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C U R R I C U L U M    M A T E R I A L S

Thomas Best


Main Ideas
Contrary to popular thought, most soldiers who died during the Civil War were not victims of battlefield wounds. Instead, the great killer of this conflict was disease and illness. The deceased were often victims of poor diet, sanitary conditions, and inadequate medical treatment. This lesson will allow students to experience these conditions vicariously and imagine themself a Civil War soldier living with fears of sickness and death.


Connection with the Curriculum
This lesson can be taught as part of U.S. history or Illinois history.

Teaching Level
Grades 6-12

Materials for Each Student

• A copy of the narrative portion of this article

• Activity sheets

Objectives for Each Student
• Recognize the inadequacies of sanitation, diet, and medical treatment that led to many Civil War deaths.

• Prepare a typical Civil War meal and evaluate its adequacy for the life of a Civil War soldier.

• Identify typical medicines and treatments used to treat Civil War illnesses, diseases, and wounds.

• Write an imaginary letter from an Illinois military unit back home that explains your understanding and feelings about Civil War sanitation, diet, and medical treatments.


Opening the Lesson
• Activity 1: Have students read the narrative portion of this article about the condition of Civil War camps, sanitation, and medical treatments. Teacher and students prepare a Civil War meal.

• Activity 2: Have students identify the composition and usefulness of the listed drugs and medical treatments.

• Activity 3: Have students read the selections from the diary of Mitchel Thompson.

• Activity 4: Students write an imaginary letter from a Civil War soldier enlisted in an Illinois unit back to their home.

Developing the Lesson
• Prior to beginning this lesson, the teacher will contact their school lunch director or dietitian and a local nurse, doctor, or physician for their insights or participation with this activity.

• Students should be encouraged to develop their own questions regarding Civil War food and medicines for the class period when the above-mentioned guests are in class.

Concluding the Lesson
• The students will take time to offer examples of detail they wish to put into their letters. A format may include comments about accuracy, similarities, and differences.

Extending the Lesson
• Many men and women participate in Civil War reenactments. These reenactors could be contacted to present an example of Civil War cooking and medical practices.

• Students may consult local and county history sources. Were there any physicians or nurses from their areas that served in the Civil War? What were their experiences compared to those described in the narrative portion of this article?

• The letters the students write can be displayed on a bulletin board. The people invited into class for the original lessons may be invited back to examine and discuss the students' appreciation for changes in Civil War dietary practices and medicine.

Assessing the Lesson
• Activity 4: Students write an imaginary letter home from a Civil War soldier enlisted in an Illinois unit. The letter should identity the soldier's name, rank, unit, area of service, and present location. The soldier should describe at least one example of Civil War camp sanitation, food and its preparation, medical treatment following an illness, or wounding in battle.

• After the letters have been written, students can take turns reading the letters. Students can analyze and compare each other's letters for accuracy, similar experiences, and depth of detail.

Dear Mother and Father


Handout 1
Civil War Camp Conditions
and Eating a Civil War Meal

Stove and Sugar Corn

  1. Review the narrative portion of this article, survey the students, and answer these questions:

    A. How many students had a school physical and complete set of immunization shots before starting school? How does the quality of Civil War physical examinations and immunization compare with the requirements for students to enter school? Could lack of good health contribute to the higher incidence of illness and death?

    B. Invite the school lunch director or a dietitian to describe the sanitary requirements for preparing a school lunch. How does this compare to the quality of food preparation for a Civil War soldier? How could this method of food preparation lead to greater numbers suffering diarrhea and dysentery?

  2. Prepare the following Civil War meals and question the students as to their taste, their ability to make one sick, and the advisability of serving each to men in a hospital.

    Parched corn: To parch corn "Kentucky style," heat some canned or frozen corn in a skillet with bacon fat until it turns brown. Drain the fat from the corn.

    Fried corn bread: 1 cup of cornmeal; 1/2 teaspoon salt; some lard the size of a walnut; and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Mix the ingredients in a bowl. Pour boiling water over the mixture to make a batter. Fry the cakes with grease in a skillet. Sorghum or syrup might be added according to taste.

    Bubble-and-squeak: 1/2-cup of fat; 1/2-cup of butter; 1/2-cup of bacon; eight potatoes peeled and sliced, salt and pepper; and two cups of shredded cabbage. Put the fat, bacon, and butter into an iron skillet and bring it to a sizzling heat. Add cabbage and potatoes, seasoning well with salt and pepper. Add one cup of hot water. Cover the entire skillet and set it over a low flame for at least one hour.

    Hard tack: two cups of water, a tablespoon of salt, and a bag of flour. Mix ingredients in a bowl. Work the mixture until the dough will no longer stick to your fingers. Roll out the mixture on a cookie sheet until it is about 3/16-inch thick. Cut the dough into squares that are 3 1/8 inches by 2 7/8 inches. Bake at 400 degrees for one hour.


