Civil War Hospital Ship

The U.S.S. Red Rover, a captured Confederate vessel, was refitted as a hospital ship.

Evolution of Civil War Nursing

The evolution of the nursing profession in America was accelerated by the Civil War.

The Practice of Surgery

Amputations were the most common surgery performed during the Civil War.

Army Medical Museum and Library

Surgeon-General William Hammond established The Army Medical Museum in 1862. It was the first federal medical research facility.

Civil War Amputation Kit

Many Civil War surgical instruments had handles of bone, wood or ivory. They were never sterilized.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Civil War Cooking: What the Union Soldiers Ate

By Tori Avey, From 

"We grab our plates and cups, and wait for no second invitation. We each get a piece of meat and a potato, a chunk of bread and a cup of coffee with a spoonful of brown sugar in it. Milk and butter we buy, or go without. We settle down, generally in groups, and the meal is soon over… We save a piece of bread for the last, with which we wipe up everything, and then eat the dish rag. Dinner and breakfast are alike, only sometimes the meat and potatoes are cut up and cooked together, which makes a really delicious stew. Supper is the same, minus the meat and potatoes."
- Lawrence VanAlstyne, Union Soldier, 128th New York Volunteer Infantry

The biggest culinary problem during the Civil War, for both the North and the South, was inexperience. Men of this time were accustomed to the women of the house, or female slaves, preparing the food. For a male army soldier, cooking was a completely foreign concept. Thrust into the bleak reality of war, soldiers were forced to adjust to a new way of life—and eating—on the battlefield.

In the early stages of the war, the Union soldiers of the North benefited from supervision by the United States Sanitary Commission. Commonly known as The Sanitary, it made the soldiers’ health and nutrition a top priority. Even before the start of the war, volunteers in The Sanitary were trained to find and distribute food to soldiers stationed in the field. They were expected to be knowledgeable in determining which foods were available during each season, and how to preserve food items for transportation and storage. It was the responsibility of The Sanitary to schedule and maintain a constant supply of food to soldiers at war.

While the Sanitary did their best to provide a reliable supply of food, that didn’t guarantee a tasty or healthy meal. Considering there were nearly 2 million soldiers in the Union army, the Sanitary did not focus on flavor nor variety. It was a large enough task to provide the basics and keep their soldiers from starving. When food deliveries were interrupted by weather delays or other challenges, soldiers were forced to forage the countryside to supplement their meager diets.

"Again we sat down beside (the campfire) for supper. It consisted of hard pilot-bread, raw pork and coffee. The coffee you probably wouldn’t recognize in New York. Boiled in an open kettle, and about the color of a brownstone front, it was nevertheless… the only warm thing we had."
- Charles Nott, Union Soldier, 16 yrs. old

At the start of the war, James M. Sanderson, a member of the Sanitary, became concerned with reports of poor food quality and preparation. Sanderson, who was also a hotel operator in New York, believed that his experience would be of value to the Union. With the help of New York Governor Edwin D. Morgan, Sanderson set out to visit soldiers in the field, in hopes of teaching them a few simple cooking techniques. He started with the camps of the 12th New York, as they were deemed “most deficient in the proper culinary knowledge.” He reportedly saw a significant change in just three days.

On July 22, 1861, just after the Union’s loss in the First Battle of Bull Run, Sanderson approached the War Department with a proposal. He asked that a “respectable minority” in each company be expertly trained in the essential basics of cooking. For every 100-man company, the skilled cook would be appointed two privates; one position would be permanent and the other would rotate among the men of the company. The skilled cook would be given the rank of “Cook Major” and receive a monthly salary of $50. It would be the Cook Major’s responsibility to ration the food, prepare it, and delegate tasks to the company cooks. Sanderson had unknowingly proposed his idea at exactly the right time. Washington was faced with the likelihood of the war lasting years, rather than months. The government was actively looking for ways to increase soldier comfort. Sanderson’s proposal reached the Military Affairs Committee of the U.S. Senate. Though they did not follow his instructions specifically, Sanderson did receive a commission—he was named Captain in the Office of the Commissary General of Subsistence from the War Department.

Around this time, Sanderson wrote the first cookbook to be distributed to the military. The book was titled: Camp Fires and Camp Cooking; or Culinary Hints for the Soldier: Including Receipt for Making Bread in the “Portable Field Oven” Furnished by the Subsistence Department. Though his grammar was questionable, Sanderson did describe several techniques, such as suspending pots over a campfire, that made cooking slightly more convenient in the battlefield.

Sanderson believed his efforts were so successful that “no man could consume his daily ration, although many waste(d) it.” This certainly was not the case, as many men still suffered from hunger, illness and death from unsanitary and poorly cooked food. Sanderson did understand the importance of cooking with well-cleaned pots and was quoted as saying, “Better wear out your pans with scouring than your stomachs with purging.”

