Did Denbigh Bring Yellow Fever to Galveston in 1864?
A reconsideration of events in Galveston during the late summer and fall of 1864 suggests a likely linkage between the first steam blockade runners arriving at Galveston after the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864 and the outbreak of a yellow fever epidemic the following month. During the first three years of the war, steam blockade runners arrived at Galveston only on rare occasions; the Texas coastal city was too far removed from the main theaters of war to be of much use. After the Union admiral Farragut closed the entrance to Mobile Bay, however, Galveston was left as the only seaport on any significance left in Confederate hands on the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, beginning in late August there was a sudden upsurge in blockade-running activity at Galveston that continued through the end of the war ten months later.
Although yellow fever can now be prevented by an effective vaccine, in the 19th century it was a recurring and serious problem in the southern United States and the Caribbean. Yellow fever is a mosquito-borne viral disease varying widely in severity, exhibiting everything from flu-like symptoms to severe hepatitis and hemorrhagic fever. A large proportion of those infected died. At the time of the American Civil War, the variability of the symptoms made the disease difficult to distinguish from other illnesses, and even today a positive diagnosis is only possible through laboratory testing.
The threat of yellow fever was taken very seriously in Galveston, and on August 3 the Confederate commander in Texas, General Magruder, ordered a strict 30-day quarantine for all vessels arriving from Mexico, the Caribbean and other areas where the fever was endemic. It seems likely that Magruder’s order met with sharp opposition from merchants and others that had an interest in blockade running, because the following day he revised his order to require quarantine only for ships arriving from ports known to be infected with fever, and then only for eight days’ isolation. These watered-down precautions would prove to be woefully inadequate.
The first steam blockade runners arriving at Galveston after the fall of Mobile was the Susanna, arriving about August 24, and the Denbigh, which arrived on August 25. No other steam blockade runner is known to have arrived at Galveston for two weeks following Denbigh‘s arrival. In the days following Susanna‘s and Denbigh‘s arrival, several cases believed to be yellow fever appeared among civilians and soldiers stationed in the town. On September 14, the first deaths positively attributed to the disease occurred. That same day the military command sent out a call for nurses to care for those afflicted, and two days later the city was quarantined (unsuccessfully) to prevent the spread of the disease inland.
Over the next two months, at 259 deaths in Galveston were attributed to the disease. This figure represented nearly ten percent of the town’s military and civilian population at the time. The majority of the dead were civilians, and over a quarter were children ten years and under. The heaviest toll occurred in September, but deaths were recorded as November 20. A heavy frost on the evening of November 22 “dissipated the fever” and the quarantine was lifted soon thereafter.
There was debate at the time about the origin of this particular outbreak of fever. The etiology of the disease, and the role mosquitoes played in transmitting it, would remain unconfirmed for two generations. Some in Galveston argued adamantly that the disease must have come by way of a blockade-running schooner that had sailed from Vera Cruz, Mexico, while others insisted that it sprang from “local causes in the city.”
I believe that case for the schooner from Vera Cruz being the source of the yellow fever outbreak to be somewhat unlikely. The length of the voyage from Vera Cruz, typically a week or longer, would probably be enough time for symptoms to begin appearing among the crew and to draw the attention of authorities inspecting the vessel upon arrival. A steamer from Havana, on the other hand, would normally be able to make the run into Galveston in three or four days, making it much easier for infected seamen to pass undetected. It is also possible that the disease arrived at Galveston not in an infected sailor (who was subsequently bitten by a local mosquito), but in an insect brought along from the vessel’s point of origin. In that scenario, too, a steamer making a quick passage seems a more likely means of transmission than a relatively slow sailing vessel.
The normal course of the disease suggests its first victims in Galveston were infected very shortly after the arrival of the Susanna and Denbigh in late August. There were two interments of victims on September 14 – they same day they died – and three more the following day. The disease has a normal incubation period of three to six days, during which time there are no outward symptoms of the illness. After this incubation period, most victims enter what is now termed the “acute phase” of the disease, during which they experience fever, headache, muscle pain, nausea and vomiting. These symptoms usually subside after three or four days and the patients recover. In some cases, however, within 24 hours the disease enters its “toxic phase,” and the patient experiences develops jaundice (from which appearance yellow fever gets its name) and complains of abdominal pain with vomiting. Patients bleed from the mouth, nose, eyes and stomach. Kidney function drops off and sometimes fails altogether, resulting in a rapid rise in the levels of toxins in the body. About half the patients who enter the toxic phase of the disease die within 10 to 14 days, while the rest usually recover gradually.
If one takes this as the course of the disease in those patients who died on September 14 and 15, and the disease had its normal incubation period of three to six days, they most likely were infected during the last week of August, immediately after the arrival of the two steamers from Havana. Did Denbigh or Susanna bring the dreaded “yellow jack” to Galveston? I think it’s very likely that one of them did.