Medicine of the Civil War

Learn about the plants that have played an important role in the evolution of American medicine.

| Fall 2013

The years of the Civil War were a cauldron of convoluted medical experimentation and improvisation. Not intentionally, of course, but as the war progressed and expanded across the states, elements of diverse American life were thrown together in volatile ways, testing the methods and practices used by folk healers, physicians and old guard military doctors. By the end of the War Between the States, American medicine was forever changed and plants played a major part.

The physicians from the period of the Santa Fe Trail, 1820 to 1847, laid the groundwork for medical practices and ideas that would become common during the war. Most physicians were self-taught, or apprenticed themselves to an older physician. Fewer attended one of the small, for-profit medical schools on the East Coast. For those, the usual period of study lasted six to nine months, most of it spent listening to lectures in a classroom. Upon graduation, most physicians had experienced no hands-on practice with patients. Physicians of the time were looked upon little differently than carpenters, plumbers or other tradesmen. 

In 1847 the American Medical Association was formed with the specific purpose of elevating physicians above tradesmen, and establishing a set of teaching guidelines and basic requirements for graduation. However by the time of the Civil War, the majority of physicians had learned their trade as apprentices to older doctors and had extensive experience using traditional plant medicines.

The treatment for malaria is a good example of how divergent the methods of the day were. At the beginning of the War, old-guard Union military doctors still regularly followed the useless practice of bleeding (also known as blood-letting) and purging as the only official treatment for malaria. Even though Dr. John Sappington, a physician from Arrow Rock, Missouri, had been manufacturing and selling anti-malaria quinine pills (made from the bark of the Cinchona tree) since the 1820s to people setting out on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, and had demonstrated its effectiveness as a specific in treating malaria, it wasn’t until well into the war that military doctors stubbornly accepted quinine as a proven cure for malaria.

Confederate doctors during the “War of Northern Aggression,” were more schooled in the use of plants as medicine than were their counterparts in the Union Army. So much respect was given to plant medicines that the Confederate Army commissioned a comprehensive study of herbal medicines. The result was "Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests," by Francis Porcher (1863). This book so thoroughly described the indigenous herbs, their uses and dosages, that it was used as reference for decades to come.

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At the beginning of the Civil War, the Union Army listed only 98 physicians and the Confederate Army showed just 24. But by the end of the war, the Union Army had recorded the services of 11,000 doctors and the Confederate Army had 3,000. The influx of physicians pressed into service included many experienced folk doctors who had served on the Santa Fe Trail, as well as young, newly-educated physicians from some of the early medical schools. That influx of new methods and ideas set the stage for the great experiment in healing.

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