Typical fare during the Civil War was very basic. Union soldiers were fed pork or beef, usually salted and boiled to extend the shelf life, coffee, sugar, salt, vinegar, and sometimes dried fruits and vegetables if they were in season. Hard tack, a type of biscuit made from unleavened flour and water, was commonly used to stave off hunger on both sides. After baking, hard tack was dried to increase its shelf life.

Soldiers in the field would carry rations in makeshift bags called haversacks. Made of canvas, the haversack folded around its contents, basically anything the soldiers would need to survive for a few days on their own, and was held together with buckling straps and completed with two shoulder straps.

"An army is a big thing and it takes a great many eatables and not a few drinkables to carry it along."
- Union Officer, October 1863

On her website The History Kitchen, Tori Avey explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the recipes of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. 

IMAGE: Dinner party outside tent, Army of the Potomac headquarters, Brandy Station, VA (Library of Congress)

The Civil War and Nursing

By Cathryn Domrose

Vivid, dramatic images of Civil War nursing spill from history books into the American psyche: Clara Barton, her apron soaked with blood, working tirelessly beside surgeons as they amputated arms and legs. Louisa May Alcott bringing water to crying soldiers, cradling their heads in her arms, scribbling as they dictated letters home. Sally Tompkins, a captain in the Confederate army, insisting on absolute cleanliness in the hospital she ran in Richmond, Va. Dorothea Dix and Mary Ann Bickerdyke defying male surgeons and administrators to make sure their nurses and patients got the respect and resources they deserved. Phoebe Pember doing the same in the South, sometimes with the help of a pistol she kept in her pocket.

Birth of a Profession
“The Civil War launched the profession of nursing in the United States,” says Jane E. Schultz, PhD, professor of English, American studies, women’s studies and medical humanities at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and the author of “Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America” and “This Birth Place of Souls: The Civil War Nursing Diary of Harriet Eaton.”

The work of Civil War nurses proved that contrary to Victorian notions of the time, women could provide excellent care for men they weren't related to without damaging delicate sensibilities or reputations, say nursing and Civil War historians. It also convinced Americans in powerful places of the value of creating a trained nursing force to provide care in military and civilian hospitals. But the birth of the profession had its pangs. During the war, a diverse group of men and women cared for wounded and dying soldiers. But post-war, those exciting stories of wartime nursing heroines helped convince Americans that women were more “naturally” suited to care for the sick. Nearly eight years after the war’s end, the first American nursing schools — modeled after Florence Nightingale’s schools in England — accepted only women, almost all of them white.

“Bringing women into nursing was this great thing, but it had this price that we are still paying,” says Barbara Maling, RN, PhD, associate professor at Longwood University in Virginia, and author of many articles on Civil War nursing. Today, if someone says nurse, most people think of a woman, she says.

In the U.S. before the war, almost all nursing care was done at home. “Caring for your family when they were sick, that was part of a woman’s job,” says Sylvia Rinker, RN, PhD, professor emeritus at Lynchburg (Va.) College. But nursing outside the home, she says, “was looked down upon because it put women in contact with strange men.” When the Civil War began, most nursing duties were assigned to convalescing soldiers well enough to carry them out, and to women in religious orders whose higher calling allowed them to care for soldiers on both sides without scandal.

Influenced by Nightingale’s success in the Crimean War, the Union army added a small corps of 100 female nurses trained by Dix, already famous as a reformer and advocate for the mentally ill, and Elizabeth Blackwell, the nation’s first female physician.

Hoopskirts were banned because they caught on dressings and pulled them off the wounded men, says Rhonda Goodman, ARNP, PhD, FNP-BC, who wrote an article about women nurses in the Civil War for the Advances in Nursing Science journal. Dix’s edict, she says, “was one of the first examples of evidence-based medicine” in nursing. 

Need for Nurses Explodes
But the Civil War quickly became too large and complex for the governments on both sides to limit women willing to work for the military, historians say. “Once the war got going with a vengeance, no one effort like Dix’s could address it,” says Edward J. Halloran, RN, PhD, FAAN, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing.

The exact number of female Civil War nurses is hard to establish. Though many historical accounts estimate 2,000 on each side, Union hospital documents show at least 21,000 women on the payroll during the war, Schultz says. Some women volunteered with aid organizations or religious groups. Others followed their husbands or brothers to the battlefields. Some, including Harriet Tubman, were freed and escaped slaves, though they were rarely called nurses, even when they cared for patients, Schultz says. “Black women were more often called laundresses or cooks than anything else,” she says.

Many women, widowed and without income, sought work as paid hospital or field camp relief workers for the Union or Confederate armies, Schultz says. Military documents and records show the paid workers vastly outnumbered the volunteers, though few wrote accounts of their work, she says. Their titles and pay varied, usually according to their race and class, with nurses at the top, receiving $12 a month, and laundresses toward the bottom, receiving around $6, she says. But the duties were essentially the same. Most hospital workers scoured floors; washed linens; bathed patients; gave out food, water and medicines; cleaned and dressed wounds; and comforted the sick and dying men. Literate women wrote and sent letters dictated to them by wounded soldiers.

Nightingale’s Influence
The war launched the popularity of Nightingale’s writings in America. Blackwell used Nightingale’s “Notes on Nursing” in her training program, and Northern nurses packed the slim volume in their carpet bags as they headed to Union hospitals. Confederate officials published Nightingale’s dietary guidelines in army hospital manuals. Nurses on both sides worked to create the sanitary environments she championed. But many also became convinced of Nightingale’s contention that nursing was the sole province of women, particularly upstanding middle-class women. “She actively promoted the division of labor,” Maling says.

Nightingale’s teachings about sanitation and the domestic chores delegated to women and slaves — cleaning, cooking, laundering, feeding — proved helpful in preventing the spread of infection and disease. “Women were already using sanitary methods without the scientific name,” Schultz says. Illnesses such as dysentery, small pox, malaria and typhoid killed more soldiers than mortal wounds. Though surgeons made great advances during the Civil War in their understanding of surgery, the medical practices of the time probably killed more people than they saved, historians say. While surgeons prescribed purges or toxic substances such as mercury for ill soldiers, nurses brought fresh water and beef tea to rehydrate and nourish them. The death rate from disease in the American Civil War was considerably lower than during the Crimean war, Halloran says. “That was all due to the sanitation efforts,” he says. 

Though women got the accolades, the vast majority of nursing care during the war was given by men, Maling says. Wounded soldiers commonly cared for their more gravely injured comrades on battlefields and in hospitals. Other men — black and white — worked as paid nurses or ward stewards. Records from the U.S. Sanitary Commission show it employed male and female nurses, Halloran says. The most famous male “nurse” probably is the poet Walt Whitman, who visited Washington hospitals as a volunteer, writing letters, bringing food and cigarettes and giving money to the young soldiers who touched his heart. Though there are accounts of soldiers grumbling about male attendants, Maling believes most men gave excellent care during the war. “I think men got a horrible rap about providing nursing care during the war,” she says. Some of the negative stories were told by women who saw nursing as their domain, she says.

The soldiers preferred female nurses because they felt as if they were being cared for by a mother, wife or sister, as they would be at home, historians say. “So much of those early Civil War duties were comforting men who were dying, and that has always been seen as a motherly trait,” Rinker says. Though some surgeons had their battles with Dix and Bickerdyke, others lavishly praised their female nurses, calling them “angels.” 

After the War
After the war, some volunteer nurses went on lecture tours and wrote books and articles describing the men’s gratitude for a woman’s touch. These accounts created a general impression that Civil War nursing had been done by mostly elite white women volunteers and obliterated the roles of black, immigrant, working class and male nurses, Maling says. “Nursing became a woman’s profession after the Civil War,” she says. “We got rid of our minorities and our men who were such a strong part of it.”

A combination of Nightingale’s work, advances in medicine, the growth of hospitals and the inspiration of Civil War nursing stories created an ideal climate for professional nursing education, Halloran says. Several years after the war ended in 1865, the president of the American Medical Association called for a women’s nursing corps based on the Nightingale model. The U.S. Sanitary Commission — which coordinated volunteer medical help for the Union during the war — lobbied for the establishment of the country’s first official nursing schools in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. 

Linda Richards, who had cared for her wounded Civil War veteran husband for four years, sought formal training after he died and became the country’s first nursing school graduate. Most of the women who cared for wounded soldiers during the Civil War did not train as nurses after the war ended, or, if they did, there is no record of it, historians say. Some, including Dix and Barton, took up other causes. Dix returned to advocating for the mentally ill. Barton founded the American Red Cross. Many probably returned to their homes and farms. “They had done their work,” Schultz says. But those untrained Civil War nurses — volunteers and paid, men and women, black and white — had left their mark on the profession. They provided a caring presence for their sick and dying patients that the best of nursing, with all its science and professionalism, still embodies today, Goodman says. “The whole aspect of caring is timeless.”


IMAGE: Florence Nightingale

Soldiers' Food During the Civil War

By far, the food soldiers received has been the source of more stories than any other aspect of army life. The Union soldier received a variety of edibles. The food issue, or ration, was usually meant to last three days while on active campaign and was based on the general staples of meat and bread. Meat usually came in the form of salted pork or, on rare occasions, fresh beef. Rations of pork or beef were boiled, broiled or fried over open campfires. Army bread was a flour biscuit called hardtack, re-named "tooth-dullers", "worm castles", and "sheet iron crackers" by the soldiers who ate them. Hardtack could be eaten plain though most men preferred to toast them over a fire, crumble them into soups, or crumble and fry them with their pork and bacon fat in a dish called skillygalee. Other food items included rice, peas, beans, dried fruit, potatoes, molasses, vinegar, and salt. Baked beans were a northern favorite when the time could be taken to prepare them and a cooking pot with a lid could be obtained. Coffee was a most desirable staple and some soldiers considered the issue of coffee and accompanying sugar more important than anything else. Coffee beans were distributed green so it was up to the soldiers to roast and grind them. The task for this most desirable of beverages was worth every second as former soldier John Billings recalled: "What a Godsend it seemed to us at times! How often after being completely jaded by a night march... have I had a wash, if there was water to be had, made and drunk my pint or so of coffee and felt as fresh and invigorated as if just arisen from a night's sound sleep!" 

