By Rebecca Taylor
The City of Wilmington and the wider Lower Cape Fear Region have been visited by epidemics that shut down the area a number of times in the past. Records show that the Yellow Fever struck Wilmington in 1819 and 1821 though we have few details or an actual death count. James Sprunt, in his Chronicles of the Cape Fear states:
“In August, 1821, the yellow fever appeared here, introduced by means of the brig John London from Havana. It raged with great violence for about six weeks and a large proportion of the citizens of the little town, numbering only about 2,500 inhabitants, was [sic] swept away by it.”
Then the “big one” came in 1862, during the early years of the Civil War when it was suspected that a blockade runner, generally thought to have been the Kate out of Nassau, brought the deadly disease to the docks of downtown Wilmington.
At the beginning of the war, Wilmington had a population of about 10,000, though by the spring of 1862, the wealthier citizens had already begun to retreat to their plantations further inland in anticipation of a Federal invasion of one of the South’s most important ports. In the notably hot and wet summer of the second year of the war, sailors aboard ships bringing vital supplies to the Confederacy from British ports, such as Nassau in the Bahamas and Bermuda, were turning up sick.
Again, James Sprunt, in his Chronicles of the Cape Fear reports:
“The first victim was a German wood-and-coal dealer named Swartzman, whose business place was on the wharf quite near the landing place of the blockade runner Kate, which brought the infection.* My father was informed promptly of this by our physician, Dr. James H. Dickinson, who advised him to remove his family at once to the country. As my father had seen much of this terrible scourge in the West Indies and South America, he recognized the gravity of the situation, and sent us all to Duplin County, where he had relatives.”
Lemuel Hoyle, a Confederate soldier encamped near Wilmington, wrote to his mother:
“The reported appearance of this deadly contagion…created a tremendous panic in the city. The citizens were leaving by scores and hundreds in every manner of conveyance that could be obtained.” [L.J. Hoyle papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill]
James Fulton, the editor of the Wilmington Journal wrote:
“Now, we beg our present and absent citizens…to think about this matter a little. Use all proper precautions, as wise men, but do not run in panic like children. Do not go unnecessarily into danger, but do not run away foolishly from the mere suspicion of it.”
It is believed that as many as 6,000 citizens, including the Bellamys, McRaes, and Lattimers abandoned the city fleeing as far as Fayetteville, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill. There is a report by someone who fled to Wallace who could not find a place to stay “anywhere in the town.”
An eyewitness account made years later describes the city:
“It then looked like verily a city of the dead…Throughout the whole extent of Market Street to the corner of Front, I rode, and to the best of my recollection, I did not see a human being – no signs of stir or life, no smoke from the chimneys, no doors or windows opening to the light of day, no men or women going to work. It was a city of silence and gloom impenetrable.” [Wilmington Messenger, March 9, 1906]
By October 11, about four weeks after the official recognition of the epidemic, the Wilmington Journal reported: “Death and sickness were abroad and no one else. The streets were deserted, save now and then by a hearse or a physician’s buggy making its weary rounds.”
In her diary, written in 1862, Eliza Oswald Hill, a native Wilmingtonian who had fled to Chapel Hill: “Everything looks so bright and cheerful today that I can scarcely realize the melancholy truth that hundreds are down in my native town with yellow fever. [By] last accounts, Wilmington was said to be one vast Hospital.” [Eliza Oswald Hill diary, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections, University of Virginia]
Excerpts from the Wilmington Journal, from the October 4, October 8, and October 25 of 1862, show us that anxiety had grown among the citizens, and the city was now facing serious security concerns. By the beginning of October there had been three reported store robberies, but with virtually the entire police force and the court system down sick, the crimes went unpunished. It deeply bothered the citizens that in this time of trouble some of their fellow citizens would steal from one another. It also caused the struggling town leaders to focus on this local problem when they were devoting much of their time to pleading for help and supplies from towns as far away as Virginia and South Carolina, as well as the Confederate government.
According to the report “City of the Dead: The 1892 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Wilmington, NC by Jim Brisson of UNCW he calculates that:
“The Yellow Fever virus was not content to cause only mass hysteria. It came to Wilmington to invade people’s homes, infest their bodies, and inflict pain, suffering, and heartache. Of the 4,000 remaining residents, as many as 2,000, contracted yellow jack.** Of those, between 650 and 800 died, which made the mortality rate approximately 40 percent.”
One interesting report on the epidemic was written by William T. Wragg, a Confederate surgeon that was published in the Confederate States Medical and Surgical Journal in February, 1864, states:
“During July, August, and September the entire county was deluged with rain. Ponds formed on high and dry places where water was never known to accumulate before, and, owing to neglect of the culverts, especially on Front Street, near Robert’s foundry a large, long, and shallow pond was formed, the bottom of which was composed entirely of the sweepings of the street – old shoes, rags, pieces of tin, and refuse matter of all descriptions, which had been thrown in by the town carts, in order to raise the valley to the level with the adjoining streets. This spot is known by the name of the Rouse lot. The bottom of this pond was alternately dry from evaporation and exposed to the intense heat of the sun, and then again filled by fresh rains, when it was covered by green slime, and exhaled a most offensive odor.”***
*Today there is a good deal of discussion that the fever had been in town as early as June or July based on Dr. William Wragg’s contemporaneous report now available to researchers in digitized form through the internet.
** Those who remained were mainly servants and slaves left to care for their masters’ property as well as manual laborers, dock workers, and others with no means out of the city.
*** What is most interesting about this quote is the fact that Yellow Fever was carried by mosquitoes wouldn’t be discovered until after the Spanish American War with Cuba around 1902.
Coming in June’s Newsletter: Epidemic! Cut off from the World… then Help Arrives
and in July: Epidemic! Victims and Memorials