Taken with the Chill of Ague

Taken with the Chill of Ague

On a “warm as May” Thursday evening, December 5, 1861, Oliver Case sat in the tent of his friend, Lieutenant Wolcott Marsh reading the latest letter from his sister Abbie. Oliver had just finished writing three letters likely meant for Abbie and his two brothers, Ariel and Alonzo, part of his evening routine. For his part, Marsh paid scant attention to Case as he attended to his duties as pay officer for all of the soldiers not in camp. The Lieutenant busily worked his way through a mound of paperwork, associated with making sure the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment were properly paid, and all funds were accounted for to the last penny. As Oliver read Abbie’s letter, he could feel that something wasn’t right. Aches and pains had begun pulsing throughout his young body leaving Case feeling that an “old complaint” was making a return appearance.[1]

That was bad news to Private Oliver Cromwell Case who was no stranger to the fight against disease common among soldiers of the day. During his travels with the 8th Connecticut to Long Island and then to Annapolis, Case struggled with Ague, an illness defined as “malarial or intermittent fever; characterized by paroxysms consisting of chill, fever, and sweating, at regularly recurring times…” and that can also be accompanied by “trembling or shuddering.” Oliver found himself in and out of the hospital or confined to his tent with this condition also known as “chill fever” or “the shakes” in the popular vernacular. One surgeon of another regiment described effects of this condition for which he had no medicine by saying that his soldiers “have to shake it out for all the good we can do them.”[2]

Another contemporary scientific publication described Ague:

For an hour or more the patient is shivering and shaking with cold, frequently so violently as to make his teeth chatter ; and this is as likely to occur in the hottest part of the day as at any other time. Presently the chill subsides and is succeeded by a violent, burning fever, which lasts usually three or four hours, and is followed in the graver forms of the disease by a copious perspiration.[3]


Civil War soldiers line up for treatment of Ague[4]


Of the 360, 000 plus Union causalities in the Civil War, over 250,000 of those soldiers died from disease and other non-battle injuries while only about 110,000 died of combat injuries. Half of those deaths were caused by typhoid fever, diarrhea and other intestinal disorders with tuberculosis and pneumonia deaths following closely behind. Surgeons and commanders knew little about disease and the germ theory had not yet been discovered. Most of these young men had never been exposed to large populations living in close quarters that were often in filthy condition. Communicable disease outbreaks in the camps were commonplace.

By the next day, December 6th, Oliver’s condition has worsen from the previous evening to the point where he was “excused from drill by the surgeon and about noon was taken with a chill and went to the hospital.” Oliver found the hospital to his likening “where I have had as good accommodations as could be, good beds and clothes, and every thing as comfortable as at home.” In just three days, young Private Case was up and about and the Ague “has been broken up so that to day (9th of December)” Oliver “came down around the company street” but returned to the hospital “to sleep to night.” After a good night’s sleep, Oliver declared himself “well except weak” so much so that “the nurse let me walk out a little” to enjoy “a very pleasant day…warm as summer.”[5]

His fight against Ague was not over as Oliver Case would face more bouts of this malaria condition over the coming weeks and months including many more days in the confines of a hospital. Ultimately, it would be the enemy’s bullet, not the feverish disease, that would end his life. However, for the last year of his life, Ague would be his enemy in many battles.



[1] Letters to a Civil War Bride: The Civil War Letters of Captain Wolcott Pascal Marsh, compiled by Sandra Marsh Mercer and Jerry Mercer, Heritage Books, 2006; The Letters of Oliver Cromwell Case (Unpublished), Simsbury Historical Society, Simsbury, CT, 1861-1862, (10 December 1861)

[2] “Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms: A Glossary of Archaic Medical Terms, Diseases and Causes of Death,” accessed from http://www.antiquusmorbus.com/Index.htm; A Surgeon’s Civil War: The Letters and Diary of Daniel M. Holt, M.D., Daniel M. Holt, Kent State University Press, 1994

[3] “The Civil War and Malaria: A patriotic appeal to fight against a common scourge in 1861 – malaria”

Scientific American, July 20, 1861, accessed on December 7, 2017 from


[4] Hardtack and Coffee, John D. Billings, John M. Smith and Company, Boston, 1887.

[5] Case Letters, 10 December 1861; Mercer, 2006.