The Black Swamp

The Civil War and westward expansion during the mid-1800s had a large effect on wetlands, swamps and marshes. The war greatly increased demand for routes that could easily be traversed by soldiers and heavy equipment, and westward expansion increased demand for wetlands to be drained for agricultural purposes. The Black Swamp of Ohio was a forested wetland that was about the size of Connecticut, 40 miles wide and 120 miles long (3,072,000 acres) (38). During the Civil War the Black Swamp began being drained because it was viewed as a barrier to troop movements and settlement. This swamp was composed of elm and ash trees, which were valuable for their timber at the time, particularly for railroad construction and supplying troops (38). Wetlands were typically seen as a burden for all types of industry and agriculture; an article in the Memphis Daily Appeal in 1859 discussed how draining wetlands would improve the land to better compete with British agriculture, “The principle means by which British agriculture has been brought to its present high state…(includes) draining the land of superfluous moisture”(23). This demonstrates how wetland drainage was considered a positive and necessary action to expand successful farming and industrial development. The image at the bottom of the page shows that 3,410,800 acres of wetland were drained during the mid-1800s in Ohio alone (38).

Because wetland drainage was a fairly new and slow practice at the start of the Civil War, many wetland areas were still intact and swarmed by mosquitos. About 1.3 million soldiers were affected by mosquito-borne illnesses during the war, such as malaria and yellow fever, although the medical knowledge that mosquitos are the vectors for these diseases was unknown at the time of the war (5). Soldiers not directly infected with these diseases still had their immune systems largely weakened by the pervasive pests. The effects of large mosquito populations were quite possibly exacerbated by the reduced numbers of birds, bats and other pest-controlling animals due to habitat loss of forests from battles and troop movements (48). Andrew Bell, historian and author of the book Mosquito Soldiers, believes the devastating conditions of mosquito-infested territory played a large role in troop movements, attitudes, and successes throughout the war. Isaac Jackson, a private in Ohio complains “the ‘skeeters here are – well, there is no use talking … I never seen the like” (48). A soldier from the Eighth Illinois Infantry, Charles Wills, exclaimed, “We are not troubled any by the enemy but the mosquitos and fleas gave us the devil” (50).

Many of the Union soldiers who came from well-developed areas had no immunity to mosquito-borne illnesses common throughout the swamps of the south, and the lack of knowledge about the diseases’ vector resulted in hysteria among the Union ranks. A Kentucky physician and avid Confederate supporter, Luke Pryor Blackburn, earned an international reputation as an expert on yellow fever (despite his complete ignorance to the actual cause of the disease). Blackburn hatched a scheme to ship trunks full of clothing previously worn by yellow fever victims to the north as a form of biological warfare in an attempt to contaminate prominent Union politicians and military officers (5). Although Blackburn’s scheme was ineffective at causing an outbreak because the disease can only be spread through a direct bite from an infected mosquito, Union knowledge of the plan and a series of independent outbreaks in northern areas caused Union officials to enact a strict quarantine in which they burned many pine trees in an attempt to purify the diseased air (5). One northern newspaper discussed Blackburn’s plan, “This hideous…plan to deliberately murder innocent men, women, and children, who had never wronged him [Blackburn] in any manner, is regarded here as an act of cruelty without parallel”(45). The attempted attack by Blackburn represents the willingness of the Confederates to wage biological warfare at the risk of their own citizens. Yellow fever and malaria epidemics caused huge psychological distress throughout the northern army and large numbers of soldiers died from these diseases, representing how the environment both affected the war, and was affected by it.