“Musskiten.” Staten Island, 1778.

The mosquito has been called our deadliest predator. This tiny insect is responsible for the spread of human diseases that kill thousands of individuals every year. During the American Revolutionary War, these deadly diseases included yellow fever and malaria. The British army suffered terribly from these scourges especially in the Southern colonies, where mosquitoes thrived thanks to favorable breeding and feeding conditions. Individuals without prior exposure were at great risk of falling ill or dying. This included members of the German corps. For example, around one third of the men belonging to the Hessian Regiment von Knoblauch died of disease during its time in Savannah, Georgia, from 1778 and 1782: Shot Dead, Died of Disease, Deserted. Savannah, 1778-1782.

However, the soldiers did not know that mosquitoes were making them sick. In fact, the role of the mosquito in the transmission of disease was unknown until the late nineteenth century. Germans who referred to them in their accounts describe them as very annoying but not dangerous and certainly not life-threatening. In addition, they tormented people everywhere, not just in the South.

The entry from the diary of Chaplain Philipp Waldeck during his stay on Staten Island in the summer of 1778 serves as a good example. Waldeck was the chaplain for the Third Waldeck Regiment, which had a regular strength of 670 soldiers and fourteen members of the artillery. Along with a number of women and children, they had arrived in North America in the fall of 1776. In November, the troops participated in the capture of Fort Washington (renamed Fort Knyphausen) before going into winter quarters in New Jersey. By the summer of 1778, they were encamped on Staten Island. With the advantage of hindsight, their time in what was known as “Waldeck Town” was relatively pleasant for the regiment. However, it was not without challenges. The prevalence of mosquitoes was one of them.

Chaplain Waldeck complained bitterly about these little bugs that made life extremely uncomfortable. Fires and smoke and even the burning of foul-smelling items failed to get rid of them. Waldeck describes seeing a cow completely covered in mosquitoes that was seeking relief by wading into the water. He felt sorry for the grenadiers that were stationed at the flagstaff, who seemed to suffer especially badly from this plague. To make matters worse, the troops were poorly supplied. Instead of their regular rations of bread and flour, each man was issued a handful of rice.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

[July 1778]

On the 1st. An extraordinarily intense heat. The heat is beginning to get far more unbearable that it was in the year `77. Never before have the mosquitoes been more annoying than on these hot days. The locals build fires on all four sides of their houses and smoke up their sleeping chambers in order to get rid of these annoying insects. However, this only helps to reduce their number somewhat; they cannot even be driven away entirely with the smoke from rags, shoe rags, and other foul-smelling things. They are even more abundant in the tents, and no matter where one goes, nowhere is it possible to escape their attacks. Today I saw a cow walking by, which surely had as many mosquitoes sitting on it as hairs, and in some spots they sat in clumps, just like bees at a hive at swarming time. Just as many were swarming around it; they were not able to find a spot to land, but nevertheless continuously accompanied the animal. The cow went into the water, where probably some mosquitoes died, but the rest continued to swarm above the water like as swarm of bees, as if they were waiting until it came out again. It is remarkable that the wind is continuously blowing these annoying guests toward us. The infrequent storms which we have had this year have all come over from Jersey with a strong wind and, with it, mosquitoes like sand at the sea. When they are hungry, they are so light that the wind blows them about like dust; however, when they have latched on for not even a minute, they suck so much blood that they become as fat as a grain of barley.

On the 2nd. Our grenadiers in the detachments at the flagstaff complain even more about the annoyance of the mosquitoes than we do. They have not been able to sleep for three nights because of them. They got out of their tents and produced a great deal of smoke, but no method has driven them away. The men’s hands and faces were swollen from the bites.

Today was provision day; however, neither bread nor flour was received but instead one handful of rice for each man.

(Detail) Capitaine Martin et Charles Aug. de Gironcourt, Generalplan der Operationen der britischen Armee …, Hessian State Archives Marburg, HStAM WHK 28/12b – 12d.

GERMAN TRANSCRIPTION

Lager in Staten Island, July 1778

Den 1sten Eine ausserordentliche starke Hitze. Die Hitze fängt an weit unerträglicher zu werden, als sie im vorigen Jahr 77 war. Noch niemals sind uns die Musskiten lästiger gewesen als in diesen heissen Tagen. Die Einwohner machen Feuer an alle 4 Seiten der Häuser, und rä[uchern] auf den Schlafkammern, um diese beschwerlichen Insekten durch den Rauch zu vertreiben, aber dieses hilft nur so viel, dass sich die Anzahl nur etwas verringert, gäntzlich aber lassen sie sich nicht einmal durch den Dampf (95v) von Lumpen, Schuhlappen und anderen übelriechenden Sachen wegtreiben. In den Zelten sind sie noch häufiger, und man mag hingehen, wohin man will, nirgends kann man ihren Anfällen entfliehen. Ich sahe heute eine Kuh gelaufen kommen, die gewiss ebensoviel Musskiten als Hare auf sich setzen hatte, und an verschiedenen Orten sassen sie so klumpenweise, wie die Bienen sich zur Schwärme Zeit für die Stöcke anlagen. Und noch eben so viel schwärmten um sie herum, die sich zwahr nicht mehr ansetzen konnten, aber doch das Thier immer begleiteten. Die Kuh lief bis überher ins Wasser, da magten wohl einige umgekommen seyn, die andern schwärmten aber noch wie ganze Bienenschwärme über dem Wasser, eben als wenn sie es abwarten wollten, bis sie wieder heraus ging (95r) Es ist merkwürdig, dass uns allzeit der Wind diese lästigen Gäste zu wehet. Die wenigen Gewitter, die wir noch dieses Jahr gehabt haben, sind allemal von Jersey herüber mit starkem Winde gekommen, und mit diesem Musskiten wie Sand am Meer. Wenn sie hungerich sind, so sind sie so leichte dass sie der Wind wie Staub wehet, aber wenn sie sich kaum eine Minute angesetzt haben, so saugen sie sich so voll Blut, dass sie so dicke als ein Gersten korn werden.

Den 2ten. Unsere Grenadiers auf dem Komm[ando] auf dem Flaggenstaff klagen noch mehr über die Ungemächlichkeit der Musskiten als wir. Sie haben deswegen in 3 Nächten nicht schlafen können. Sie sind aus den Zelten heraus gelaufen und haben einen starken Rauch gemacht (96v) aber kein Mittel hat sie verjagt. Die Hände und Gesichter der Leute waren von den Stichen aufgeschwollen.

Heute was Provisionstag, wo aber weder Brod noch Mehl empfangen wurde, sondern stattdessen eine Handvoll Reis für den Mann.

Citation: Des Feldprediger Waldecks geführtes Tagebuch während dem lezten americanisch [sic] Kriege, University of Pennsylvania Kislak Center for Special Collections, Ms. Codex 1121. Digitized copy available at: http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/medren/detail.html?id=MEDREN_9942599433503681

For a published transcription of the diary, see Marion Dexter Learned, Philipp Waldeck’s Diary of the American Revolution (Philadelphia: Americana Germanica Press, 1907). Excerpt is on pp. 71-72.

Image: Anopheles mosquito from Mosquitoes and their Relation to Disease: Their Life-history, Habits and Control (1916). Accessed at https://blog.library.si.edu/blog/2019/08/20/mosquitoes-and-mauve-a-story-of-scientific-discovery-and-the-british-empire/#.YLp2KaEpA2w

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