Around the Press in 80 Books: Mosquito Soldiers

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Managing Editor Lee Sioles writes about Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the Civil War.

9780807135617One of the great things about working for a university press is that . . . you learn things. Our authors are experts: They know about hunting Nazis in Franco’s Spain or how animals were used by the military in World War II. They can tell you how to build a playground from scratch or what the word “gumbo” means (and several of them can tell you how to make one). They can explain why nudism had such a big vogue in France or why the secret southern society called the Knights of the Golden Circle failed in its attempt to annex Mexico. In fact, sometimes I find myself speaking with authority about something or other—and I almost can’t figure out where I got all this information on what seems a random topic.

Take mosquitos and the Civil War.

I think it’s fair to say I had never before thought much about this subject. If I had thought about it, I suppose I would have guessed that mosquitos might be an annoyance for troops sleeping in tents—or marching, on top of having to carry heavy rifles and wear wool uniforms.

But thanks to my work on Andrew McIlwaine Bell’s Mosquito Soldiers, I now know that, of the 620,000 soldiers who perished during the Civil War (still our most costly war ever), the overwhelming majority died—not from gunshot wounds or saber cuts—but from disease. And the most deadly of those diseases were two terrible mosquito-borne illnesses: malaria and yellow fever.

Bell’s slim, highly focused study contains a trove of amazing detail. The South’s huge mosquito population operated as a sort of mercenary third force that could work for or against either side, depending on the circumstances. The diseases could wipe out a whole army in a matter of weeks. Smart commanders took the threat into account in their planning, while others were taken completely by surprise by this menace. Bell reinterprets famous battles from this epidemiological perspective—and proves that the course of the Civil War would have run far differently without the massive presence of these tiny buzzing pests.

And now I know about this fascinating, frightening subject—and am ready to liven up any cocktail party by introducing the topic of mosquitos in combat, perhaps igniting a discussion of how environmental factors have acted, and will continue to act, as agents of change in history.

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