JF Ptak Science Books Post 1611
Let's just say it: the history of diarrhea is not pretty, It has been a major killer throughout history (coupled with the sometimes historically-indistinguishable dysentery), wiping out perhaps hundreds of millions of people over human history. Infectious diarrhea and dysentery is especially suited for crowded, cramped conditions with poor sanitary facilities and bad food, which makes armies a perfect place for those diseases to easily succeed.
In the American Civil War diarrhea was a leading incapacitor and killing disease, perhaps chief among the diseases that killed more people than did the actual fighting.1 And perhaps no where else did it commit such great tragedy than in the ranks of the Confederate soldiers, who by and large had considerably less than the Union soldiers. Poor sanitary facilities, bad food badly prepared, close living conditions, weeks/months of stationary encampment during the winter, would all add up to a disaster. Since the Confederate records of medical treatment are far from complete, we have to look at those of the Union Army to get an idea of what happened with diarrhea--and there, more than 250,000 men were discharged for chronic diarrhea, or roughly 10% of the entire fighting force over the course of the war. I think it is safe to assume that the Confederate numbers would be at least comparable and probably worse for a fighting force of approximately half that size, though I am unsure of how many of these actually were discharged. The figures for soldiers suffering from diarrhea who were not killed by it or discharged for it probably ran over a million for both sides. It would not be easy to overstate the vast impact that diarrhea had on these armies, and particularly for the Confederacy.
On the side of success we have the story of gunpowder. Or, rather, the failure in the production of industrial nitrates necessary for the production of gunpowder which was addressed by the Southern citizenry, and particularly the women of the South. Absent the essential component of potassium nitrate, the Confederate states resolved to produce the stuff locally, in the old fashion. Urine (and water from cesspools, privvies, and so on) would be collected, and then (via one of many methods) would be sprinkled on straw or some other similar organic material (to keep the material moist but not wet); the stew would be covered and sunned and allowed to cook for some months at the end of which time the straw would be washed of the material formed on its top, and then dried. The resulting salts produced by evaporation would be a form of saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, which provides the necessary O2 for combustion.
I know that it was at least considered customary and a rule of engagement for the Union and the Confederate soldiers to not shoot each other while attending nature's call; I'm not so sure that this would be the case for the guys in the night waste wagons collecting privvy drawers and urine.
Just another small, necessarily savage bit in the history of killing.
1. The Union armies had from 2,500,000 to 2,750,000 men. Their losses, by the best estimates:
The Confederate strength, known less accurately because of missing records, was from 750,000 to 1,250,000. Its estimated losses: