War is delightful to those who have had no experience of it. –Desiderius Erasmus
During the nineteenth century, soldiers lucky or clever enough to avoid a bullet endured physical hardships that took a serious toll on their skeletons. The remains of 83 soldiers, spanning the Revolutionary War to the Battle of Little Bighorn, display the effects of these hardships. Conditions such as porotic hyperostosis, vertebral lesions, and dental caries and abscesses appeared at an early age among these soldiers. Low frequencies of chronic infection and moderate-to-severe skeletal deformities indicate that men with these conditions were not allowed to serve. The health index used in this study places the soldiers among the least healthy groups, supporting the conclusion that nineteenth-century military service turned relatively healthy young men into physical wrecks, unless they perished in combat first.
As human endeavors go, war is particularly unsavory. Health and disease have impacted on the outcome of important battles and military campaigns at least until this century. Sick soldiers do not fight well.
Modern interpretations of the life of nineteenth-century soldiers are colored by firsthand accounts and broadly written historical works, usually focused on tactics and battles. Soldiers' diaries and generals' recollections rarely present the effects of military service on the bodies of young men. Certainly, military life was hard during the nineteenth century, but just how did it affect the musculoskeletal system of the soldiers? The skeletons of nineteenth-century soldiers provide unique evidence regarding the physical effects of military life.