Soldiers often grouped themselves into a "mess" to combine and share rations, often with one soldier selected as cook or split duty between he and another man. But while on active campaign, rations were usually prepared by each man to the individual's taste. It was considered important for the men to cook the meat ration as soon as it was issued, for it could be eaten cold if activity prevented cook fires. A common campaign dinner was salted pork sliced over hardtack with coffee boiled in tin cups that each man carried. 

The southern soldier's diet was considerably different from his northern counterpart and usually in much less quantity. The average Confederate subsisted on bacon, cornmeal, molasses, peas, tobacco, vegetables and rice. They also received a coffee substitute which was not as desirable as the real coffee northerners had. Trades of tobacco for coffee were quite common throughout the war when fighting was not underway. Other items for trade or barter included newspapers, sewing needles, buttons, and currency.


Civil War Federal Navy Physicians

Author: John S. Lynch, Msc.

The Federal Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery experienced a substantial loss of officers during 1861. It responded to the loss and the increased demand for its services by augmenting its regular medical officers with volunteer physicians. The medical corps more than doubled in size between 1861 and 1865 as a result of the recruiting efforts. Navy physicians were involved in blockade duty, anticommerce raider cruises, amphibious assaults, riverine duty, and staffing naval facilities ashore. Their services are virtually unknown despite their involvement in most naval activity during the war. This article illuminates their efforts. It does so by analyzing individual service records and reports compiled in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies during the War of the Rebellion. The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery successfully met the demands made upon it during the American Civil War.

The Federal Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery receives little attention in American Civil War-related publications and discussions. Its medical officers are even more ignored. Answers to basic questions like how the bureau was affected by the war; what was the physician rank structure, how experienced were navy physicians, what was the physician attrition during the war, what assignments were available, what maladies did they treat, and how were they recognized for meritorious service are not readily available. This article attempts to answer these questions by analyzing service records and official war-time naval reports.

The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Expands
Dr. William Whelan was Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BMS) during the war years.1 He was a senior surgeon, having joined the Navy as an assistant surgeon on January 3, 1828. (He was promoted to surgeon on February 9, 1837.) His physician corps on January 1, 1861 included 61 surgeons, 25 passed assistant surgeons, and 45 assistant surgeons.2 BMS lost 41% of its January 1861 physician complement by the end of the year. A massive recruiting effort soon began, and BMS rapidly grew as a result. Many civilian physicians volunteered and entered the service as acting assistant surgeons. The volunteer physicians comprised 56% of BMS' medical officer strength by 1865.2 The majority of the volunteers either resigned or received honorable discharges soon after the war ended. The strength of the BMS peaked in 1864 with an average of 463 physicians present that year. 


The Dietary Problems of Civil War Soldiers

By T. A. Wheat, from "Medicine in Virginia during the Civil War"

Dietary problems also occurred because soldiers' meals consisted primarily of hard bread and some form of preserved meat. Union troops were consistently issued vegetables to prevent scurvy, now known to be caused by a vitamin C deficiency. The Confederate troops could usually procure similar dietary supplements by foraging or by paying exorbitant prices to camp merchants. This system worked well until the last year of the war when the Virginia countryside was picked bare of foodstuffs. As a result, cases of scurvy increased, as did the mortality rates of Confederate troops who underwent surgery.
The only other well-documented vitamin deficiency was night blindness, which is caused by a deficiency of vitamin A. Nineteenth-century surgeons had no idea what caused night blindness, but one theory held that it was caused by sleeping outdoors with the eyes open and exposed to moonlight (hence the popular term "moon blindness"). At night regiments were sometimes forced to march with the soldiers placing their hands on the shoulder of the person ahead of them because their vision was so impaired.

A Civil War Pharmaceutical: Turpentine Production in 1800s Alabama

By Catherine Kim Gyllerstrom

The longleaf pine forests that once covered much of Alabama provided ample resources for the establishment and growth of the state's turpentine industry. Between 1840 and 1930, turpentine distilling spanned Baldwin, Mobile, Washington, Choctaw, Escambia, and Tuscaloosa counties. Turpentine was used primarily as a solvent and for fuel, and resin was used in the soap and varnish industries. This industry promoted economic development and industrial expansion, but it also had a history of questionable labor practices, from using enslaved labor to exploiting convicts and immigrants. It was also known as the naval stores industry because pitch, which was used to caulk the seams of wooden sailing ships, was produced from the trees.

