The tragic story of yellow fever in Norfolk 1855 and  the crew of the USS Columbia

U.S. Flag Ship Columbia
At sea March 4 1855
5 o'clock P.M


            The increasing number of cases of Remittent fever of a malignant character since yesterday morning fully confirms me in the opinion that we should proceed to the most convenient Naval Station that we may have the benefit of a hospital and that the ship may be broken out, thus rendering her the sooner available for service –

The longer we are delayed the less likely that we have the benefit  of cool weather which is desirable in our case –

Therefore I must  earnestly urge that we proceed with little delay as possible to either Norfolk or New York –

                                                            Very Respectfully
                                                            Your obedient Servant
                                                            (signed) Solomon Sharp

Commodore John H. Newton
Commanding U.S. Home Squadron

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U.S.Flag Ship Columbia
Norfolk, March 19, 1855

No 270                                                                           


I have the honor to report my arrival here this day in the Columbia, last from the Island of St. Thomas.

My last report dated 14th ulto. informed you of my arrival at St. Thomas, and of my intention to remain there a fortnight or so that the crew might have fresh provisions of which they had been so long deprived, and for which they were suffering. Up to the 29th, all hands remained comparatively healthy, and as far as we were able to learn no fevers, or epidemic of any kind prevailed in the town or harbor, but on that date a case of fever occurred on board and of so malignant a type as to prove fatal in a short time. The following day, one or two other cases appearing, I got underway as soon as possible and  ran out into the fresh trades, and in the hope that a thorough ventilation would rid the ship of the infection. I remained two days “on a wind” in the Caribbean Sea, but new cases appearing, and in so short a time four having proved fatal, I concluded to call for the opinion of the Surgeon of the ship, and in accordance with his advice as contained in his letter (a copy of which I herewith enclose) I bore up for the sail rock passage, and made the best of my way out of the tropics.

Had there been any decided decrease in the number of cases after cruising in a N_ latitude for a while, I should have returned to West Indies, but symptoms of great debility evincing themselves among the crew and officers, the sick list daily increasing its numbers, I determined to run for this Port.

The malignant type of this fever may be inferred from the fact that many fresh cases occurred after our leaving the tropics and striking cold weather, and two proving fatal in as high as 33 degrees and 36 degrees N.

There is no doubt Sir that our recent trip to the unhealthy climate of San Juan and our subsequent long cruise added to the debility produced by two summers in the tropics, predisposed our men for the reception of fever, and it is not at all strange that sickness should have made appearance on board. It is a remarkable however, that, up to our recent loss of seven but three deaths have occurred on board Columbia since she has been in commission now over two years -" 

There are at present 50 sick men on board many of whom will be immediately removed to the HospitalI think it would be a prudent now to break out the provisions of the ship and clean the hold thoroughly. This can be done in a week or ten days at the furthest,

Should you deem advisable I would to discharge about 40 of the present crew who have but a month or two to serve, and received in their stead. These men discharged would be re-enlisted in time for the relief squadron.

The Columbia can be all prepared for sea again in three weeks’ time and ready for any cruise you may deem advisable to send her on.

I have the honor to be
Very Respectfully
Your obedient servt
John Thomas Newton
Commdg Home Squadron
Hon I. C. Dobbin
Secretary of the Navy
Washington, D. C

It is my intention to leave here tomorrow for Washington to pay my respects to you in person.

[Sec Nav Note Xd out]
Reply that the sick will be transferred to the Hospital the rest to the Receiving ship. The Dept. cannot at present direct the discharge of the 50 men whose times will shortly expire as there are no men to supply their places – the recruits now on board the Rec ship being intended for the Squadron  [all the others] are intended for the Congress

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U. S. Flag Ship Columbia
Norfolk, March 24th 1855


I have the melanchollic and most painful duty to announce to the Department the death of Lieut Campbell of the Marine Corps, late of the Ship, who died at the Navy Hospital late last night at 10 o'clock of malignant yellow fever.

It will be a satisfaction and consolation to his friends to know that the Chaplain had from his first attack, the very best of medical attendance both on board the Ship and subsequently at the Hospital with all the comfort and conviences that could be attained under the circumstances, together with the warmest sympathy, close and constant attendance of his mess mates and friends to whom, and to all who are acquainted with him, he had from his amiability of character and disposition and amenably of manners warmly endeared himself --Lieut Campbell's presence, high sense of honor and strict attention to duty never failed to command the highest commendation of his brother officers and all who knew him.

I am happy to say we have had no new cases of fever since our arrival and that the present condition of the sick on board the ship and at the Hospital is favorable.

I have the honor to be
very Respectfully, Sir,
your obedt Servt
J B Wilson

Hon I. C. Dobbin
Secretary of the Navy

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U. S. Frigate Columbia
off Norfolk, March 27th 1855

The Honl Secty of the Navy
We the undersigned as respectfully and earnestly solicit your favorable consideration of the circumstances in which the Crew of the Columbia is placed. It is with confidence and hope that we address to you Sir, the petition for our discharge. We are over two years in active service, on one of the most sickly stations in the world. We have been afflicted by disease, first the small pox, then the Colera and scurvy and now that scourge of the West Indies, the yellow Fever. We have every reason to believe the source of the sickness is in the Hold, for every man that has been infected has slept upon the Berth Deck, from the after part of the Fore, to the after part of the Main Hatch, all that have slept forward of the Fore Hold have escaped the infection. We have not had liberty for nine months, and the health of the Ships Company is seriously impaired thereby, unavoidably so as the places we have visited would not permit of the indulgence. Hoping that this will meet with your favorable consideration, we are

Very Respectfully
Your obdt servt
Charles Cook  B.M.
John Granshaw  Q. M.
Austin Daniels  G.M.
Paul Akinson C.F.C
On behalf of the Ships Company

[On the reverse side of the petition] Will the crew be discharged without reference to expiration of service - when the discharge of any portion of them is direct?

Very respectfully
B. Wilson

Signed March 30th Samuel L. Breese Capt

Note: the petition was forwarded to the Secretary of the Navy though it is unclear if Secretary Dobbins approved the crew's request.