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, March 13, 2016

I Nose This is Hard-OR-Interpreting Scents in Civil War Camps and on Battlefields

By Emmanuel Dabney, 9-26-11

Interpreters of war face numerous challenges in interpreting past military events such as interpreting violence which was the subject of some posts by John Hennessy which you can read here and here (If you care where I stand on the subject of interpreting violence-I believe is essential to understanding that the romantic visions Civil War soldiers left home with were dramatically altered between 1861 and 1865. Unfortunately, in the post-war period, romanticized versions of battle reappeared and these notions often guide modern thought processes on the Civil War.)

Similar problems have gripped our historical sense of smell. In most American and European households of the 21st century, we have fairly contained spaces for excrement, cooking, and bathing. Likewise, most of us do not have animals living around us or with us and even so they are typically pets such as birds, cats, dogs, and fish and not animals for work or food supply. We cologne and perfume our bodies, deodorize fridges with baking soda, and even add floral and fruit scents to cleaning agents and candles. In short: our noses are highly sensitive to smells while simultaneously becoming desensitized to the odors of the past which were often common place even if not welcome.

In our day-to-day lives as human beings we generally converse using a limited number of words. I think this really can help separate those who, I think, sometimes can use obscure words just for the sake of their use and public historians. We should find a way to connect people to the historical past through a sense of smell; but how when those smells are not present?

While some historic sites have opted to use scents to portray the past this is not always an option to a historic site. We should aim to connect visitors’ consciousness to a smell with its presence in the past and really to aid in portraying the multitude of smells that combined which impacted people. Take for example the scents of the Civil War.

In the midst of the battle the most obvious scent is the sulfur smell in black gunpowder. Living history demonstrations often feature groups of folks firing reproduction Civil War weapons which are described in detail. This is a chance to get visitors to imagine on a large scale the smell of tens of thousands of muskets going off along with dozens if not a hundred plus cannon. Men and animals were sweating as well producing a wide range of body odors.

When the battle was over, the odors only magnified. Bodies continued perspiring, depending on the situation men may not have bathed in days or longer already and may have no opportunity to do so following. When I do my soldier life at Petersburg program, I try to encourage people to think about the smell. As a Union chaplain wrote “you smell dust.” In the Union trenches of the Ninth Corps the men urinated and defecated where they were instead of use the latrines located in the rear of the line, out of fear that they may be shot by Confederates. A similar situation developed within the Second Corps’ sector of the trenches. When the rain came to alleviate the summer heat and dust, the trenches filled with water. Vermin bred in that water which produced diseases but it was also stagnant water which many of us have smelled from a mud puddle but I encourage people to magnify that scent across a 37 mile front stretching from around Richmond to south and west of Petersburg.

Another place where I typically encourage people to think about the use of their nose and scents is in discussing the aftermath of the Battle of the Crater. For readers who do not know, after a month of digging in the summer of 1864, a mine was exploded underneath Confederate troops outside Petersburg on the morning of July 30, 1864. After a sustained combat from about 5AM until approximately 2-2:30 P.M. Confederate troops won delivering a punishing defeat to Union troops and especially to United States Colored Troops engaged that day. Anyway, for many visitors to Petersburg National Battlefield, this is the biggest draw. I have some themes that I hope are take away messages for people and one of those themes incorporates the aftermath of the carnage beyond a gaping hole in the ground.

The wounded lay on the battlefield in the no-man’s land until August 1, 1864. However, so too did the dead. Those in good physical health remained behind earthworks but a putrid, fetid stench permeated the noses of Union and Confederate troops. The 35th Massachusetts’ historian wrote that this smell “penetrated the clothing and impressed the senses.”[1]William H. Stewart recalled years later refusing to eat for a period after the battle due to the smell. Theodore Lyman, a staff member of Major General George Meade wrote on August 1, 1864 that on that battlefield “rose a sickly stench.”[2] The weather was hot on July 30, 31, and August 1. The grotesque smell of rotting human beings did impact the soldiers and officers who viewed this scene and in no small part helped contribute to Union soldiers’ morose view of their ultimate success in the late summer of 1864.

So what are some methods of interpreting loss smells of the camps and battlefields? In part this can be done through images. The images around taken around Petersburg can be used in a multitude of ways but in the context of this post, the stagnant water and mud in the trenches can connect people to how the soldiers experienced Petersburg. Luckily, we also have reconstructed a composite earthwork at Tour Stop 3 in the Eastern Front of the battlefield. After a hard rain, visitors can at that moment be encouraged to take in a deep whiff of foul smelling water and mud and contemplate how soldiers may have felt when living in conditions that included the offensive odors but also sharpshooting, mortars and cannons blasting off, issues regarding food, etc.

Speaking of food, Civil War living history programs often feature soldiers cooking army rations. What if, appropriate to your site, there was a special diet kitchen in a hospital scenario? Replace the hardtack and salt pork with oyster soup, pies, and pickles which inherently will draw some interest about “Did Civil War soldiers eat that?” You could then discuss army rations versus general kitchens and special diet kitchens.

Do not forget to include animals in your discussion of camp and battle. With thousands of cattle, horses, and mules along with scatterings of fowl and mascots these animals were sweating, urinating, defecating just as well as the troops on the field.