Some accounts suggest that turpentine harvesting began as early as 1777 in Mobile County, but significant numbers of operations did not arise in A demonstration of tapping a longleaf pine for 
Alabama until the 1840s, after the widespread adoption of lightweight copper stills. Invented in 1834, these apparatuses reduced the cost of production because they could be set up near the harvesting site. Increased consumer demand for turpentine, pitch, and resin in the 1840s stimulated production. The growing rubber industry employed turpentine as a solvent and the expanding soap and varnish industries required resin for manufacturing. Consumers also purchased turpentine as a cheap alternative to oil for lamps.

In 1847, Col. R. D. James began a small-scale operation in Clarke County that by 1855 yielded 1,060,000 gallons of turpentine and 130,000 barrels of resin per year. Producers were attracted to the southern half of the state because of its largely untouched pine forests. Between 1850 and 1860, Alabama's turpentine industry rapidly expanded, with the annual economic worth increasing 36 times, from $17,800 in 1850 to $642,000 by 1860.

Turpentine collection changed very little from its beginnings in the nineteenth into the early twentieth century. During the turpentine season, which lasted eight months, laborers extracted sap from longleaf pines in a three-step process. Beginning in November, workers entered the woods to begin "boxing" trees. Using long-headed axes, they cut a "box" into the base of the tree, ranging from approximately 10 to 14 inches wide and 2.5 to 3.5 inches deep, to catch the sap from the tree. After boxing was completed by the beginning of March, laborers chipped a "streak" approximately 2/3 of an inch wide and 1 inch deep above the box using a highly specialized tool called a "hack." Chipping occurred weekly for 34 weeks and released the sap, which collected in the box. At the beginning of April, laborers began using a steel spatula to scoop the liquid (a drier, less viscous form of sap known as gum) from the box in a process called "dipping" and then deposited it in buckets. The gum was next transferred to 40-gallon barrels for transport to a distillery or to portable stills near the site. In addition to being labor intensive, this method of gathering the sap eventually killed the tree, with large stands of pines being depleted within a decade and forcing producers to move to new forests.

Through the distillation process, operators transformed the gum into turpentine, pitch, and resin. Once the barrels reached the distillery, laborers transferred the gum to stills. Fires underneath the stills heated the gum and brought the mixture to boil. Vapor then flowed through a tube at the top of the still, where it condensed and dripped into another barrel. This mixture of turpentine and water then separated, and laborers skimmed the turpentine from the surface. This procedure, known as gum turpentining, took between three and a half to five and a half hours and produced both turpentine and resin.

Many of the owners of turpentine operations in Alabama relocated from North Carolina, where forests had already been severely depleted. For example, James R. Grist purchased forestland in Mobile to expand his operation based in Beaufort County, North Carolina. In 1857, his cousin Benjamin Grist opened a turpentine plantation near the Fish River in Mobile County. The Grist venture in Alabama operated with enslaved labor and between 1859 and 1860 produced 26,337 barrels of sap that, after the distillation process, yielded 3,020 barrels of turpentine and 15,118 barrels of resin. Turpentine laborers endured some of the harshest conditions among southern industries. Although the enslaved laborers set the pace for boxing, chipping, and dipping, producers set enormous quotas that required high speed and skill.

During the Civil War, poor market conditions and interrupted transportation temporarily halted naval stores production. However, swift industrialization and the construction of numerous railroads after the war aided the industry's recovery because new rail lines restored access to distilleries and opened up new areas for establishing additional distilleries. L. Keville Larson of Larson and McGowin Inc. 

The industry faced several important changes after the war. The demise of enslaved labor resulted in a shortage of labor, as many freedpeople were unwilling to endure the harsh conditions of the industry. To remedy this situation, operators turned to leasing convicts from Alabama's prison system and to a system known as debt peonage, in which indebted individuals were forced to work until a debt or loan was paid off. Distilleries in Tuscaloosa and Escambia counties leased state inmates to harvest gum in their pine tracts. Famed Alabama outlaw Railroad Bill likely escaped from a turpentining camp. Other distilleries hired northern labor agencies to procure white immigrant labor. These companies lured workers to Alabama with false promises of high wages and favorable working conditions, then essentially held laborers captive while they worked off their transportation costs. In 1902, for example, W. S. Harlan, the manager of Jackson Lumber Company's mill in Lockhart, Covington County, was charged with perpetuating debt peonage and was convicted in 1906. Despite successful prosecution, debt peonage remained a staple of the South's turpentine industry well into the 1920s.


IMAGE: Children of turpentine worker near Cordele, Alabama.

A Taste of Civil War Food

Sampling Jaw-Cracking Hardtack, Hospital Gingerbread and "Idiot's Delight"

By Hoag Levins CAMDEN, N.J. 

