Sunday, December 22, 2013

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.


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