Words are powerful, particularly when derived from those who experienced the camps and battlefields. Often I let visitors read selections from soldiers who were on the battlefield. I admit that I have not done this much with the sense of smell but I aim to improve that. Your own vocabulary may be increased through looking up synonyms for words and perhaps reading a little fiction from time to time, which often encourages the reader to use all his/her senses.

Some campaigns of the war have unique smells. Consider fires which destroyed homes and businesses and some have large numbers of rotting horse carcasses left behind alongside dead soldiers.

The odors of war ultimately do not change their results but they did impact the people who were participating in the war. Connie Y. Chang explores the sense of smell in history in her article “The Nose Knows: The Sense of Smell in American History,” Journal of American History, 95 (2): 405-416.

[1] Earl Hess, Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010), 208.

[2] David W. Lowe, ed., Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2007), 244.

Image 1: Alfred R. Waud, a Civil War artist, drew this picture of a dead horse during the Civil War. What the drawing fails to illustrate is the noxious fumes that would have developed due to the horse's decay. Approximately 3,000 dead horses were left on the Gettysburg battlefield after the end of the July 1-3, 1863 battle. Library of Congress, DRWG/US - Waud, no. 468.

Image 2: Fort Sedgwick, Petersburg, Va., 1865. Image shows the trapped water which can be used to think about smelling the turbid water and damp earth. Library of Congress, LC-B811- 3194.


Herbs and Plants Used During the Civil War

By Lois Sutton, Ph.D.

When we think of herbs and plants used during the Civil War, we need to set the stage in at least broad strokes. In the North are pharmaceutical companies, metal works, manufacturing centers; in the South, cotton gins. The agricultural crops of the north are basic foods and animal fodders (cereal grains, white potatoes, corn). In the South crops are primarily trade goods (cotton, tobacco, sugar cane).

​As the war drug on, the military imbalance in the field was not as critical as was the power of the Northern navy to blockade Southern ports. Blockade running and smuggling helped address these shortages in the South. Kings of Texas reminds us of Texas’ role in thwarting Northern naval ships. As Mexico was neutral, Texas businessmen obtained Mexican registration for their steamboats and then were able to deliver and retrieve goods from vessels trading with Mexico.

Private citizens – frequently women – became innovative smugglers (think hoop skirts!):
“We, ever and anon, are assisted in that way: sometimes a pound of tea … is snugged away in a friendly pocket, and after many dangers reaches us,  and meets a hearty welcome; and what is more important still,  medicine is brought the same way.” Judith McGuire, Richmond

Most longingly written about as missing from the Southern diet were tea, coffee, white sugar and salt, all imports. Coffee and tea (in their “pure” forms) became a drink of the wealthy. Beverage substitutions included dried leaves of currants, blackberries, willows, and holly; peanuts; dried potato slices; parched rye or cornmeal; roasted sweet potatoes.

Medicinal Plants
​The medical kit of a Northern practitioner was quite different than that of a Southern practitioner, another reflection of the blockades. In the Yankee kit one might find tinctures of opium or iron, morphine, chloroform, ether, camphor, sugar of lead, and a variety of liquors. A Southern diarist notes: “The woods, as well as being the great storehouse for all our dye-stuffs, were also our drug stores.”

​The plant list that follows includes more woody plants (trees and shrubs) than non-woody plants. There are few plants that we know as culinary herbs. Not only is that because plants used for flavorings often are not American natives, i.e. cultivated only, but more importantly their green leaves, stems and blossoms are only available for a short time. Woodier plants are more broadly distributed in the landscape and their outer / inner bark and roots are accessible all year long.

It is the policy of the Herb Society of America not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medicinal or health treatment.


Catalpa speciosa
Seeds (tea)Pods (smoked & in teas)

AsthmaSedative, cardioactive

Cornus spp.
Bark (tea)
Malaria (quinine substitute)
Tonic for tension headaches
Sassafras albidum
Root bark (tea)​
Essential oil
Venereal disease
External: liniment, bruises, swelling
Slippery elm
Ulmus rubra
Inner bark (tea or powdered in gruel)

Inflammation anywhere in digestive tract, sore throat
Externally: fresh wounds, abscess
Sweet gum
Liquidambar styraciflua
Inner bark (tea, drunk)
Inner bark (tea used topically)

Sore throats, colds, asthma, bronchitis
Ringworm, hemorrhoids, wound healing

White oak
​Quercus alba

Green leaves (crushed)Inner bark (tea)
Outer bark (tea used topically)

Inflammation & heal blisters
To stop wound bleeding
Chronic diarrhea, dysentery, pinworms​
Swollen feet, skin eruptions, poison ivy rash
Shrubs, Vines

Blackberry, dewberry
Rubus villosus
Leaves, roots (teas or in an alcohol base)

Dysentery, chronic diarrhea, cholera

Rhus glabra
Bark, fruit (tea, poultice)

Chronic diarrhea, rectal conditions,malaria, gargle for sore throat

Non-woody Plants

Sanguinaria canadensis
Primarily root (infusion)

Intestinal worms, emetic
Externally: ringworm, warts
Mentha spp.
Leaves, stems (tea or just chewed)

Indigestion, mouth freshener

Verbascum thapsis
Leaves, flowers, root (tea or breathed in steam)
Coughs, lung disease, colds, pneumonia
Padding in shoes
Onions, garlic
Allium spp.
Onion bulb, garlic cloves

Scurvy, antibiotic​Flea deterrent

Other Useful Herbs and Plants
​Dyes - In Civil War Plants & Herbs Mitchell references a local southwestern Georgia shrub known as myrtle. It grew in low moist places and provided gray for woolen goods. She also cites a southern Alabama indigo weed that did provide a blue dye.

