Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Civil War Makeshifts
Nature Bulletin No. 297-A   March 9, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Recently we came across an article about "Hard Times in the Confederacy" published in Century Magazine in 1988. It is difficult to picture, now, the misery and want that prevailed during that bloody four-year Civil War. With no money and all the able-bodied menfolks gone, particularly in the south but to some extent in the northern states, our grandmothers had to resort to desperate makeshifts in order to feed and clothe their families.

Salt, common salt, became a luxury in the south, in spite of its production from the salt springs and "licks" in Virginia, Tennessee and Indian Territory. The price of wheat flour rose to more than $100 per barrel. There was no sugar. After the fall of Vicksburg, which cut off the supply of sugar and molasses from Louisiana, sorghum cane was widely grown and crushed in primitive mills to make molasses or "long sweetenin"'. Its seeds were ground into a meal that made excellent brown bread. A recipe book of that day, which also told how to tan a dog's skin for making gloves, said that "wonderful shoe blacking can be made of sorghum molasses, pinewood soot, neat's-foot oil and vinegar..

Instead of coffee, sweet potatoes were cut into small bits, fried in the sun, roasted, and ground in a little coffee mill or with a mortar and pestle. Parched rye and parched corn were other common substitutes and, in northern regions, roasted ground-up acorns. Acorn meal was also fried for pancakes. Leaves of raspberries, strawberries and mints; blossoms of the linden or basswood tree; and the roots of the sassafras or bark from its twigs; were all brewed to make tea. Sumac berries were used to make lemonade, as a treat. The fruit of the persimmon furnished preserves, a kind of bread or cake, and a beer called "possum toddy".

Clothing was a problem. All old garments, and even carpets, were used. Crops of flax were grown. Spinning wheels, looms and all the old pioneer implements for weaving cloth were resurrected. Instead of the regulation gray uniform, thousands of Confederate soldiers wore "butternut britches"' of homespun cloth dyed with brown juice from the hulls of nuts of the butternut or white walnut tree so common in the south. Dyes of indigo from South Carolina, of copperas from mineral springs, of sumac bark and the bark of various forest trees, were all used. In the crude newspapers printed on brittle paper made of straw and cotton rags -- or even on wallpaper -- recipes were given for such dyes as "vivid purples, reds, and greens" produced by a composition of coal oil and sorghum, tinted with "the appropriate tree bark".

Buttons of wood, horn or bone were common but many a man or boy fastened his "britches" to his "galluses" with wooden pins or locust thorns. Cypress wood was used to make soles for shoes of which the uppers might be old leather or cloth. Many people, including soldiers, went barefoot all summer. Hats were plaited of straw or the fibers of palmetto leaves, and the skins of rabbits or raccoons made good headgear for winter. Ladies' corsets and crinolines were made with hickory splints in place of whalebone or steel springs. The twigs of dogwood, sweet gum and the Rose of Sharon had to serve as toothbrushes.

There was mighty little coal oil in the south, little sperm whale oil, and most of the tallow was used by the army. At night, in addition to a "fat" pine knot blazing on the hearth, some light was obtained from an "endless candle" made with a wick, dipped in melted beeswax, wrapped around a stick. Another favorite lamp was merely a saucer of lard on which floated a sycamore seed ball. Seems incredible, doesn't it.

Verily, grandmother was the mother of invention.

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