplying them with virus and receiving their reports.

2nd – He should prepare and print and distribute a tract on vaccination giving a historical sketch of variola, inoculation and vaccination, the frequency of epidemics of small-pox and the fearful consequent mortality and the results of vaccination in countries where it has been generally adopted – He should add directions for introducing, preserving & transferring vaccine virus, a description of the stages and progress of the vaccine infection and rules for ascertaining the genuineness of vaccination – This tract should be widely distributed throughout the State not only to the Medical practitioners but to the people.

3d – He should furnish (either directly from his Central Office, or through his subordinate district officers) to physicians, planters and other suitable persons, good vaccine virus, and should see to it that every inhabited place is supplied – The officers of County Courts, Postmasters, the Members of the Legislature might all be made agents in this work.

4th – It should be the object of his constant effort to maintain an unfailing supply of reliable virus to be freely distributed to applicants.

5th – In those parts of the state where large plantations are found, the planters might be supplied directly from this office.

6th – He should be furnished with the necessary (clerical and other) assistance for the performance of this work.

7th – He should be required to report the progress, success, hindrances &c &c of his work so that his experience may be useful to others.

8th – It should be the aim of the government to finish this work before the first of June 1863

– John J. Pettus Correspondence, Series 757, Box 943, Folder 1

To increase public awareness on the need for vaccination, Doctor Cumming gave lectures to the general public. On November 28, 1862, the Daily Constitutionalist of Augusta, Georgia, reported on one such talk saying:

Dr. W.H. Cumming addressed the members of the General Assembly and citizens last night, at the Representatives’ Hall, on the importance of immediate and universal vaccination. He urged as an imperative duty, in order to prevent the loathsome disease from infecting every district and neighborhood. He called attention to the fact that while vaccination is almost universal in Europe, and children must be vaccinated before they can enter school, not one in four of our population have adopted this precaution against infection. This negligence, he remarked, results from our scattered and sparse population, which has rendered us comparatively secure against the spread of any infectious disease. He gave a learned and interesting review of the early practice of inoculation…He described the process of vaccination and made it very simple and easily comprehended,

I have to wonder if Governor Pettus listened to the advice given by Doctor Cumming and instituted a program to vaccinate the people of Mississippi. If I can find any additional information regarding vaccination I will be sure to post it!

Published in History
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  1. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat

    Thanks for sharing this.  I was surprised to learn not long ago that Washington had the troops vaccinated against smallpox in the Revolutionary War.  He himself was a survivor of the disease and according to this article, did a lot to minimize the spread of the disease in Boston during an epidemic, even going so far as to restrict troops in one action only to those who had survived smallpox.   He later ordered the troops to be inoculated:

    “Finding the smallpox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running thro’ the whole of our Army, I have determined that the Troops shall be inoculated. This Expedient may be attended with some inconveniences and some disadvantages, but yet I trust, in its consequences will have the most happy effects.”


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