The Camden County Historical Society's recent 19th-century food history event certainly brought to mind that famous adage about how an army marches on its stomach. The saying was never truer than during the American Civil War, as huge numbers of soldiers marauded across vast expanses of territory to wage North America's most savage military conflict.

The Food Supply
Through it all, the morale, as well as the physical stamina of each combatant, was directly dependent on what he had to put in his mouth each day. The quartermasters who oversaw the food supply for both the Union and Confederate armies were among those organizations' most important officers because if they failed, the entire army could literally collapse from hunger.

Quartermaster duties were among the military's most complex tasks. Vast tonnages of food and other supplies had to be constantly acquired, secured and moved in a highly organized manner across often-impossible terrain under the most chaotic and harrowing of conditions. The job required particularly talented and driven individuals. For instance, General Ulysses S. Grant, who ultimately led the Union forces to victory, spent much of his earlier military career as a quartermaster rather than an infantry or cavalry leader.

Stark Realities
At the bottom of the logistical chain, gathered around a hundred thousand campfires each day, were the individual soldiers who needed to be fed. In an era before refrigeration or modern food processing techniques, they had to make do with the best fare that could be gotten through to them or on what they could forage from the surrounding landscape.

Although, by today's standards, most of their living and eating conditions were incredibly harsh, many of the baked goods they commonly ate were surprisingly tasty -- a fact learned first hand by those who attended the Camden County Historical Society's recent "Women at the Battle of Gettysburg" presentation.

As part of that Jane Peters Estes event, attendees were invited to try a taste of authentic Civil War food as they listened to the details of the women involved at Gettysburg.

Hunger and Horror
"It all seemed to work together because so much of the story of Gettysburg was about how the soldiers endured both hunger and horror at the same time much of the town's female population was turned into cooks and nurses in the midst of incredible carnage and need," said Historical Society director of programming Sandy Levins. "The idea was to enable the audience to become part of what they were listening to by actually sampling some of what would have brought comfort and sustenance to those Civil War soldiers."

Six Historical Society volunteers researched recipes for period foods and conducted trial baking runs before preparing the food spread across two tables in the rear of the Boyer Auditorium at Society headquarters.

Ms. Levins explained some of the items for the audience:

"Corn meal was an important staple for both armies and soldiers would have eaten corn bread and jonny cake. Our mini-corn muffins today are a nod to that tradition," she said.

Hospital Gingerbread
Gingerbread was also a favorite when it was available, and a comfort food often offered to wounded soldiers in field hospitals. One diary entry of a Civil War nurse described how, after spending the day bathing and bandaging soldiers wounds, she found a sutler's stand and bought a supply of gingerbread which she called "a singular food for sick men."

However, Mrs. Levins pointed out, the conflict's food history "was not all about goodness and light. During the war the four items that caused the most food-related fights within the ranks were bread, meat, apples and pickles. Documents record that soldiers were court martialed, beaten almost to death, and even shot over apples as they went foraging. These were desperate times when large numbers of men often lived just this side of starvation for long periods of time."

The most common -- and likely the most hated -- of all their foods was hardtack, she said. "It was the one thing that every soldier carried in his rucksack. Basically, it was a simple cracker made of flour and water, mixed and rolled to a thickness of about 3/8 of an inch. It was cut into squares and poked with a fork to speed baking time. It's been described by the men as 'indestructible, imperishable, practically inedible, too hard to chew, too small for shoeing mules and too big to use as bullets.'"

One of the best-tasting foods in the afternoon's display was a deep-dish, dark brown float of biscuit-like objects in a thick cinnamon-raisin sauce. The sweet treat was known as "Idiot's Delight," because, Ms. Levins explained, "It was so simple to put together with readily-available materials that it was said 'even an idiot' could make it."

Luxury of Coffee
She also emphasized that the coffee being served that afternoon was an item of great luxury for many of the combatants. "Much like today, the men on both sides of the war loved their coffee. The Union was fortunate to have a steady supply of coffee beans, although they were raw and green and had to be roasted over an open fire without being burnt. Then they were cracked with rifle butts before they could be used for brewing."

"The Confederacy," she said, "was not so lucky. Blockades impeded its flow of equipment and arms as well as food, and its soldiers were forced to make due with things like chicory, burnt corn, peas, potatoes, peanuts and even acorns they would forage in the fall and winter."

Hovering close by the food tables, Historical Society president Richard Pillatt noted "it does seem fitting that as we gather here to contemplate what happened at Gettysburg in 1863, we are also munching on these tooth-cracking plugs of hardtack. As you try to chew this stuff, it really gives you a new appreciation of how difficult even the most minor aspects of daily life must have been for those men and women who sacrificed and suffered so much for the country during those dark days."

The foods for the event were provided by Joyce Albrecht, Dale Chimel, Sandra Forney, Linda Gentry, Charla Lewis, Cheryl McClain and Kathy Witzig.