Fiber - Palmetto & various straws were plaited for hats, fans, baskets. Let me end with this telling quote in Mitchell’s booklet: “But these hats are beautifully plaited …that though a Parisian milliner might pronounce them old-fashioned, yet our Confederate girls look fresh and lovely in them: and what do we care for Parisian style, particularly as it would have to come to us through Yankee-land?”

​Bown, Deni. 2001. The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses. New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.
​Brobst, Joyce E. 2005. Herbal Witness Trees of the Civil War. The Herbarist. 71:22-27
Graham, Don. 2003. Kings of Texas. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. PP 99 - 104.
Hutchens, Alma R. 1992. A Handbook of Native American Herbs. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Mitchell, Patricia B. 1996. Civil War Plants & Herbs. Chatham VA: Mitchells Publications.
Sumner, Judith. 2000. The Natural History of Medicinal Plants. Cambridge, MA; Timber Press.
Sumner, Judith. 2005. American Household Botany: A History of Useful Plants 1620 – 1900. Cambridge, MA; Timber Press.


Folk Medicine in the Civil War -- the South

From:, 10-28-13

Much of the suffering in the war was because of a rapidly declining supply of medicine in the South as blockades restricted importation of all essentials.

When enemy camps were overrun, speculators raided the medical stores capturing morphine, quinine and chloroform to resell at 50 times their original value. It was such a problem that General Lee called upon the secretary of war to put an end to the practice.

In anticipation of this supply problem, surgeon Maj. Francis Perye Porcher set about creating a manual on indigenous botanical substitutes titled “Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economic and Agricultural.”

Published in 1863, the 600-page book was distributed to medical officers to help aid the sick and wounded. It is said to have helped so many that Confederates were able to hold off the Union Army for two additional years.

Malaria was a major problem in the South.  Eupatorium, known as boneset, was a substitute for quinine and also used to treat typhus.

Malaria became a constant problem where insects swarmed like a plague in swamps, marshes and bayous.

Porcher prescribes “Boneset tea used hot, in the cold stages of malarial fever, and cold in the hot stages.

It is also known to be used by slaves of the southern plantations to treat typhus and is so noted as a useful application by Porcher.

Camphor - Zhang Nao


During the U.S. Civil War, the demand for camphor (used primarily as a medicinal) was so high that the U.S. contracted for the entire Taiwan supply.

Nature: acrid, hot, toxic

Enters: Heart, Spleen

Topical Actions: Expels wind and dampness; kills parasites; promotes blood circulation, alleviates pain.

Topical Indications:
• Scabies, ringworm, itching sores
• Blood stasis: injuries, pain and swelling.
• Used topically as a powder or paste.
• Warming, irritative, and antiseptic effect on the skin. Mildly locally anaesthetic.
Hsu: Irritant effect – promotes blood circulation, increases mucosa secretion.

Internal Actions: Opens the orifices of the heart; expels turbidity.

Internal Indications:
• Delirium, sudden unconsciousness due to hot disorders.
• When taken orally, it irritates the gastric mucosa. In small doses, this causes a comfortably warm feeling. In large doses it causes nausea and vomiting.
• Zhang nao stimulates the central nervous system, particularly the higher centers. Normal doses have no effect on respiration, but large doses can stimulate respiration.
• Oral doses of 0.5-1g can cause dizziness, headache, a feeling of warmth and restlessness. Over 2g leads to transient tranquilization followed by stimulation of the cerebral cortex with tonic-clonic spasms. Respiratory arrest can occur. 7-15g is fatal.
Yoga: Karpura: pungent, bitter/slightly heating/pungent; Sattvic.
• K, V-; P+(in excess)
• Expectorant, decongestant, stimulant, antispasmodic, bronchodilator, nervine, analgesic, antiseptic.
• Bronchitis, asthma, pertussis, pulmonary congestion, hysteria, epilepsy, delirium, insomnia, dysmenorrhea, gout, rheumatism, nasal congestion, sinus headache, eye problems, tooth decay.
• This herb is poisonous in excess: aggravates Pitta and Vata
• Increases prana, opens the senses, clears the mind.
• Applied to the eyes (in small amounts): initially burning, but promotes tears and cools and clears the eyes.
• Nasally: for congestion, headache, and to awaken perception.
• Burn as incense during devotional worship to purify the atmosphere and promote meditation.
• Use ONLY genuine, raw camphor internally.
Hsu: Stimulates the CNS; antifungal.

