OPINION | Tom Dillard: Medicinal herbs in demand during Civil War

Today I saw a photograph of U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth. She was smiling broadly as she campaigned from a wheelchair. Among many other things, she is a double amputee, which resulted from her service in the Iraq war as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot.

Despite the loss of one leg near her hip and the other below the knee -- as well as severe arm injuries -- Duckworth survived due to the skill of Army medics and doctors.

During the American Civil War, soldiers like Duckworth would have almost certainly died, either in the aftermath of the crash or perhaps later in an army field hospital. Even opium, which allowed the severely wounded a bit of relief before they died, was in short supply throughout the Confederacy.

A newspaper notice in the Arkansas Gazette in October 1862 reminds us of the primitive nature of medical treatment at that time. Howard Smith, surgeon and medical purveyor in the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department District headquartered in Little Rock, published a list of 56 medicinal plants needed by the rebel army and prices to be paid.

Needed plants ranged from anise to wintergreen. Included on the list were a few with known medicinal properties, such as castor beans, which are poisonous, but can be processed into a safe liquid known as castor oil. Like castor beans, several of the other herbs being sought are today known to be dangerous to humans, Jimson weed perhaps being the most threatening.

Jimson weed is one of the many common names for Datura stramonium, a poisonous flowering plant from the nightshade family. Though native to the Americas, datura -- also called "devil's apples" for its spiky seed pods -- was one of the early natives of the New World to be exported to Europe and Asia, where it is now widespread.

"Jimson" is a corruption of Jamestown, the Virginia location where British soldiers in the spring of 1676 harvested the first green shoots of a succulent plant for a "salat." Immediately, the men "turn'd natural fools," a condition which lasted several days during which "one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it; and another stark naked was sitting up in a corner, like a monkey ..."

The same writer noted that "their Actions were full of Innocence and good Nature." (In modern times, it was a concoction made from jimson weed roots which enabled Don Juan Castaneda to fly like a crow.) I cannot imagine how jimson weed "seeds and leaves" could be safely used by Confederate medical authorities.

The list began with "Poppy, ripe [seed] capsules," for which the high price of $1 per pound would be paid. From these poppies the army produced opium pills or soft gum balls. Some 10 million opium pills were used by the Union Army during the war, and this was on top of nearly 3 million ounces of other opium products. The newly developed syringe made it possible for Union doctors to inject opium directly into the bloodstream.

Due to the Union blockade of the Confederacy, the rebel army was not nearly so well stocked with powerful drugs. However, opium was certainly used. One Arkansas Confederate surgeon remembered late in his life that "in one pocket of my trousers I had a ball of blue mass (containing mercury), in another [pocket] a ball of opium."

The Confederate authorities offered 30 cents per pound for roots of the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Today invasive dandelions are found throughout the world, but they were native to Europe. Mrs. Matilda Tebbets, wife of a prominent Fayetteville merchant, purposefully introduced dandelions into her antebellum Arkansas garden. Dandelion tea was given as a diuretic and mild laxative during the Civil War.

As you might expect, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) was high on the list of needed medicinal herbs. Today we know that butterfly weed contains toxic glycosides and alkaloids, but the Confederate authorities did not know this, and the roots were boiled into a broth and given to soldiers with lung problems.

The Confederates were willing to pay $1 per pound for hops and red pepper. Hops are the flowers of the hop plant (Humulus lupulus), a vigorous vine. It is best known as an additive to the brewing of beer, but for generations it has been used to treat mild depression, insomnia and a litany of other afflictions.

Red pepper is a fairly generic name since almost all peppers turn red as they mature. The rebel doctors possibly planned to use it to treat listlessness, one of its traditional uses.

At $2 per pound, the pith of the sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum) was the most costly plant. Pith referred to the inner layers of sassafras wood, which was ground and dried. The concoction was used in making a mucilage which was mistakenly believed effective in treating syphilis, eye problems, and a multitude of other ailments. Sassafras bark and roots were not nearly so valuable as pith, bringing only 20 cents per pound.

Sassafras was one of several tree barks sought by the Confederates. In one or two cases the instructions call for bark from tree roots such as the American persimmon, but in three instances simple bark is sought: dogwood, white oak and prickly ash. I assume the medical authorities were actually seeking the inner bark, not the hard outer bark.

I was not surprised that ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was on the list. By the outbreak of the Civil War, ginseng from Arkansas was already being sold extensively. It was believed to have restorative powers, including returning sexual vigor to men. China provided a huge market for American-produced ginseng, so the Confederates had to pay the relatively expensive price of 50 cents per pound.

I was surprised that the advertisement did not mention the inner bark of the slippery elm tree (Ulmus rubra), one of the most widely used folk remedies for sores, burns and wounds.

Arkansas Confederate forces would die in huge numbers during the war, far more from diseases than combat.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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