Sunday, November 16, 2014

Civil War Medicine: Pills, Ointments and Bitters for Soldiers

Written by Rachel Walman

This Father’s Day, June 16th, 2013, eminent historian Harold Holzer will be here [New York Historical Society] to answer families’ burning Civil War questions. Following his talk, families are invited to play a choose-your-own-adventure style game where they get to walk in the shoes of a Civil War soldier. Are you sitting there wishing you could really be a Union hero? Perhaps the next few paragraphs will change your mind.

3.2 million men fought on both sides of the war. A recent study has suggested that between 650,000 and 850,000 men and women (mostly men) died because of the war. More Americans died during this war than during any other war in our history.

The greatest wartime killers were not devastating minie balls (new bullets that did a lot of damage), or piercing bayonets, but rather microscopic bacteria. Disease caused roughly 60% of all Union soldier deaths. Ten out of eleven black Union soldiers who died succumbed to disease, not a bullet.  No one in America at that time could have imagined that invisible microbes caused fatal epidemics.  Doctors and regular folks alike had a hazy theory that illness was transmitted through “miasmas,” or foul air, and that health could be achieved through the balance of four bodily substances called “humors”. Ignorance of the roots of disease combined with poor conditions in Civil War camps and hospitals to cause many deaths – deaths that could be prevented today.

The most common fatal diseases amongst Union (and Confederate) soldiers were diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia and tuberculosis. These diseases, which mostly affect the lungs and intestines, are transmitted through contaminated food and water and contact with an infected person. Bad food, bad water and close quarters were the hallmarks of a Civil War soldier’s life. A staple of the soldier’s diet was a flour-and-water cracker called hardtack that provided them with barely any nutrients or energy, lowering their immune systems. When soldiers did have protein in the form of salted or canned meat, it was often spoiled. And of course, there was the battlefield. Encampment water sources with latrines dug nearby were often contaminated with the soldiers’ waste. Several soldiers shared one tent, allowing disease to spread fast. Of course, there was also the battlefield: a bullet wound could become infected with gangrene or blood poisoning in the field hospital.

So what could a soldier do to keep himself healthy when disease and death lurked around every corner? Camp doctors would often prescribe drugs called purgatives which, guess what, make you poop. That’s not a good idea for a soldier who already has dysentery, diarrhea or typhus! Doctors at the time believed purgatives helped the body expel illness. To avoid untrustworthy doctors, soldiers often treated themselves. Have you ever gone to a drug store for cold medicine or stomach relief? Well, soldiers did too, only their medicines were quite different from yours. We now call these “patent”, “proprietary”, or “quack” medicines. There is no real evidence that any of them worked (in fact, some actually damaged those who took them), and their formulas were kept a secret, which is illegal today.

Three medicines often marketed to soldiers were Brandreth’s Pills, Hostetter’s Bitters, and Holloway’s Ointment. Soldiers who happened to take these drugs and survive often gave testimonials to the companies that made them. The companies used the soldiers’ words to advertise their miracle cures to other soldiers. In an ad for Brandreth’s Pills, “Sixty Voices from Army of Potomac” stated that the pills “protect from the arrows of disease, usually as fatal to Soldiers as the bullets of the foe.” Hostetter’s Bitters, its producers swore, were “a positive protective against the fatal maladies of the Southern swamps, and the poisonous tendency of the impure rivers and bayous.” Holloway claimed his pills could “so purify the blood and strengthen the stomach…” that Union soldiers could handle whatever their environment threw at them.

Though the formulas for these drugs were a mystery to Civil War soldiers, they are not a mystery to us now. Hostetter’s Bitters claimed its disease-fighting ingredients were exotic herbs; however, the ingredient that probably affected soldiers who drank it the most was the whiskey. One bottle of Hostetter’s Bitters was about 47% alcohol. Some soldiers taking this “medicine” undoubtedly believed they were convalescing when in reality they were just intoxicated. Depending on the illness, the alcohol in Hostetters may have made things worse. Brandreth’s pills and Holloway’s Ointment were medically ineffective, but also fairly safe. Brandreth’s Pills had a vegetable base. Holloway’s products were similar. According to the book “Popular Medicines: An Illustrated History,” and Jim Schmidt of the blog Civil War Medicine (and Writing) “the pills contained aloes and rhubarb, with small amounts of saffron and pepper; the ointment was principally olive oil, lard, and waxes.” (Schmidt, 2009)

Quack medicines like these became even more popular among Civil War veterans after the war. These soldiers health was permanently compromised, and some became addicted to their wartime maladies.



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