SD: Camphor oil is obtained from a tree (Cinnamomum camphora), and like cardamom, the essential oil of the tree contains a large number of terpenoids (mostly, the same ones as in cardamon, but in different proportions). Camphor was collected at least as early as the 9th Century. In 1676, the trees were brought to Europe for cultivation. In the following century, it was also introduced to several other countries, including the U.S. Prior to World War II, the world use of camphor was about 5,000 tons per year; 80% of this came from Taiwan (the Taiwan camphor tree yields 44% camphor from its leaves, a particularly high level). During the U.S. Civil War, the demand for camphor (used primarily as a medicinal) was so high that the U.S. contracted for the entire Taiwan supply. It was even proposed that an effort be made to purchase Taiwan (then called Formosa) in order to monopolize the camphor trade. It is perhaps for this reason that Japan acquired Formosa in 1895.

Camphor oil was a popular medicinal in the U.S. until about twenty years ago when several instances occurred in which children were fed camphor oil by parents who failed to distinguish it from castor oil. The pure camphor oil is toxic in the doses for which castor oil is used. Also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration worried that topically applied camphor oil would penetrate the skin in sufficient amounts that it could cause trouble for persons with cardiac disorders who were taking various medications. As a result, it is no longer possible to purchase camphor oil for household use in the U.S.

Like borneol, camphor has been used as an antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, cardiac stimulant, respiratory aid, and anthelmintic. It is often used in treating congestive problems such as bronchitis and emphysema. Camphor is also used in preparation of foods, being an ingredient of vanilla and peppermint flavors, and incorporated into formulations of soft drinks, baked goods, and condiments. In modern Chinese medicine, camphor is most often reserved for external application, while borneol is used both internally and externally. Synthetic camphor, often made from by chemically modifying pine tree resins (turpentine), is now widely used as a substitute for the natural product.

Camphor and the chemically related compound camphene are found in: cardamom, saussurea, ginger, magnolia, curcuma, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cyperus.

Image: Civil War camphor bottle. This beautiful teal green medicine bottle dates from approximately 1845.

Civil War Cigarettes

From:, 1-8-15

In the Mexican War (1846-1848), cigars were a popular smoke. Others chewed tobacco, used snuff or smoked it in pipes. By 1850, Phillip Morris was offering hand-rolled cigarettes from Turkey in his shop in London. Cigarettes did not become popular in the country until right around 1860. The first cigarettes made in America did not occur until 1865. But imported cigarettes were abundant throughout the war.

Early on the cigarette was considered unmanly to smoke. A New York newspaper in 1854 said the following about the cigarette: “Some of the ladies of this refined and fashion-forming metropolis are aping the silly ways of some pseudo-accomplished foreigners in smoking tobacco through a weaker and more feminine article, which was more delicately denominated cigarette”.

Around 1860, W. T. Blackwell Company sold Bull Durham tobacco in pouches complete with the papers needed for rolling your own. Later the Bull Durham brand became one of the most famous in the world. Within a few years, the federal government instituted a tax on tobacco to help pay for the war. That tax brought in approximately $3 million.

When the Union marched into the South, they grabbed often tobacco when they came across it and hand rolled it into cigarettes.

The Union Navy received cigarette rations. By 1864, Confederate rations included cigarettes though officers of the Confederacy did not get cigarette rations. The Confederate officer’s smoke of choice was the cigar. Later the Union rations also included cigarettes.

Common occurrences during the war were the swapping of Southern tobacco for Northern coffee.

Directly following the war, factories in New York (F. S. Kinney and Sons), in Durham (Washington Duke and Sons) and in Richmond (Allen and Ginter) employed immigrant women who had learned the craft back home. The best women at the trade could roll four to five cigarettes in a minute. It was Washington Duke’s factory that produced the first commercial cigarette.

In the 1880s, Duke’s cigarettes contained booklets showing the history of various Civil War generals including General Logan, General Sherman, General Hooker and General Butler.

Maimed Men - Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War


"The limbs of soldiers are in as much danger from the ardor of young surgeons as from the missiles of the enemy." Surgeon Julian John Chisholm, 1864

Although the exact number is not known, approximately 60,000 surgeries, about three quarters of all of the operations performed during the war, were amputations. Although seemingly drastic, the operation was intended to prevent deadly complications such as gangrene. Sometimes undertaken without anesthesia, and in some cases leaving the patient with painful sensations in the severed nerves, the removal of a limb was widely feared by soldiers.

Under the Knife
At this time, most of the vast numbers of wounded men made it impossible for surgeons to undertake more delicate and time-consuming procedures such as building splints for limbs or carefully removing only part of the broken bone or damaged flesh. Critics, like Confederate surgeon Julian John Chisholm, charged that inexperienced doctors were too eager to attempt amputation as a way to improve their skills, and accused them of experimenting, often exacerbating existing injuries. Soldiers nicknamed such enthusiasts "butchers" and some even went so far as to treat themselves to try to avoid the painful intervention of the surgeon.