IMAGE: Coffee shortages were a plague of the Civil War, particularly for Confederate troops. They were often forced to brew chicory, burnt corn, peas, potatoes, peanuts and even acorns instead.


African American Medical Pioneer Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865)


James McCune Smith was the first African American to earn a medical degree and practice medicine in the United States. He was also the first to own and operate a pharmacy, in New York City. Smith was born on April 18, 1813 in New York City to parents who were former slaves. New York's Emancipation Act freed his father and his mother worked her way out of bondage. Smith began his education at the African Free School in New York City, but soon found he could go no further in U.S. education due to racial discrimination.

So Smith crossed the Atlantic and studied instead at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, where racial prejudice was less oppressive. There, he received a bachelor's degree in 1835, a master's degree in 1836, and his medical degree in 1837.

When he returned to the United States, Smith received a hero's welcome from New York's black community. He told the gathering, "I have striven to obtain education, at every sacrifice and every hazard, and to apply such education to the good of our common country." Soon after that, he gave a speech at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, where he described abolitionist activities in Europe.

He began a medical practice in New York and opened a pharmacy on West Broadway. It is said to be the first African American owned and operated pharmacy in the United States.

Dr. Smith practiced medicine for 25 years, primarily at the Free Negro Orphan Asylum. He frequently gave speeches against slavery, and wrote essays for antislavery publications, including the Emancipator and the Liberator. Smith used science and his knowledge of medicine to refute false claims of slavery advocates. In one essay, he marshaled statistics against a minister's claim that slaves in the South were more content than free blacks in the North. In another, he applied his medical knowledge to counter assertions about black health and insanity.

Smith wrote an introduction for Fredrick Douglass' second autobiographical volume, My Bondage and My Freedom. There, he wrote that Douglass' life story "shows that the worst of our institutions, in its worst aspect, cannot keep down energy, truthfulness, and earnest struggle for the right."

In 1863, Smith was appointed professor of anthropology at Wilberforce University, in Ohio. He died two years later in New York, survived by his wife and five children.

What Did the Slaves Eat When They Arrived in America?

Research conducted by Lynne Olver, editor The Food Timeline

"It is difficult to assess the abundance or the quality of average Southern food in the absence of an average Southerner--that is, a member of the middle class, for there was not much middle class to occupy the wide gap between the plantation owner and the poor white, a group which already existed in those times and could hardly expect to rise to any comfortable standards of living in competition with the unpaid labor of slaves. The famous "hog and hominy" diet was at least rendered a little less unhealthy by the prevalence on the Southern menu of greens, often ignored by food writers, perhaps as a food so lowly as to be unworthy of their attention, but providers of vitamins all the same. A significant passage in Frederick Law Olmsted's Seabord Slave States, a product of his travels of the 1850s, suggests that slaves may have enjoyed a diet better balanced than that of may whites. Olmsted remarked that the more modest Southern planters lived on bacon (sometimes cooked with turnip greens), corn pone, coffee sweetened with molasses, and not much else, while their slaves had corn meal and salt pork, plus sweet potatoes of their own raising in the winter. Some owners encouraged the Negroes to grow vegetables for themselves also, because thy discovered that "negroes fed on three-quarters of a pound of bread and bacon are more prone to disease than if with less meat but with vegetables." It did not occur to the masters to draw any conclusions from this empirical observation for their own benefit."
---Eating in America: A History, Waverly Root & Richard de Rochemont [William Morrow and Company:New York] 1976 (p. 145)

"Corn and pork were Southern staples of diets for both master and slave. The master might have delicate puddings and hot breads, rich with eggs and cream, and thin slices of choice smoked ham, while his slaves at mush and chitlins; but it was still corn and pork. The rations issued in "The Quarters" were likely to be light on meat, with hominy or sweet potatoes added to the ration of cornmeal. On some plantations work was assigned by task. Workers who finished early might have the rest of the day to fish or hunt, to work in their own vegetable gardens, or to tend their own livestock, varying, when possibly, the monotonous rations. From the big house rations plus what the slaves could grow, hunt, or catch for themselves, grew the beginnings of the cuisine we today call "soul food"."
---Better Homes and Gardens Heritage Cook Book [Meredith Corporation:New York] 1975 (p. 145)
[NOTE: this book contains several popular period recipes adapted for modern kitchens]

