Prescription potions

Civil War doctors used an arsenal of medical weapons to battle illness and injury among the troops. Wielding a pharmacopoeia of odd-sounding remedies – such as iodide of potassium, acetate of potash, Fowler’s solution, wine of colchicum and syrup of sarsaparilla – they treated the chronic rheumatism that afflicted my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull.

A collection of Civil War era medicines. Photo by Raymond Bryson

Opiates were given for pain. Morphia was administered at bedtime to aid sleep. Irritant lotions, warming plasters and carded cotton wrapped in oiled silk – even arnica, which is still used today – were applied externally to affected joints.

For my great, great grandfather’s irritable heart, doctors brandished other medicines – digitalis, aconite, veratrum viride and belladonna – to lower and steady the pulse, reduce the force of the heart, calm cardiac irritability, reduce pain and restore regular heartbeat.

These were the days before modern medicine. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion sums it up:

“Rest constituted the essential of treatment; tonics and diet the adjuvants.”

Hence Arthur’s two-month stay at De Camp General Hospital in July and August 1864 – where his prescription potions were compounded onsite and his diet followed the recommendations of The Hospital Steward’s Manual (1863). 

My dad, who was all about the food on our genealogy road trips, would totally identify with our ancestor’s full diet. It reads like the basic meat, fish, potatoes and vegetables, with coffee or tea, that Dad consumed all his life — with fruit or jams donated by local communities rounding out the hospital fare.

And the thoughtful writer of the Steward’s Manual deserves accolades for including this balm for Arthur and the other patients:

“It is believed by the author of this work that a pint of some mild malt liquor might advantageously, and without too great expense, be added to the dinner of a general hospital in most localities.”

Now that Arthur is resting and recuperating until his September 1864 return to the Civil War battlefields, I have time to answer the questions many of you have asked: How did I find my great, great grandfather Arthur Bull in the first place? And what did it take to unearth his Civil War history?

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved. 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Prescription potions”

    1. Thanks, Fran. Appreciate the words of encouragement from a fellow family history blogger.

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