The following post is part of an ongoing series entitled Civil War Voices from Florida. Each day in October 2014, Florida Memory will post a document from the collections of the State Archives of Florida written exactly 150 years before that date, in October 1864.
Today’s post from Key West citizen Robert Watson is very short, but it gives us an opportunity to take a look at one of the most common medicines used to treat fevers in the Civil War era:
Monday 24th: Feel quite well today, good appetite, still taking quinine.
Quinine was for many years the preferred treatment for malaria, an infectious disease caused by parasites spread through the bite of infected mosquitoes. During the Civil War era, medical professionals did not yet understand the relationship between mosquitoes and malaria, but they did know that quinine seemed to help.
Quinine is primarily obtained from the bark of any of several trees belonging to the genus Cinchona, which is native to South America. Missionaries observed the natives using the bark of this “fever tree” to treat patients suffering from the shaking and shivering associated with malaria, and began exporting the bark and trees for use in Europe and later North America.
By the time the war broke out, quinine was available commercially as an antimalarial agent. Malaria shares a number of symptoms with other common infectious diseases of the time, such as yellow fever and dysentery. Chills, high fever, shaking, and nausea can occur in varying degrees with all of these conditions. With medical knowledge being what it was in the 1860s, many of these fevers were misdiagnosed, and many a soldier took quinine whether they had malaria or not. In fact, some commanders ordered their men to take quinine as a precaution rather than as a treatment for existing illness.
As we have seen in Robert Watson’s diary so far this month, he was indeed suffering from some kind of illness, but its mildness lessens the likelihood that it was actually malaria. Nevertheless, with medical professionals aboard the Confederate ship Savannah lacking the knowledge to properly diagnose Watson, and few options for treatment even if they could, quinine seemed like the way to go.
For more information about Florida in the Civil War, check out the related resources below. Also, visit us tomorrow for another edition of Civil War Voices. We’ll be in Elmira, New York, where Floridian prisoner of war Wilbur Wightman Gramling will share a bit about an escape attempt and the latest news he’s hearing about the front lines.
Related Resources on Florida Memory:
- Robert Watson’s Confederate Pension Application (State Archives of Florida / Florida Memory)
- Florida Memory Learning Unit: Florida in the Civil War
- Florida Memory Exhibit: Distant Storm: Florida’s Role in the Civil War
Related Resources at the State Archives of Florida:
Related Resources in Print:
- Biographical Rosters of Florida’s Confederate and Union Soldiers, 1861-1865 (find in a library near you!)
- Florida in the Civil War, by Nicholas Wynne and Robert Taylor (find in a library near you!)