Image 1: "The Civil War Surgeon at Work in the Field," Winslow Homer's heroic image of medical care in the chaos of the battlefield, 12 July 1862

Image 2: Private George W. Lemon, from George A. Otis, Drawings, Photographs and Lithographs Illustrating the Histories of Seven Survivors of the Operation of Amputation at the Hipjoint, During the War of the Rebellion, Together with Abstracts of these Seven Successful Cases, 1867

Honorable Scars


"It is not two years since the sight of a person who had lost one of his lower limbs was an infrequent occurrence. Now, alas! there are few of us who have not a cripple among our friends, if not in our own families." Physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1863

The vast numbers of men disabled by the conflict were a major cause of concern for Rebel and Union leaders. Some worried about preventing idleness and immoral behavior, while others focused on the economic hardship veterans would later face if they could not find employment after the war. Proposed solutions included wartime work as cooks, clerks, and hospital attendants, pensions and convalescent homes for those discharged from the army because of their disability, and funds for the purchase of artificial limbs.

Rebuilding the Body
Illustration of a workroom where several men use machines and tools to craft prosthetics.
“From Stump to Limb,” on the making of prosthetics, by the manufacturer A. A. Marks, late 1800s
Courtesy Warshaw Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Almost 150 patents were issued for artificial limb designs between 1861 and 1873, as the industry expanded to accommodate the veteran population. In 1862 the Federal government allocated Union veterans $75 to buy an artificial leg and $50 for an arm, and by 1864 the Confederacy was also providing financial assistance for such purchases. The payments usually covered the cost of the device and travel to a showroom for it to be fitted.

Image 1: Sepia photograph of four smartly dressed men, each missing a leg and using crutches, standing in a group. Veterans John J. Long, Walter H. French, E. P. Robinson, and an unidentified companion, 1860s

Image 2: Color photograph of an artificial leg. Type of artificial leg invented by Samuel B. Jewett, 1869

Returning to the Army


The Invalid Corps was established by the federal government in 1863 to employ disabled veterans in war-related work. Soldiers were divided up into two battalions, based on the extent of their injuries. The first carried weapons and fought in combat. The second, made up of men with more serious impairments, served as nurses, cooks, and prison guards. Despite the rigorous workload, members of the Invalid Corps (known as the “Cripple Brigade” among their former comrades ), were not offered the generous financial awards granted to re-enlisting soldiers and new recruits in the Union. Nicknamed “Inspected-Condemned” after the initials stamped on faulty goods, the Invalid Corps was renamed the Veteran Reserve Corps in 1864 to put an end to the mockery.

Image 1: Black and white poster of text reading: MEN WANTED FOR THE INVALID CORPS.
Recruitment poster for the Invalid Corps, 1860s

Image 2: Black and white photoraph of a large group of uniformed solders standing in front, and on the balcony, of a white, two-story building. Company D, 10th US Veteran Reserve Corps, Washington D.C., 1865

Advice to Civil War Soldiers - 1862


A correspondent writes to The Middlebury Register, to give to inexperienced American Civil War soldiers some hints for the preservation of health, from what he has learned in the field.  After warning the new recruit that the enthusiasm of the first week will soon tone down to stanch realities, which he must meet and face as a man — that he cannot live as carelessly about his health as he can at home, where warm rooms and comfortable beds and well-cooked meals are at his service from day today, and that he must act the physician for himself, to a great degree, and be watchful against any predisposition to disease, he proceeds to give some special directions as follows:

They consist of a program of articles to be taken by the recruit when he goes into camp, or to be sent to him by his friends, when he shall have reached a point where he can be addressed.

Let him have with him two pairs of well-knit socks, two firm woolen shirts, a large crash towel, a piece of Castile soap, to be used as often as possible in bathing the entire body; a woolen cap, sometimes called a smoking cap; two large old-fashioned silk pocket-handkerchiefs, which may be used to hang from the neck, as a protection against a blazing sun, or as a veil to cover the face when sleeping out nights, amid miasmas and creeping vermin, or as a bandage for wounds. He should also have constantly with him a supply of Cayenne pepper, such as is obtained from the drug-stores under the name of “capsicum.”

The benefits arising from the use of this latter article [Cayenne pepper] are incalculable. A single pinch in a glass of flat warmish water will nullify the effects and the uncomfortable sensation from having drunk too much water during the day; will help the sentinel keep awake at his post at night, by warming and invigorating the whole system. A good pinch eaten at each meal, or when a cup of tea or coffee is drunk, will aid digestion, assist in prevent­ing acidity of stomach, and is besides a great antagonist of the diarrhea, dysentery, flux, and "looseness," which are the great scourges of the army. A level teaspoonful of capsicum, taken daily in eating or drinking, or both, or two fingers full taken two or three times a day, will do more toward warding off the fever and ague than ten times the cost in rum and quinine. There should always be carried in the knapsack also a largo piece of gutta percha cloth, to spread upon the ground at night for the soldier to spread his blanket on when he goes to bed. To these suggestions may be added the injunctions to eat, as far as possible, regularly, to shun sutlers' tents, with their detestable pies and cakes, and their poisonous preserved meats, as one would shun a contact with the leprosy; to maintain, in short, a perfect system of living, just as far as duty in camp will allow.

