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    • Jake Wynn

    "A painful duty" - A letter to the father of a Pennsylvania soldier killed by typhoid fever

    In trying to provide comfort to the grieving father of a Union soldier felled by typhoid fever, a Pennsylvania lieutenant penned the following:


    “He who dies from diseases contracted while in the service of his country deserves no less praise from his country and his countrymen than he who is stricken down in actual combat.”


    Disease was by far the biggest killer during the Civil War, claiming more than 2/3 of the estimated 700,000-plus lives lost during the conflict. Among the most fatal illnesses was typhoid fever, spread through contaminated food, water, or close contact with an infected person. In August 1862, Private Rolandus Lytle of the 85th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry succumbed to the disease while being transported to hospital near Fortress Monroe, Virginia.

    Hospital Scene at Fort Monroe, 1862

    The following letter from the officer commanding Lytle’s company to the soldier’s father, William Lytle, was found in a collection of old documents in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, in December 1947. A local newspaper published it in full.


    The letter is poignant. But it is also representative of tens of thousands of similar letters that traveled from the army camps to the home front during the Civil War. Lieutenant Crawford notified William Lytle of his son’s death after a letter arrived addressed to Private Lytle at the 85th Pennsylvania's encampment. Crawford highlighted the efforts to save the soldier’s life and how the battle with typhoid was ultimately lost. Crawford noted his search for scraps of information about what happened to this Pennsylvania soldier.


    Trying to find the proper words to convey both the sad task and how typical a soldier's loss from disease had become, Crawford wrote: “It is a painful duty for me to perform to announce to a devoted father the death of a beloved son, but such are the common everyday occurrences of this unholy rebellion.”


    The chaplain that oversaw the burial of Private Rolandus Lytle had him placed in Plot 4827 at what became Hampton National Cemetery near Fort Monroe.

    Below is the letter as published in The News-Chronicle on December 12, 1947.

    [September 1862, Camp Hamilton, Virginia]

    Sir: I received a letter from you today directed to your son, Rolandus, which I took the liberty of opening, supposing to be from some of his friends who would be glad to hear what had become of him however sad the news.


    Rolandus Lytle, as you are aware, had been sick for some time, his disease was typhoid fever. A few days before we left Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, his disease assumed a more dangerous aspect, so much so that the Dr. decided that he could not stand hauling in an ambulance from the Landing to Yorktown. On the 11th of August we sent him to the river.


    Our camp was about two miles from the Landing and amid the bustle and confusion of getting ready to march, I did not get to the river to see which of the numerous transports he got aboard of.


    Let me here remark that there were surgeons and attendants at the Landing who took charge of all, sick sent to them and attended to sending them off to northern hospitals.

    On arriving here near Fortress Monroe I procured permission to visit the fortress for the purpose of ascertaining if possible whether a person having died on board the steamer Daniel Webster. August 14, 1862, and advertised in the papers as Rolandus Slythe Company G, 85th Pa. Vol. was really Rolandus. I eventually found a chaplain who had buried the corpse referred to, he had his name, company and regiment as advertised. I am sorry to say he had nothing at all of Rolandus' effects. He says the boat left nothing with the body but the clothes buried with it. The rest of his things were taken with the boat.


    The chaplain says the clerks on the boats are very careless and frequently makes mistakes. Rolandus had very little with him, nothing but the necessary clothing. His money he had sent to his wife a short time before by the capt. of the company all but a few dollars, and the boys who waited on him tell me he had spent all but a few cents of that.


    It is a painful duty for me to perform to announce to a devoted father the death of a beloved son, but such are the common everyday occurrences of this unholy rebellion.

    If there is anything that can alleviate the pain and anguish produced by the death of a son, it is this, that that son died the death of a patriot in the service of his country, battling for freedom and freedom’s cause. He who dies from diseases contracted while in the service of his country deserves no less praise from his country and his countrymen than he who is stricken down in actual combat.


    It gives me great pleasure to testify that Rolandus was a good and faithful soldier and deeply do the company of which has was a member as well as the Officers deplore his loss.


    [Lt. J. Crawford, Company G, 85th Pennsylvania]