“Blue Pill is a Good Man” – Lt. Col. Lyman’s Short Fight with Malaria

September 9, 1864 (Friday)

As most who study the Civil War for even the shortest lengths of time eventually learn, there was more to it than bullets and politics. There was also illness. Two-thirds of the men who died in the war died from disease. That means that roughly 450,000 soldiers died not from battle, but from sickness.

Theodore Lyman
Theodore Lyman

Contaminated water was the largest culprit, but other diseases, such as typhoid, pneumonia, measles, tuberculosis, malaria, and various venereal diseases were in abundance. None of these were curable, save one – measles. And still, thousands died.

One such poor fellow to fall victim to disease was General George Meade’s aide-de-camp, Theodore Lyman, who has left us two wonderful accounts of his time in the army. The first is a diary that was written each day, while the other is a series of letters compiled from the diaries.

While living in the fetid waters around Petersburg, Lyman contracted malaria, though at the time nobody understood how.

What precisely caused malaria was then anybody’s guess. Some did argue that it was a germ or microscopic animal, but many also believed it to be caused by decaying vegetable matter or too much moisture in the air. Now, of course, we understand that it’s actually a parasite passed on to us by the mosquito. In 1864, they had not yet made such a connection.

While in his book With Grant and Meade; From the Wilderness to Appomattox Lyman only alluded to his illness of which he began to feel the symtoms on a trip to the north. “Got a 15-day leave for home!!!” he wrote on August 27th. But in a few short days, as he returned to his home near Boston, he began to feel ill.

“Something or other the matter with me,” wrote Theodore Lyman on August 31st, “weak, sort of nausea.” Two days later, he reported: “Very weak – all my bile running the wrong way, and getting worse. To Dr. Cabot, who said the northern air, with the late cool change had brought to the surface the malaria in the system. He told me to take some rhubarb and magnesia and follow it with wormwood tea.”

Lyman followed the doctor’s orders, taking a “low diet,” but confessed the tea “to be a humbug.” Nevertheless, he wrote that he felt “rather better,” though perhaps not enough to write more than a single line in his diary.

The next day, he was hardly able to move. “Lay abed,” he wrote, “headache; mean generally; nausea.” Apparently having little faith in Dr. Cabot’s wormwood concoction, he turned to Dr. Torrey “of the Jackson school.” Presumably, he meant Dr. Samuel Jackson of Northumberland, Pennsylvania, who was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania (or possibly another Samuel Jackson from the same university). Dr. Torrey gave Lyman “a blue pill, which went down and came plaguey near coming up again.”

Advertisements for popular malaria cure, Natchez, Mississippi, 1935.
Advertisements for popular malaria cure, Natchez, Mississippi, 1935.

This seemed to do the trick. “Blue pill is a good man,” wrote Lyman the next day. He never mentioned what was in this blue pill, though it was probably some sort of patent medicine. Another suggested cure was egg whites, which Lyman was also taking.

Malaria was known to effect the liver, and Lyman, on September 7th, remarked that his “is not to be scared by white of egg; so was worse again today.” He remarked that he was “queer feeling very, don’t take an interest in any thing; jocose remarks especially strike me as idiotic!”

While reading Lyman’s diary, it’s clear that the man had a sense of humor, though he was anything but juvenile. Humorous remarks, especially childish ones, might have struck him as idiotic with or without malaria.

His wife remarked the following day that “Oh you do look so yellow,” but Lyman figured that she was just trying to get him to stay home with her for a bit longer. Doctor Torrey had already written Meade a letter explaining that Lyman should stay at home for two or three weeks more.

“You must pitch into me a little harder,” said Lyman to his doctor. And so Torrey did just that, making him liver pills and some quinine. The quinine was apparently for his gums as they were “sore with the malaria.” But it’s this treatment that probably helped him most (if it was not, in fact, already in the blue pills).

Quinine was a drug derived from the bark of a Peruvian tree, and first discovered in the 1500s, and still in limited use today (especially prescribed for pregnant women). This was working.

“Better again,” he wrote on the 9th, “Liver! you must give it up; I shall fire two pills at you every evening till you go back!”

By the 12th, he was seeing “steady improvement.” Two days later, and he was walking a mile to see a friend from General Burnside’s staff, also home on leave. And in a couple of days, it was as if Theordore Lyman had never been ill at all. By the end of the month, he would be back by General Meade’s side and the war would continue.1



  1. Sources: Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyaman; With Grant & Meade by Theodore Lyman; Viruses, Plagues, & History by Michael B. A Oldstone; “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead,” by J. David Hacker; Malaria; Its Cause and Effects by Edgar Geer Russell. []
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“Blue Pill is a Good Man” – Lt. Col. Lyman’s Short Fight with Malaria by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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