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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Private Willis’ Catfish Balm

by James M. Schmidt, "Medical Department"
April 2013 - Civil War News


“I had a little bottle of catfish fat in my knapsack and put that on and it did more god than all the dokters in the armey.” - Letter, October 4, 1862, Pvt Edward R. Willis, 82nd Pennsylvania

One of the great joys of writing this column, my blog, or my books, is that I often hear from people who share wonderful stories about their Civil War ancestors.  It happened again recently when I received a kind e-mail from Mr. Jay Willis, who shared some letters and photographs associated with his great-great-grandfather, Pvt. Edward Robinson Willis, Sr., 82nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The letters were interesting on several counts, especially in the way he is sharing them and because they have some great medical content.

“Pvt. Willis, Sr., was a widower who enlisted in August 1861 and was discharged in July 1865. He sent letters to his daughter, Mary, three to four per month on average,” Mr. Willis told me.  On the 150th anniversary of each letter, he sends a scan of the letter and a typed transcript from the 1960s (which Pvt. Willis’ great-granddaughter had compiled) to more than twenty of Pvt. Willis’ direct descendants.  Mr. Willis adds a cover e-mail, with links and images from the internet, to help his relatives understand better what their Civil War ancestor was writing about.  What a wonderful way to commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial!

Mr. Willis lives near Reading, Pennsylvania, and spend his winters as a “snow bird” just outside of Aiken, South Carolina.  “I have always had an interest in Civil War and family history," he wrote me, adding, “Edward’s daughter, Mary, passed the letters to my great aunt, M. Emma Willis, who taught for 42 years in the Haverford school system. When I was growing up, we lived just under a mile from her house. She instilled in me a love of genealogy and history. She gave me the letters, Edwards enlistment and discharge papers, canteen, etc.. when I was about 11 years old.  I, my brothers, and even my daughter used them for school projects, etc., but for the most part they remained in a lock box.” Mr. Willis also said that his great aunt used the letters in her classrooms for 42 years and – recently - his niece has also started to use the letters with her history students

Mr. Willis retired after 35 years of working with people with developmental disabilities on behalf of the state of Pennsylvania.  He finally had the time and resources to give more attention to Pvt. Willis’ letters and, in August 2011, he began more in-depth research, which he now happily shares with his relatives.  “What amazes me is the number of people the letters are forwarded to; I think most recipients do forward them to at least one person: in laws, friends etc.”

It’s no wonder: the life story of Pvt. Willis is very interesting and the letters make for terrific reading.

In the 1840s and early 1850s, Edward R. Willis was a farmer in Haverford Township, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, renting the farm from his aunt, Mary (Willis) Pierce Flounders. By 1860, he was a widower with three small children and the farm he rented had been sold upon the death of his aunt.  In addition to the loss of his farm and wife, he lost two children, his parents, and brother.  He was working as a day or seasonal laborer on several farms in Haverford Township. His three surviving children were cared for by others.

At slightly less than 45 years of age, Willis enlisted in the Union army on August 12, 1861, in Company A, "Wetherill Blues,” 31st Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers (re-designated the 82nd Pennsylvania).  The regiment was present at numerous battles including Fair Oaks, Malvern Hill, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.  Pvt. Willis was wounded, but not severely, at Antietam and had a horse shot from under him at Petersburg.

That some of the letters have medical content - which is of special interest to me and readers of this column – is not terribly surprising; it’s the rare letter, indeed – soldier or civilian – from the mid-1800s that doesn’t have some mention of the health of the writer or the writer’s family.  Still, Pvt. Willis’ letters have some especially unique content.

One of my research interests is 19th-century patent (quack, proprietary, snake oil, etc.) medicines, and I love to see mentions of specific brands in soldier correspondence.  On January 28, 1863, Pvt. Willis wrote his “deare daughter” to “send me a box of rights inden vegtble pills.”   He was referring to “Wright’s Indian Vegetable Pills,” one of the first truly American patent medicines, which promised to cure a dizzying array of ailments, from “acidity of the stomach” to “night sweats” to yellow fever.  In his letter of February 9, 1863, he thanked her for the pills and a week later, Pvt. Willis wrote that he “tooke a good doce of them pills you sent me and I feele like a new man.” (Most of the “vegetable pill” patent medicines of the era – and there were many - contained natural laxatives, which almost certainly explains his improved health).

So far (I still have two years of letters to receive!), my favorite tale has been of a home remedy.  On September 24, 1862, Pvt. Willis wrote his daughter a dramatic account of the regiment’s fight at Antietam and described his wound: “I had three balls throug my leg just above the nee but did not injer the bone though it pains me bade enough without braken any bones.”

On October 4, 1862, he confessed that “I suffered a greadele [great deal] for several days with pain,” but adds, “I had a little bottle of catfish fat in my knapsack and put that on and it did more god than all the dokters in the armey.” [Mr. Willis told me that Pvt. Willis had written about catching the fish a month earlier while the regiment was on the James River! Imagine the smell!].

What a GREAT story and a unique remedy!  As it turns out, Pvt. Willis had history and medicine on his side: fish fat was mentioned as a balm for wounds in the days of the Romans and is still used among some Amazonian tribes today!

Edward was discharged with his Regiment on July 13, 1865 at Hall's Hill, Virginia.  He returned from the war suffering from chronic diarrhea from which he never recovered; he died on September 18, 1865, not quite 49 years old.

As mentioned earlier, when Edward’s wife died in 1857, he placed his children with nearby friends or neighbors: Mary at 15 with the Bond family; Edward at 12 with the Dickinson family, and Eliza at 6 with Priscilla Davis and then the Bartrum family.  In the 1870's the family spent time gathering affidavits for Eliza (the only one who was a minor when he died) to acquire a pension, which she did receive. Mary never married and Edward R Willis, Jr. had two children. M. Emma and Albert, Mr. Willis’ grandfather.

I am indebted to Mr. Willis for sharing these wonderful stories with me.


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