On a hot, late summer afternoon in 1862, the newly-formed 118th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the Corn-Exchange Regiment, conducted initial field training at Camp Union near their hometown of Philadelphia. With nearly one thousand new recruits in battalion for drill, the regiment marched down a slope near their encampment, fully equipped with the regimental band and full colors flying at the front of their line. They looked pristine, at least until one Pennsylvania soldier stepped on the nest of yellow jackets:
The yellow-jackets made a spritied attack. The regiment hesitated, faltered, wavered, feld! – fled in confusion, covered with stings instead of glory. The Corn Exchange Regiment had suffered its first defeat […] The regimental surgeon had not yet arrived in camp. A volunteer from the country, Charles F. Dare, afterwards selected as hospital steward, who had some previous experience in warfare with the winged, stinging foe, assumed the position, and, with becoming gravity, treated his wounded comrades with mud plasters, while their unwounded friends gave them unlimited chaff.
Though it is a humorous story, revealing the lightheartedness of camp life, this funny tale also gives light to some forgotten foes: bees, yellow jackets, wasps, and hornets. Considered a “wasp,” the Eastern Yellow Jacket is also known as Vespula maculifrons. Found throughout the Eastern portion of North America, these insects form large colonies made up of thousands of individual wasps and are considered to be highly aggressive. According to Civil War veteran and author of Hardtack and Coffee John Billings, soldiers loved foraging for honey and were willing to take the risks to obtain the sweet treat. Even during combat at Second Manassas and Shiloh, bees and hornets attacked soldiers who had accidentally stepped on their hives. So, these attacks by insects were quite common during the war.
The Corn Exchange soldiers who were stung needed immediate medical attention, because of the yellow jacket’s venom that is injected during a sting. Swelling, tenderness, fatigue, itching, and inflammation are common side effects. For some, coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, and hives can indicate an individual needs emergency medical attention. According to the unit history, no one died as a result, but it can be certain that many of the poor boys were in quite a bit of pain.
- Survivors’ Association, History of the Corn Exchange Regiment, 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers (Philadelphia, PA: JL Smith, 1888), 13.
- John Billings, Hardtack and Coffee or the Unwritten Story of Army Life (Boston: George M Smith, 1887), 246.
- Rachel Stewart, “What to Do for Yellow Jacket Stings,” healthLine, 8 June 2017, http://www.healthline.com/health/yellow-jacket-stings#overview1.