Most people know that lead balls were less dangerous than diseases were during the Revolution. Smallpox gets the most attention, but there were all sorts of diseases that spread through the camps. The disease that took the most 8th Virginia lives was malaria. In their case, no other disease comes even close.
In 2015, South Carolina was beset by record numbers of mosquitos. Citizens called for state or even federal action to combat the bugs. Tony Melton of Florence, S.C., told a reporter that mosquitos were “eating me alive” when he tried to ride his tractor through his sweet potato field. “People are staying inside; that’s the bottom line.” Mosquitos are nothing new to South Carolina. In 1774 a resident called them “devils in miniature.” In 1776, Col. Peter Muhlenberg's soldiers had to contend with them and didn't have the option of going indoors.
In May of that year, the regiment rushed south from Virginia to help defend Charleston. They were part of a small army led by the strict and sardonic Maj. Gen. Charles Lee. On their arrival, Capt. Jonathan Clark spent much of the first week staying at the home of Christopher Gadsden. Gadsden was a prominent South Carolina Patriot and an early champion of Independence. Clark initially camped in Gadsden’s garden, but recorded that upon the “arr[ival] of [the] Moschetto” he got up and moved “in the House.” Enlisted men didn't have the option.
The Battle of Sullivan’s Island on June 28 was a major early victory for the Americans, and the successful defense by South Carolina provincial troops of the Island’s half-finished fort was regarded as a virtual miracle. About three companies of the 8th Virginia men (Continental troops) were posted at the opposite end of the island, helping to block a cross-channel infantry attack. Major General Lee praised his Continentals after the battle. “I know not which Corps I have the greatest reason to be pleased with Muhlenberg’s Virginians, or the North Carolina troops—they are both equally alert, zealous, and spirited.”
Though they fended off the British, many of them lost their battle with the mosquitos. Unlike the mosquitos bothering Tony Melton in 2015, the mosquitos of 1776 were active malaria vectors. By the start of August, nearly one hundred and fifty 8th Virginia men were too sick to continue south with General Lee into Georgia for a planned attack on West Florida. Most of the men who did continue were soon also sick. The army stopped its march in Sunbury, Georgia. South Carolina's Col. William Moultrie recorded that several men were buried there each day. The mosquitos paid no attention to rank. Colonel Muhlenberg got it and would never fully recover. Major Peter Helphinstine got it and was so sick he was forced to resign his commission and died a slow death at home in Virginia. The regiment was ordered back to Virginia in the fall, significantly depleted.
As measured by death and illness, malaria was the 8th Virginia's number one enemy in the war--and nobody knew what caused it. Longtime coastal South Carolina and Georgia residents usually had a developed resistance to it. Colonel Muhlenberg's men from the mountains and valleys of western Virginia had no resistance at all. The only known treatment came from the cinchona, a Peruvian tree whose bark contains quinine. The bark was hard to get. Most people thought the disease was caused by bad air ("mal aria") hovering over swamps and other dank areas. In reality, it was carried by the mosquitos that bred in such places. Several hundred men living close together in the outdoors in the summer created the perfect conditions for the disease to spread. Mosquitos don't live long and don't travel far. "Social distancing" would have helped, though perhaps at greater distances than are needed for today's coronavirus.
Malaria was endemic to South Carolina and neighboring states until the 1950s. Its eradication is something of a mystery but may be connected to the invention of air conditioning, which prompted people to spend more time inside during the summer. Still, it continues to kill millions every year in Africa and other developing parts of the world.
(Based on an earlier post.)
More from The 8th Virginia Regiment
is researching the history of the Revolutionary War's 8th Virginia Regiment. Its ten companies formed on the frontier, from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh.
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