"The cultivation of their own crops by slaves during the free time that they task system afforded them made a strong impression on white observers. Johann Bolzius explained that "they are given as much land as they can handle" and that "they plant for themselves also on Sundays." Hans Trachsler, a German visitor to Carolina, noted the slaves' system of self-provisioning by explaining how "these people were worth a high price because they are much more able to do the work and much cheaper to keep in food and drink than the Europeans."...Reflecting their extensive backcountry interaction with Native Americans, slaves leavened with West African diet with a number of Native American methods of food acquisition...Janet Schaw, a visitor to Carolina, noted that "Negroes are the only people that seem to pay any attention to the various uses that the wild vegetables may be put to." Slaves routinely shot and ate opossum, deer, rabbits, and raccoon...Carolina slaves further supplemented their diet with ample amounts of fish...In addition to corn, rice, beans, and pumpkins, archaeological excavations have unearthed evidence of peach pits, walnuts, and grape seeds...For all the abundance of grains, vegetables, and fruit that slaves grew in their "little piece[s] of land," domestic animals were virtually nonexistent. For meat, they depended on their masters, and their masters proved to be less than reliable--if not completely negligent--suppliers. One slave overseer mentions that slaves "never had any meat except at Christmas." Excavations show almost no proof of domestic beef or pork. "If a master wishes," Bolzius explained, "He gives them a little meat when he slaughters," but otherwise "their food is nothing but Indian corn, beans, pounded rice, potatoes, pumpkins."
---A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America, James E. McWilliams [Columbia University Press:New York] 2005 (p. 158-162)

Jonathan Letterman: Civil War Surgeon Set The Standard For Battlefield Medicine

Surgeon in Blue (Book)
Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care
by Scott McGaugh

Article by NPR Staff

July 1, 2013, marked 150 years since the beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg, a crucial victory for the Union and a turning point in the Civil War. But it came at an enormous cost to both sides — thousands of soldiers were killed and tens of thousands more were wounded.

However, it might have been even worse had it not been for a surgeon named Jonathan Letterman, who served as the chief medical officer of the Union's Army of the Potomac. He presided over some of the bloodiest battles in U.S. history and, over the course of a single year, revolutionized military medicine.

Scott McGaugh has just released his biography of Letterman, called Surgeon in Blue. He joins NPR's Rachel Martin to discuss the father of battlefield medicine, what conditions were like before he came along and the legacy he left behind.

Interview Highlights

On the state of medicine in the United States at the start of the Civil War
"In a word, horrific. Military doctors were poorly qualified from a medical standpoint. They didn't know what caused infections, bacteria, anything of that sort. There was no ambulance system, so the early battles, such as Bull Run, left thousands of men wounded on the battlefield for days, some of them dying of dehydration and thirst. They were weakened to begin the battle because [the] Army diet was horrible, in the sense of salt pork, weevil-filled biscuits and alcohol as the daily ration. And their odds of survival, if they were wounded, were not very good in the early battles."

"They had very little place to go. They were dependent upon a few slackers, derelicts and Army band members who were typically assigned as ambulance crews. The ambulances were not nearly enough in number. No one expected to see the kinds of casualty numbers of Bull Run, which obviously became a harbinger of battles to come. If you were lucky enough to be ambulatory, you might have walked or hitched a ride back to Washington, and then walked the streets for several days looking for a hospital bed because there weren't nearly enough hospitals or hospital capacity in the early days of the Civil War."

On how Letterman improved Civil War medicine
"He stood in a remarkably fortuitous position in time. The commanding general, George McClellan, was something of a reformer; the surgeon general was a very deep-thinking reformer by the name of William Hammond, a young man. And that gave Letterman the opportunity to apply a very keen, analytical, holistic mind to health care, not just on the battlefield but before ever reaching the battlefield. And he was able to very quickly issue new regulations, make them mandatory with real authority, that defined and codified new standards in nutrition, camp hygiene, how and when latrines were dug and when they were covered, the disposal of lice-ridden uniforms. Because at the time when he took over, he was faced with a disease rate of nearly 40 percent."

On what it was like before Letterman developed the modern ambulance corps
"Prior to that, military officers routinely commandeered wagons intended as ambulances for their personal use and for their baggage with no repercussions. ... Luggage, personal belongings, even their servants in some cases. So one of the very first things Letterman did was acquire the authority from Gen. McClellan to hold military officers and medical officers accountable. [He] developed a corps of trained ambulance drivers and stretcher bearers, so he added a level, or created a level, of professionalism that had not been in existence."

On how keeping soldiers healthy wasn't just about compassion
"He believed that a healthier Army — wounded men who were kept with their units and treated in hospitals near the Army — were much more likely to return to battle [and] gave Gen. McClellan a stronger, more viable fighting force. And if that made him more effective, that might lead to a faster end to the war and the ability for everyone to go home."

Kristin Peelle/Courtesy Arcade Publishing
On Letterman's legacy
"Letterman clearly demonstrated that speed to care, what was once called 'the golden hour,' was absolutely crucial to a soldier's chances of survival.

"A refined triage concept, beginning with those paramedics ... alongside the stretcher, to the aid station, to the field hospital, all the way to a specialized hospital in the United States today. All those concepts, those principles, that all began with Jonathan Letterman. And today it's a hallmark of battlefield medicine, to a point where in World War II, 30 percent of soldiers succumbed to their wounds. Today, it's less than 10 percent."


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