If my friend who may read this, and who is going soon to buckle on his armor for the cause of his country, will treasure the hints I have thrown out, and act upon them, he will add a hundred per cent to the probabilities of his returning to his father's house, that knew such keen anguish and bitter mourning when he was called to leave it. Once more, my soldier friend, before you leave your home, supply yourself with envelops and writing paper, and with a good substantial lead pencil; upon the envelops have postage stamps placed, and have them directed in a strong, plain hand to the address of those you will want to write to when far away — your father, your loving and ever watchful mother, or your sister.

And then, when you stop anywhere, for a day or such a matter, write something home, if it is not more than six lines, and tell your anxious friends how you are. And to your parents too and relations of the soldiers, I must say, write often to him. Write long letters. Give all the news you can think of. Let every line be full of love, of kind, affectionate interest and encouragement, and you cannot tell how much sunshine you will put into his heart, and how much better soldier and man he will be­come for your thoughtfulness of him. I speak of all these things “whereof I have seen.”

Sacrifices Forgotten - Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War


The selflessness of soldiers fostered great respect in the years after the war. Pension payments were increased regularly, and men pursuing political office often found that their obvious injury proved useful in attracting voters. Yet as Americans sought to put the memory of the conflict behind them, they increasingly ignored the plight of aging, disabled, impoverished veterans. Instead, memorializing the dead and asserting national patriotism became the focus of Civil War remembrances, and the image of the disabled soldier became one of a money-grabbing dependent.

Image: "Puck" magazine, 20 December 1882. By the 1880s support for the veteran was diminishing, as seen in this representation of a Union soldier grasping, ironically with many arms, at government funds.

Lobelia, the Herb That Carried More Cultural Weight Than Marijuana


Before there was marijuana, there was lobelia. This blue, summer wildflower was the most controversial plant in the United States prior to the Civil War, as it came to symbolize a cultural divide in perhaps the nation’s first cultural upheaval, pitting the wealthy elite against the Jacksonian “common man.”

By the close of the eighteenth century, American medicine was in a state of crisis. According to medical historian John S. Haller, many patients and physicians alike had come to believe that the medical system to which they had committed years of education and practice had lost its ability to cure. Relying on theories that stretched back to ancient Rome, doctors prescribed puking, purging, bleeding, and perspiring in order to balance the bodily secretions—blood, sweat, yellow bile, black bile. In order to induce these bodily actions, they relied on powerful substances such as camphor, mercury, opium, ipecac, all of which was imported from England.

Many doctors and physicians lost faith in this system, not only because they found it ineffective but also because they were influenced by the cultural currents swirling around the expanding United States.
Here’s where lobelia comes into the story. Lobelia syphilitica, or blue cardinal flower, had been marketed in Europe as a treatment for syphilis since the early eighteenth century, when legendary Indian agent William Johnson learned of its uses among the Iroquois. But in the 1820s, a self-taught, son of an illiterate farmer named Samuel Thomson championed the use of lobelia inflata, or Indian Tobacco, to treat many different ailments. Thomson first gained local fame as an herbal healer around his New Hampshire farming community in the 1790s. It was there that he claimed to have discovered—all by himself, although he probably learned it from a local woman—the healing properties of lobelia. He found that it was a powerful emetic and could be used to cleanse the stomach, “overpower” a cold, and “promote free perspiration.”

In the early 1820s, Thomson became his own salesman, selling so-called ‘patents,’ or rights to use his system, to people across the country. Although his system included uses for a variety of wild plants, lobelia inflata remained central to it, “the most important article made use of in my system.” He pitched his system as an empowering tool for common folk. Because his remedies could be found growing wild around the farm or purchased easily at the local store, he told people they could “be your own physician.” Lobelia, for example, could be found “wherever the land is fertile enough to yield support for its inhabitants.” And people responded. By the 1840s, an estimated 3 million people were using his system and ingesting lobelia tinctures for fevers, stomachaches, and many other ailments.

Thomson’s system was so popular because it channeled the populist sentiment that came to dominate the 1820s political discourse. Thomsonian salesmen drew heavily on the anti-elitist rhetoric and faith in the ability of the “common man” that propelled self-educated Andrew Jackson to the presidency. The age of Jackson (1820-1840) witnessed the democratization of politics and some of the earliest stirrings of labor unrest and anti-trust agitation. It also witnessed the birth of our first modern political parties. On a local level, particularly in the South and West, Jacksonian Democrats were typically poor and middling farmers and workers, while the Whigs were among those elites who favored industrialization and modernization. Medicine was one of the many areas of disagreement between the two parties.

As lobelia became the emblem of growing angst among the rural population directed at the elites, it also became the target of sharp criticism from cultural elites. Medical “regulars,” most of whom paid large tuitions to private schools for their medical authority, waged a public relations onslaught against the Thomsonians, labeling them quacks and pretenders. While the splintered medical community disagreed on many fronts, they all questioned, on some level, Thomson’s use of lobelia.

The debate over lobelia’s efficacy raged through the 1840s. One physician complained that “The Thomsonians use it almost indiscriminately, in almost all the complaints to which the human frame is liable.” South Carolina medical botanist Constantine Rafinesque admitted that lobelia was effective at treating “spasmodic asthma, bronchial cough, tetanus or lockjaw, and strangulated hernia,” he asserted that the “practice of Thomson to use it in every thing, fevers, consumption, measles, jaundice, &c. is preposterous.” The sharpest critics called it an “unnatural and homicidal treatment.” They claimed the plant had killed numerous patients.

