homepage logo

Life not so good during Civil War

By Staff | Jul 11, 2019

BARB BARRETT/The Luminary At the Meck Senior Center in Muncy, Helen Grosso, a Master Gardener from Hughesville, explained the use of foraging for plants and herbs during the Civil War for medicinal purposes, as supplies were extremely short at the time.

MUNCY – July 4th is a celebration of freedom. Hughesville resident, Helen Grosso, certainly brought this fact to the attention of many seniors during her presentation at the Meck Senior Center last month when she spoke on the hardships the soldiers and citizens endured during the Civil War.

Grosso, who is a Master Gardener, shared her knowledge on the plants and herbs that were used during the Civil War for medicine and food. “Life sort of stopped in April of 1861,” she said. Farm and home life were pretty stable before the political upheaval. Supplies became short and foraging became the norm. There was no cloth nor bandages to use for wounded soldiers.

Grosso explained that plants such as mullein, plantain, and lamb’s ear were used for bandaids. “Dandelion tea was used in place of opium,” she added. “Another tea was made from Lady Slipper and had a narcotic effect.”

There were no medicines as we know today. “The Civil War was the dark ages of the medical community,” Grosso said. “They used the magnolia tree as a disinfectant on the battlefield.” Sassafras root discouraged scurvey. Horse hair was boiled to treat infections and primitive practices and tools were mostly used.

Two thirds of the people back then died from infections and diseases. On record, 29,000 soldiers died but it was closer to 850,000 according to Grosso. Ten million people required medical attention during the Civil War.

Most of the battles were fought in the South and many of the battle sites are now national and state parks. Gettysburg was the “bloodiest” of all. There was starvation everywhere and fighting took place in the fields of crops. “Southerners bared the brunt of the war. Brothers were fighting brothers, and cousins fighting cousins,” Grosso explained.

Prices were outrageous. It was noted at a Virginia restaurant in 1864, a cup of soup would cost $1.50 and boiled eggs were 2 dollars. Coffee was mostly unavailable and chicory root was used. Some still prefer the chicory taste today. A cup of coffee cost over 3 dollars and a glass of milk was 2 dollars. Meat and fish cost well over 3 dollars per serving, and a glass of sherry was 35 dollars. Flour was up to 1,000 dollars a barrel in the south. One hundred pounds of bacon in Atlanta would cost over 500 dollars.

People had to substitute with plants. The bark on the dogwood tree treated malaria. Women would forage the homefront for replacements. They would find herbs such as myrtle and blood root and sell them for teas and dyes for cloth. Recipes were made for teas from roots. Anise was used for respiratory and coughing problems. Wounds were packed with yarrow. “Some of these ingredients are still used today in certain medicines.” Lemon balm is used for flavor today and certified oils use many of these native herbs.

Corn meal was used for everything. Women also would write letters back and forth from north to south and from those letters, history was learned. Lavender was used as an antispetic. Onions also were used as an antiseptic. General Grant moved troops of soldiers through onion fields.

One item that was very popular on the battlefield for the soldiers to eat was jelly beans. It was the first candy to be advertised and was discovered in Boston by William Schrafft in 1861. Grosso said the soldiers would pop them in their mouth while marching to the next battle. “They would store well in their pockets,” she said. “It was part of their rations.”