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    I have this great little book entitled “Civil War Plants & Herbs” by Patricia B. Mitchell. This thing is chock-full of fascinating things that people did back during the Civil War era in the U.S., a time when war on our soil meant many of the same things that others around the world have endured in terms of starvation and misery, resource scarcity and personal danger.

    I thought I would share some interesting tidbits from it. Most of the book is made up of quotations (like letters or diary entries) from those who lived it, specifically ones from those enduring blockades.

    Interestingly (and possibly relevant to our own planning), one of the losses that they felt most severely was that of beverages like tea and coffee; I would say a good 10% of this book is people bemoaning their cuppas, or coming up with many creative substitutes. One entry mentions that coffee couldn’t even be had at the former price of $50/lb. That is NOT translated into today’s dollars – it was $50/lb back in the 1860s when blockades and war made it nearly impossible to get… wow! Tea at the same time was up to $22/lb, when it could be had at all.

    From Sallie Ann Brock Putnam:
    “…During the existence of the war, coffee was a luxury in which only the most wealthy could constantly indulge; and when used at all, it was commonly adulterated with other things which passed for the genuine article, but was often so nauseous that it was next to impossible to force it into the stomach. Rye, wheat, corn, sweet potatoes, beans, groundnuts, chestnuts, chiccory [a coffee variety which still sells in the US, especially in Louisiana], ochre [okra], sorghum-seed, and other grains and seeds, roasted and ground, were all brought into use as substitutes for the bean of Araby; but after every experiment to make coffee of what was not coffee, we were driven to decide that there was nothing coffee but coffee, and if disposed to indulge in extravagance at all, the people showed it only by occasional and costly indulgence in the luxurious beverage…”

    People got equally creative with tea substitutes and sugar, including one description of a process by which a woman made syrup and sugar from cooked-down watermelon juice. Regarding the former:

    “The leaves of the currant, blackberry, willow, sage, and other vegetables, were dried and used as substitutes for tea … When sugar grew scarce, and so expensive that many were compelled to abandon it altogether, there were substituted honey, and the syrup from sorghum, or the Chinese sugar cane, for all ordinary culinary purposes. The cultivation of the latter has become a very important consideration…”

    One of the more memorable entries about sugar and other items was by Malvina Black Gist:

    “It is next door to starvation with us, and no mistake. Each day we send to headquarters for a little bacon and some meal, and that is what we live on… It is true, we have a little sugar, and a small quantity of real tea a dear lady gave me, … but the sugar was buried while the Federal army was here, and in consequence is infested with [ants]… Now, some who may chance to read these lines may say that they couldn’t go ant-tea. But I go it! It is much better than no tea at all. … I skim all [the ants] that I can off the top, then I shut my eyes tight and fast, then I open my mouth (which is a good-sized mouth) and it all runs down (ants too) …”

    The book details a number of useful processes and ingredients that “made due” during that time, including so many entries on other foods and medications; many of the entries are of a darker tone than these that I’ve shared, as the war dragged on. Before I reprint the entire book, I will just include this one last interesting bit of ingenuity, and encourage others to pick up a copy if they find it interesting, too! It’s ISBN 0-925117-82-X

    “Bicarbonate of soda, which had been in use for raising bread before the war, became ‘a thing of the past’ soon after the blockade began; but it was not long ere someone found that the ashes of corncobs possessed the alkaline property essential for raising dough. Whenever ‘soda’ was needed, corn was shelled, care being taken to select all the red cobs, as they were thought to contain more carbonate of soda than white cobs. When the cobs were burned in a clean swept place, the ashes were gathered and placed in a jar or jug, and so many measures of water were poured in, according to the quantity of ashes. When needed for bread-making, a teaspoonful or tablespoonful of the alkali was used to the measure of flour or meal required.”


    It was similar in my time, coffee was rare and very valuable, much much more then tea because we traditionally drink coffee a lot. Because that it become great for bartering on black market.
    We drink also substitutes like “coffee” made from barley mixture, it was bad for blood pressure.
    Infested food, home made marmalade (from tomato juice) expensive sugar etc. Gone trough stuff like that. History is often great teacher.
    That book must be good read.
    Thanks Anika.

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    Thank you very much. I will be ordering this book tonight!


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    A few odds and ends:

    In Europe, in wartime, chicory often takes the place of coffee. It’s not the same plant as that of the same name in the U.S.; see the very informative article in Wikipedia.

    As to the American Civil War, I have often wondered how the soldiers subsisted, for substantial periods, on nothing but hardtack and coffee.

    Reading about that conflict, I have focused more on medicine. Doctors knew nothing about germ theory, so they did not sterilize their instruments between surgeries. Soldiers whose arms or legs were amputated generally died of infection shortly after. There was no anesthesia, so amputations were done “in vivo”. A good surgeon took pride in amputating a leg in “under 2 minutes”. Pain was beyond what we can conceive.

    Nearly all the soldiers on both sides had gonorrhea. Southern country boys knew even less about general hygiene than Yankee city boys so they were constantly coming down with infections.

    The most appalling thing is that the exact same thing would happen today if the SHTF.

    Let’s get it straight: most of the people I know don’t really believe in germ theory — some nurses included — so they would be totally sloppy in disinfection or sterilization of even a minimal sort. The same as they ignore Fukushima radiation, which is everywhere in the U.S., because they “can’t see it”, they would do the same with germs.

    This is one reason we need to put an end to the horrible habit of shaking hands to greet people, stock up seriously on alcohol and be prepared to manufacture it.


    In the US Civil War certain injuries where not even treated. The doctors and medics could only do so much. My Great-Great Grandfather was shot through the lung at the “Battle for the Osage.” He was picked up and taken off the battlefield and laid against a shady tree. He was later picked up by another unit and taken to a hospital. He lived. He had a hard time applying for a disability pension. The US Army carried him as Killed in Action. Reading all the paperwork he filed is a trip through history.


    I once read a book written just post-Civil War entitled “Women of the War”. Most stories were from women who had volunteered as nurses for the wounded. Things did not go well for most of the patients. Lack of anesthesia, medication, hygiene and nourishing food spelled death. As it will for many when things go down. One recounted treating the living skeletons with rotted feet as they returned from Andersonville. Gruesome.

    However, in our experience, most problems can be avoided with good hygiene. Bushrat had large raw, bleeding, open wounds during his leg amputations for almost two years. I kept them clean and bandaged. No antibiotics except during the short few weeks he came down with staph FROM A HOSPITAL VISIT. So it can be done. The human body can endure many things beyond what we think possible. One POW doctor in WWII had only aspirin and quinine but brought many men through grim diseases successfully. Don’t give up.

    Lesson: Stock up on lots of sterile gauze. Make sterile saline wound flush (boiled water, add salt.) Hand soap, sanitizer if available, peroxide, alcohol. CLEAN/PURIFIED WATER SOURCE. Also stock multivitamins w/minerals to take up the slack when nutrition is minimal; probiotics—and stool softeners/or anti-diarrheal for those times are good. We also have some Pedialyte powder which saved my own life when afflicted with la turista in India for a few days. Pain medications are a good idea. Even ibuprofen will be valuable when nothing else is available. And of course a good swig of whiskey….

    Anika, that book seems to be a wealth of information that is mostly lost in today’s culture. I guess I should concentrate on some more coffee preps….;)

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