The Fever, Chapter 13:
rises to melt away a frost.|
By LON WAGNER, The
© July 22, 2005
A week later, on Oct. 5, George Armstrong was back at
Elmwood Cemetery to bury a friend, the Rev. William Jackson of St. Paul’s.
Armstrong’s mind wandered back over the past two months, and he remembered
having run into Jackson dozens of times, at the cemetery or visiting the
Just after the fever had appeared, Jackson had told Armstrong that he
had canceled plans to leave the city. “Should this fever spread, as it
seems reason to fear that it will, we shall all be needed,” Jackson had
Armstrong remembered writing to his
friend in Philadelphia defending the clergy’s dedication, saying that
without a miracle several ministers’ graves would prove it. But as he
watched Jackson’s body being lowered into a grave, Armstrong shuddered.
The toll had been greater than he imagined.
Of the seven Protestant ministers who had stayed, four had died.
Armstrong didn’t question God, surely he had his own purpose, but the
cruelty of the pestilence forced Armstrong to view him differently. At
least for the moment.
and at this time,” he thought, “must God be worshipped as He that 'maketh
darkness his secret place; his pavilion round about him, dark waters and
thick clouds of the sky.’”
After the past two months, the fever had left people staggering and
numb, unable or too worn down to describe it to anyone who had not lived
A scourge had not wiped out a proportionate number of residents since
the Middle Ages, when the Black Death felled one in three.
N.C. Whitehead, Norfolk’s acting mayor, responded to the physicians’
request to leave town with a lengthy letter. Twenty of 87 visiting doctors
had died, along with more than half of the local physicians.
“Had not noble spirits volunteered to the rescue (to die, if need be,
like Curtius , for Rome) our people must have sunk beneath the burden of
their agony,” Whitehead wrote.
“The annals of our civilization furnish no authentic record of a
visitation of disease as awfully severe as that which we have just
encountered,” he continued. “We are now a community of convalescents.”
The cities began preparing for the return of their residents from out
Physicians recommended that all stores and homes be opened to allow the
sick air to vent. And that no one return before a hard frost.
At Old Point Comfort, a puzzling and prominent death occurred: the wife
of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. She wasn’t suspected of having the fever,
but her health went quickly downhill and when she died her skin turned a
sickly yellow. She was a sister of Francis Scott Key.
Six or eight a day still were dying in Norfolk, but new cases were
Armstrong’s strength had not completely returned, and Cornelia and
Grace were still recovering, so he planned, again, to get them out of
The day after Jackson’s funeral, the minister and the last two members
of his family boarded the Curtis Peck and steamed toward Richmond.
The Armstrongs remained away for a month, and the cities changed
A massive exchange of people began in early October, with the recovered
finally able to leave and volunteer physicians and nurses boarding
steamers to Richmond, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York.
Norfolk’s board of health set Nov. 1 as the safe date for refugees to
return, but many ignored it. By Oct. 9, Norfolk and Portsmouth residents
began to check out of New York hotels; steamers headed south from that
city were filled.
The Southern Argus published again, and reported three new cases of
fever among refugees who had returned too soon.
Fear still plagued residents, and one night someone set Woodis Hospital
on fire in two places. It was windy and much of the central city could
have burned, but the flames were quickly extinguished.
City streets became busier, and a dozen stores in Norfolk re
On Oct. 14, a new day dawned: The sun rose and had to melt away a heavy
Soon, people scrambled for overcoats for the winter and, finally,
tailors became more sought than coffin makers.
On Nov. 1, a large group of residents waited for the steamer Roanoke to
pull into the wharf. When it got close, the people let out a cheer – and
the prodigal residents on board clapped and cheered back.
Armstrong and his daughters arrived back in the city a few days later,
and he noticed at once that it had become re-invigorated.
But when he stepped into the pulpit the following Sunday, he saw that
the fever had altered things for years to come.
Reach Lon Wagner at (757) 446-2341 or
Coming next: Chapter 14, Epilogue