homepage logo

Herbal health aids during the Civil War

By Staff | May 31, 2012

Holding a yarrow plant, this couple from Lewisburg, Debby and Paul Meade, came to the Hughesville Library to learn more about herbs and plants of the Civil War during Helen Grosso's presentation. Grosso spoke about the uses of the herbs for the soldiers on the battlefield and the home front. The yarrow was used to stop bleeding wounds.

HUGHESVILLE – Back in 1861 when the Civil War started, ten million soldiers needed some form of medical assistance informed Helen Grosso, Master Gardener, to a room full of interested visitors last month at the Hughesville Library. Based on her research from a text written in 1863, “Southern Fields and Forests”, many herbs and plants were used to try and treat the wounded soldiers. This was one of the first recorded and published medical botanies in history which compiled practical information on the useful properties of trees and plants of the “confederate states.”

At the time, much of the South was cut off from supplies. According to Grosso, there were 194 surgeons, but only 24 for the South, and many had less than one year’s experience. “Supplies were low. Quinine cost $100 an ounce,” she said. They used mullein leaves, corn husks and plantain leaves for bandages. Yarrow was used to pack the wounds, and there were no sanitation methods. A Surgeon General, William Hammond, wrote a book on military sanitary practices. “This was the beginning of our medical library,” Grosso stated, “which now became the largest library in the world.”

Over 620 thousand soldiers were killed due to disease or infection, and not so much from being killed on the battlefield. Many substitutions were made for medicines and people had to forage the fields during the war. For example, twigs of magnolia trees were used for toothbrushes and the LaBella or snapdragon was used for skin and stomach aches. “They thought Boneset, a common perennial, would fix bones,” said Grosso. “They would also make teas to treat malaria and fever such as the bee balm.” Slippery elm tea was very useful for whooping cough.

One of the most popular herbs used was the mullein leaf which is still used today as an expectorant to treat modern asthma due to its high quality of compounds. The leaves were warmed and used for gout. “It really is a weed,” she said. Yellow root was popular too and used for upper respiratory problems, and the the Indians used it as a repellant. Ointments were made from dandelions and comfrey to treat the skin and are still used today. Hops was boiled down and used as a sedative. Sage was made into a tea to treat colds and horehound was applied for sore throats.

“The Southerners wrote many letters that documented their findings,” Grosso said. “Everything was used.” Medical tents were erected as makeshift field hospitals. “They used elderberry leaves to keep away the flies,” explained Grosso. They also used lavender for aroma therapy due to its calming effect. Lavender and thyme also made good insect repellants.

Food was scarce. Wild onions were used for dysentery and scurvy, and tarragon leaves were placed inside the soldiers’ shoes because they were so worn.

Women on the home front would make relishes, soaps and wine and sold them to help support their families. Coffee was very limited, costing $12 a pound, so they found substitutes by using many herbal teas instead.

“The women had the cures,” stated Grosso. A thick drink was made from boiling oatmeal cereal now called “postum.” This roasted grain beverage became a substitute for coffee and it is still sold today. The Postum Cereal Company eventually became General Foods. Judith McGuire from Virginia, whose family members were refugees during the Civil War kept a record of her experiences. We learned that brown sugar cost $10 a pound. Ginger was added to stretch it.

“A lot of people used the time to make money.” For example, roasted peanuts were pounded into a mortar and milk was added to make a beverage. Watermelon was boiled for a sweetener. “Rice flour was used for everything – rice puffs, rice pudding, and rice sponge cake.

A very interesting fact denotes how the jelly bean was first utilized. Grosso said that it was advertised during the Civil War stating to “pop it in your mouth for energy.” A Boston candy maker, William Schrafft, urged to send them to Union soldiers and included them with their rations.

From 1861 to 1865 the Civil War created much hardship but at the same time, many practices used then are still used today. Following is an excerpt from Patricia B. Mitchell’s book, “Civil War Plants and Herbs” as a substitute for coffee:

“Take some ripe acorns, wash them while in the shell, dry them, and parch until open. Take the shell off, roast with a little bacon fat, and you will have a splendid cup of coffee.”