Handout 2 - Civil war Medicine and Drugs


  1. Review the narrative portion of this article on the state of Civil War medicine and drugs.

  2. Obtain reference books and possibly a medical guide or journal. Identify the composition and effect of the following drugs:

    Lead acetate:


    Aromic sulfuric acid:

    Silver nitrate:




  3. Interview a local nurse, doctor or pharmacist: are any of the above-mentioned drugs still prescribed for diarrhea? What are the known side effects of such drugs and treatments? What is the usual treatment for someone with a bullet wound? What surgical procedures and drugs would be administered to a wounded person? What treatments and drugs are used to prevent post-operational infections? What are the requirements for someone to be licensed and practice medicine in their line of work? How do these requirements compare with Civil War requirements?


Handout 3
Writing a Civil War
Letter Back Home


For this activity, read the following sample letters from a Civil War soldier from Illinois. Imagine yourself a similar soldier and write a letter back home that mentions the following items: 1) your name and rank; 2) military unit; 3) place presently located; 4) the state of sanitation in your camp; 5) foods in a soldier's diet and its preparation; and 6) the state of medical treatment during a time of illness or after being wounded.

Information on Mitchel Thompson
Corporal Mitchel A. Thompson was a member of Company B of the Eighty-third Illinois Regiment that was organized in Monmouth, Illinois, in August 1862. When Thompson joined the Eighty-third he was a forty-two-year-old farmer from Spring Grove Township north of Monmouth. Originally from Pennsylvania, he had recently married his second wife, Eliza. The couple also had a new baby girl, Cory, The 1860 census shows him with $4,000 in real estate and $600 in personal property. Thompson and the Eighty-third first went into camp in Burlington, Iowa, where they received their first military training. Then it was on to Tennessee and the area of Forts Henry and Donelson via steamboat past St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois. Throughout the war, the Eighty-third performed guard duty in northwestern Tennessee. Thompson was killed along with seven other men from the Eighty-third by a band of local guerrillas on August 20,1864, at Pine Bluff, Tennessee. Typical of other units in war, the Eighty-third lost 38 officers and enlisted men to battlefield wounds and 83 officers and enlisted men to disease.

Sample letters

September 2, 1862
Cairo, Illinois
Brother William:
Cairo is a low, muddy and ugly looking place but this time of year it is dry, but we can see traces of the mud. It is now one complete bed of cockle burs. We had no place to drill until we cut down the weeds... M.A. Thompson

September 2,1862
To Eliza Thompson:
As for the eating department we are not so well off. The principal thing that I lack is butter and would not want for that so much if they would give us fresh meat, but they don't and confine us on salt meat and sometimes very strong at that—principally salt pork and corned beef. We could get plenty of beef cattle, hogs and sheep but our Colonel is too much of a baby to let us go out and bring it in... Mitchel


Handout 3 - continued

September 29, 1862
Fort Donelson, Tenn.
Dear Eliza:
I am now what they call an invalid. I have had one of my bilious attacks. It worked on me in a different manner than it had done before but I have it pretty effectually checked. I had a shooting sensation in my head for several days and I foolishly kept tampering with it. I got vinegar and cayenne pepper and made a strong wash for my head but it had no effect to scatter the pain. I then took a dose of 3 pills that Capt. gave me but they helped me slightly and did touch the bile. Next I took 3 more of Knight's pills. They did not operate at all. I then began to send to the Dr... I got five pills of blue mass. The next morning I went over to the Dr. and he gave me three papers of quinine. I took it all and went back the next morning and he gave me a dose of salts. About noon I sent over and got a dose of oil and turpentine. That operated once but not very heavy. I then began to come to the realization of my true position. I then sent over to the Dr. and told him that I had a severe bilious attack... Your husband till death, Mitchel

November 12, 1862
My Dear Wife:
There are a good many of our Regiment sick in the hospital yet but the general health of the Regiment is considered better than it has been. R. Hays has got pretty well again. Alex Hogue has got over his spell of flux. Frank Hogue has gotten well enough to be moving about the hospital yard... He looks thin and considerably bleached. Thomas Pollock is pretty well but has not been on duty yet. Brother Newton had a severe spell of the lung fever since we started out on the scout. He is better now but he is broken out in sores on his face and his mouth had been sore but they are getting better. He said he never in his life has taken so much medicine. He is not reduced so much as I was but he was not sick so long... Mitchel

Fort Donelson, Tenn., Dec. 21,1863
Dear Wife:
They [the soldiers of the Eighty-third Illinois] are looking forward to a good Christmas dinner. We have two turkies fattening for the occasion. There are seven pound cakes to be made... Last week I was right unwell. Pains in my bones, a constant chilliness with sore throat. I took no medicine but rubbed my throat with volitite or Hartshorn linament and held occasionally a little lump of camphor in my mouth. I missed one day's guard but am well now. We have been having some right severe weather lately. The weather when I was sick was bad—wet and rainy... Yours as ever, Mitchel

All letters from Dear Eliza... The Letters of Mitchel Andrew Thompson, May 1862-August 1864. Ames, Iowa: Carter Press, Inc., 1976, pp. 4,10-11,15,72.

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