Indeed, lobelia was a cultural wedge, not unlike marijuana in the twentieth century. At the height of both Thomson’s and Jackson’s popularity, lobelia was arguably the most politicized plant in the United States. The word itself was charged with meaning. To a sizeable number of rural dwellers, it symbolized the freedom from centralized institutions that they demanded of American democracy, the ability of the common man to control his own health. To the members of the fledgling medical profession, however, it represented a threat to their own medical authority and a threat to social hierarchy.

Image: Great Blue Lobelia, Lobelia Siphilitica, Taken by Daniel Manget

Civil War Medical Museum To Manage Missing Soldiers Office, National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Press Release. 12-30-10


The National Museum of Civil War Medicine (NMCWM) will open the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum this year at 437 7th St. NW, Washington. The General Services Administration (GSA), which owns the building, chose the Frederick, Md., non-profit museum whose mission is preserving and researching the legacy of Civil War medicine, to operate the museum.

Barton lived in the third-floor rooms during and immediately after the war. Her living quarters and office were there until 1867. During the war supplies for her nursing work were stored in these rooms. In 1865 Barton hired staff and opened the Office of Correspondence with the Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army.

The office responded to more than 63,000 letters seeking information about soldiers and published lists of missing men. The fate of more than 22,000 soldiers had been learned by the time the office closed in 1867. The doors to the apartment were closed in 1875. The suite of rooms was discovered in 1997 as GSA workers were preparing the building for demolition.

In announcing the new site NMCWM Executive Director George Wunderlich said, “What she did in nursing is incredibly important and we don’t want to diminish that at all. But to say that Clara Barton is a nurse is a gross understatement of her importance. The fact is that she was a relief organizer at a time when women didn’t do that.”

He said, “The story of the rediscovery of the building as well as the story of Barton’s life while she lived there will be the essence of the visitor experience at the museum.” Barton’s words will be used in audio scripts and exhibit labels. Artifacts, images and sounds will enhance the interpretation.

“The overarching theme for the visitor experience will be the sensation of discovering a place, and through the place a remarkable person, and through the person the values that shaped her life and work,” Wunderlich said. The National Museum of Civil War Medicine operates out of a downtown Frederick building with nearly 7,000 square feet of exhibit space.

Its Pry House Field Hospital Museum on the grounds of Antietam National Battlefield, where Dr. Jonathan Letterman devised his system of battlefield medicine, is interpreted as a house museum. Its large bank barn was a field hospital that treated more than 400 men after the battle.

History of Memorial Day


Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America. Over two dozen cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day.

Regardless of the exact date or location of its origins, one thing is clear – Memorial Day was borne out of the Civil War and a desire to honor our dead. It was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed. The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.

On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).

It is now observed in almost every state on the last Monday in May with Congressional passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363). This helped ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays, though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19th in Texas; April 26th in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10th in South Carolina; and June 3rd (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.

The History of the Suture

By Nick Snelling, Writer and Filmmaker 9-22-15

Who came up with the idea of stitching together human skin like ripped jeans? Nick Snelling delves into medical history to find out.

Getting stitches is a rite of passage as a kid. Fall off your BMX, run into something sharp or gouge yourself leaping out of a tree, and you were off to the doc quick-smart, wincing and wailing as they sewed you back up. But did you ever stop to consider who first thought to ‘repair’ a tear in people’s skin by stitching it back together like a seamstress or tailor?

Mentions of physicians suturing human skin stretch all the way back to 3000 BC and the Ancient Egyptians. But given their penchant for opening up dead people, removing their organs and sewing them back shut (archeologists have found sutures on mummies dating back to 1100 BC), it’s still unclear whether they first got the idea for stitching up wounds on the living, or the other way around.

Nonetheless, the practice was scribbled down in detail by a famed text of the Classical Sankskrit era called the Sushrut Samhita. This tome was written in about 500 BC by the legendary Indian sage Sushruta, who even now is regarded as the granddaddy of surgery. Around about the same time, another toga-toting forefather of medicine, Hippocrates (he was the Greek guy whom the doctor’s oath is named after), laid out his own version of how to stitch clumsy people up. Copying their Ancient Greek buddies’ work as usual, the Romans followed suit a century or so later, with both the mysterious encyclopeadist Aulus Cornelius Celsus mentioning it in his dusty old tome De Medicina around 47 AD, and a hundred years on, the polymath Galen talking up sutures he successfully performed on internal gut injuries.


Up until that point and much later, however, sutures were usually carried out using fibrous plant stuffs like hemp, flax and cotton, and had to be cut and plucked out before they caused too much infection. But around about the 10th century, the fabled Andalusian surgeon Abulcasis noticed one of his pet monkeys chowing down on some lute strings. The strings were made of catgut, and when the monkey didn’t die, it occurred to the beardy Abulcasis that catgut’s dissolvable nature might make it usable for suturing wounds.

