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When volunteers mustered for service in Civil War armies, vast numbers of them were immediately struck down by communicable diseases. The first of the epidemics to sweep through the ranks was usually measles. Measles would have a devastating effect on an army. In one Confederate camp of 10,000 men, 4,000 soldiers were stricken with measles, and the savage onset of the disease was something that astonished everyone, even the surgeons. The disease was so common and disruptive that new units were held back from active service until they had been "put through the measles". Because men from urban areas were more likely to have been exposed to the disease at an early age, measles caused the most serious problem in units raised from rural areas.

An epidemic of measles usually ran its course in three or four weeks, and while a person living under normal circumstances would usually recover with no lasting effects, in army camps the childhood disease often proved to be fatal. Improper care and poor sanitation would lead to complications such as pneumonia.

Surgeons often prescribed whiskey, but a combination of rest, proper care, and time was the only true treatment for the disease.


Measles was more prevalent and more fatal among black units than in white units.