Developing Self-Reliance in the American Civil War (1861-1865)

Relying on Local Plants

Chicory along Northern Virginia Roadside, 2013

Chicory along Northern Virginia Roadside, 2013

Prior to the Civil War, Americans often obtained sugar and fruit from ships that sailed through the West Indies. They also benefitted from trade between the Northern and Southern states.  During the war, however, as the North blockaded trade in the Atlantic and ceased trading with the South, items such as tea, coffee, sugar, and pineapple, medical supplies, and weapons all became scarce in the Confederate states.  Of necessity, citizenry in the South turned to the land to seek alternatives for food, clothing, household products, and medicines.

How did Southerners cope with the stark necessity of being self-reliant? You’ve undoubtedly heard that the South was known for its production of cotton and tobacco! Well, with the Civil War, the southern states had to initiate changes in agriculture and replace cotton and tobacco with the cultivation of food, such as wheat, rye, rice, oats, corn, peas, etc…  Since Southern states could no longer obtain items from the North and sea trade was disrupted due to the Union blockade of ships, times were tough.  That is why a shift in agriculture production was a necessary fundamental change.

Now there are some products that just couldn’t be grown or replaced to the satisfaction of southerners and coffee was one of those items.  Patricia B. Mitchell, in her book Civil War Plants & Herbs, shares several accounts on finding good substitutes for coffee as well as tea. For example, an 1863 Confederate Receipt (recipe) book described drying, shelling, and roasting acorns with a little bacon fat to make a good substitute for coffee.  A South Carolinian family – also 1863- described substituting a drink of gruel (a liquid food made by boiling a cereal i.e. oatmeal in water or milk) for a cup of coffee. Southern newspapers advertised Dandelion Coffee as a substitute for coffee. To make the dandelion coffee, you would dry the root, then dice it and roast it until dark brown. Then, after grinding the root, you would brew it for coffee, about 1 tsp. per cup.  James Duke – a well-known modern-day herbalist – has shared that scorched leaves of the holly tree (Ilexopaca Aiton Aquifoliaceae) were used for tea and coffee substitutes during the Civil War (Mitchell, p. 7)

Along the roadsides of Virginia, the beautiful blue flowers of Chicory (Cichorium intybus) display themselves in the spring and summer months. Perhaps you’ve seen them too? Have you wondered if Confederate soldiers used the root of this plant for coffee?  Like Dandelion, the roots of Chicory can be roasted and ground as a coffee substitute.

Yes, ideas for coffee substitutes were certainly brewing during the Civil War. It is reassuring to know that if we take time to search out alternatives to our current lifestyles, we will likely be able to continue the legacy of early Americans who learned to develop greater self-reliance through becoming more acquainted with local plants.

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References: Mitchell, Patricia B. (1996) Civil War Plants and Herbs. Published by P.B. Mitchell, 1996.

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