Over the next thousand years or more, while needle designs improved and new suturing patterns and knots were learned and exchanged, the materials didn’t change much. Animal products such as hair, silkthread and dried-out arterial, nerve, muscle and intestinal fibre became increasingly adopted for stitching wounds, while the needle material itself didn’t vary from either silver, copper or bronze wire.
As techniques improved, it wasn’t until the 1860s that Scottish surgeon Sir Joseph Lister introduced sterilisation of all suture threads and needles using carbolic acid. Joe was influenced by is mate Louis’ pasteurisation process, and he led a slow but sure acknowledgement among the medical fraternity of the real existence of ‘tiny microbes’. The consequences were revolutionary – not only did fewer surgery patients die from infection, but sutured wounds tended to scar less. Even more so when sterile catgut was first pulled off in 1906 by treating it with iodine.

Interestingly, controversial French physician Alexis Carrel was the first surgeon to ever develop the technique of ‘triangulation’ to reconnect severed blood vessels. Observing the work of an embroider, Carrel had been inspired when an attack on the French president Sadi Carnot by a knife-wielding assassin in 1894 saw the poor politician bleed out before his resident quacks could save him. While Carrel pioneered a new wave in vascular medicine that eventually saw him awarded a Nobel Prize, unfortunately, he also had some less savoury ideas – including a whole treatise on the value of ‘eugenics’, which popped up later and heavily informed Nazi ideology.

Fast forward, and by the 1930s, mass manufacture of several different types of synthetic sutures saw the development of absorbable stitches made of polyvinyl alcohol. By the ’50s, radiation caught on as a better means of sterilisation, ten years later, a dissolvable suture made of polyglycolic acid was invented and became universal throughout most surgeries by the 1970s. Even now, most sutures are made of polymer fibres.


Disease & Sickness Ravaged Civil War America

By Chris, 3-10-13

During the American Civil War over 620,000 people were casualties (and probably a lot more) with 504 dying every day. For the soldier, two out of every three would die of disease. The average soldier quickly discovered that one of the worst places to be sent were the field hospitals. William C. Haynes of the 11th Kansas wrote in February of 1863 wrote about the toll of war with regard to disease (and sickness) and how it ravaged the soldier and the army:

"no toungue can tell suffering that they have endured the past winter and have had all in their favor Soldiers are Bound to suffer no mater as to the weather For when they get sick there is hard times come these Not more than one out of every ten that is sick and goes to hospital that ever gets out of it alive Our soldiers that was wounded at prierie grove have all died one man had his finger shot off and it killed him two more was shot in Leg and they died the measles . . ."

Letter from Haynes, William C.

Soldier: Haynes, William C.
Allegiance: Union
Unit/Service Branch: 11th Cavalry
Home State: Kansas
Date Written: Sunday, February 15th, 1863
Location: Camp In Field, MO
Correspondence Type: Letter
Subjects: Camp Life, Comrades, Daily Life, Family, Sickness, Suffering, Western Theater

Dearest One I have the pleaser to write a few lines to you which I hope will come safe to hand and find you all well and injoying good health I have wrote a good many letters to you lateley and have received very few from you that is lately I wrote two a week for three weeks I have got three for the Last four weeks I think that all our Leters don't go through the Health of rigement is very good at present time William is well I weigh one hundred and sixty five pounds I am hevier than I have been for some time five pound[s] hevier than I ever was before so you may know [how] fleshey I am We have fine wether here at the present time it has been very raney a while back ... it has been splendid for the poor soldier Boys although no toungue can tell suffering that they have endured the past winter and have had all in their favor Soldiers are Bound to suffer no mater as to the weather For when they get sick there is hard times come these Not more than one out of every ten that is sick and goes to hospital that ever gets out of it alive Our soldiers that was wounded at prierie grove have all died one man had his finger shot off and it killed him two more was shot in Leg and they died the measles is very bad in one company of the rigement at the present time all though I don't mind that as I have had them once so they skipp me this time Tery Fuller has got to be fifth sargent Captain Gibbs sick at hospital Lieutenant Thomas Comands the Company at this time Company D has onley Twenty Nine Men for Duty forty eight in all to gether we was at Camp Lyon with Eighty six Men that is [?] when we was Mustered in 86 Men strong at home and were Detached to the Batery at fourt Leavenworth ... I picked up a Leter that old Miss Dewey wrote to green the other Day it all most made me sick to read it she must have the figets or something worse ... I wish I could yet home this spring to stay if I could onely come home Month I would like it But I can tell nothing about till we get payed off the Colonel told me then that most of the maried men would get to Come home to fin their famlies for the sumer but there is no Chance for young men to come home, but we may not get payed off for a month and he may be ordered not to let any of us go so it is very uncertain about it but I will have time to see about it before spring... I can not tell were we will go to from here we may go to Fort Scott and we may go to Mount Vernon a bout Forty miles North of here Last plase I think there are no prospects of any more fighting soon if Ever again here so if we have any fighting to do it will be Down South... Wish you would write and tell me whether you have heard of Vick James or Nat I [am] very uneasy a bout them I expect that they was killed in Battle of Murfesburough I wrote a Leter to them but have recived No answer from them William is doing Litle better than he was... No more this time I send my best Love Respects to your Mother and Johney

I tell Johney to write me a Leter and write to him

W C Haynes



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