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True story of how Dale County, Alabama citizens utilized nature for medicine and other goods during Civil War

An Excerpt from


(Reminiscences of Mary Love (Edwards) Fleming)


During the war, we were forced to do without many things that we formerly had bought from stores. For some of these things nothing could be substituted, but for many of them others were used which we pretended served the purpose almost as well as the originals. We had to pretend about many things in those days.

Many substitutes for coffee

Tea was little used at that time in southeast Alabama, and few substitutes were used for it except sassafras and even catnip. But for coffee which nearly every grown person drank, there were many substitutes. My mother usually used parched corn and parched bran. Parched rye was considered one of the best substitutes, but we had no rye. Many people used sweet potatoes cut into small bits and parched, while others used parched okra. This was considered good, but it was difficult to keep a fresh supply of it. These substitutes were about as good as the coffee substitutes so widely advertised today which seem to be nothing but “Confederate coffee.” But at best these makeshifts for coffee were not good Mother did not like them, but they were better than nothing. And we did not see nor taste real coffee for four years after our supply gave out soon after the beginning of the war. This was in a short time for our small town and village merchants never kept a large supply of anything. Because we children heard our elders bemoaning the lack of coffee, even those of us who had never tasted coffee longed for it and drank the substitutes.

Substitute for baking soda

For baking soda, one substitute was ashes of corncobs. The cobs were placed in little heaps on a clean stone surface and burned. Then the ashes were taken up, sifted, and used very satisfactorily as soda. We raised red pepper but no other kind was to be had. Some real good looking brown sugar was made of sugar cane syrup, put in barrels, and dripped, but we did not have much of it. Most of the puddings and cakes were sweetened with syrup, usually, sorghum, and some families used it in coffee, but we never liked it.

Sorghum served many purposes

Gulf Coast supplied salt

Most of the salt we used came from the bays on the Florida Coast. Several of the white men together with their negroes would spend two or three weeks on the Gulf Coast, rent kettles and boiling the sea water to get salt. When they returned with their wagons piled high with the precious stuff they sold all that they did not need for their own use to neighbors for fifteen to twenty-five dollars a bushel or exchanged it for other commodities. But salt was scarce and hard to get and had to be used economically at all times. Some of the cattle were deprived of it and did not thrive.

When supplies of salt ran low and the old men could not get to the Gulf Coast, as a last resort the people would rake up the salty floors of their smoke-houses, where for years they had hung their meat to drip and dry, then put this briny earth into hoppers, pour boiling water on it and let it filter through. From this, a strong brine was obtained which was boiled down and exposed to the sun to finish the process. The salt made in this way was not white but it was better than none.

Uncle Amos Mizell was considered the best salt maker in our community and he made more salt than anyone else. He let us have all we needed so we did not have to get salt from the smoke-house floors as did some of our neighbors.

Tableware was valuable

Glassware soon became scarce and none could be bought. We learned to make tumblers by winding a strong cord around a bottle and pulling it back and forth until the bottle became heated where the cord encircled it. Then the bottle was plunged into a bucket of cold water, and the top of the bottle would break smoothly leaving a rather good drinking glass. When Father was at home on furlough he sometimes helped us to make tumblers in this way. We were very careful not to break our dishes, for we could not buy nor make any more. It was a calamity if anyone broke a piece of tableware, as each piece broken diminished our small supply.

Stoneware of the kind of which large jars are now made was taken through the country for sale. Cups, pitchers, milk bowls, wash bowls, and jars were made of this ware in an adjoining county near us, and much of it was used. We had none of it except a pitcher and a milk bowl, and these articles with the few tumblers made from bottles were all that we had to replenish our supply of tableware.

Little vessels made of cedar and called “piggins” were used by nearly every family instead of milk buckets. These “piggins” held a gallon or so and were made like small water buckets except that one stave extended high above the others and was shaped for a handle. Another small vessel called a “noggin” was also very useful. It, too, was made of cedar and looked like a flat bowl. Chairs and other furniture were made at home from hickory and from white oak.

When we had no flour we made starch from corn meal sifted several times, and sometimes boiled through thin cloth. This kind of starch was used more than any other because it was easier to make, and it answered the purpose well, for we had few dainty fabrics to be stiffened. Starch was made also from roasting ears (green corn), and from sweet potatoes, but the process of making it from these vegetables was so tedious that it was not much used, though such starch was whiter and finer than starch made from cornmeal.

Buttons made from many things

Our buttons were made of thick leather, of the shells of gourds and of persimmon seeds, and covered with cloth, usually fine cloth left from before the war. Buttons were also made of thread wound around the finger or something else to the required size, then this thread was worked closely together with a strong thread in the button-hole stitch. This made a durable button but the process was tedious. Mother found that leather buttons were best for everyday wear for the boys’ and negroes’ clothes. The leather, thread, and persimmon seed buttons would bear laundering, but those made of dry gourd shells and covered with cloth were not washable and were used mostly for decoration. Thorns and wooden pegs were used by men in place of buttons, and such buttons were called “Georgia buttons.”

Mother had a pattern and cut her own envelopes from any kind of blank paper that she could get. Mucilage made of peach gum or of sweet gum was used. Writing paper was bought from the stores, often at five dollars a quire, as long as the supply lasted, then we used pages from old blank books, flyleaves of books, and anything else that could be written on. Ink was made of walnut hulls boiled in water and strained.

Sometimes red ink was made by crushing poke berries. When steel writing pens could not be bought, we made pens of goose quills or large goose feathers, which answered the purpose very well. Shoe-blacking was made of soot from the chimneys, well mixed with syrup.

We used tallow candles and “fat pine” or “light wood,” generally in our country for lighting at night. “Fat” Pine could be had by the wagon load. Sometimes when tallow was scarce a large loosely twisted cord made of cotton thread was dipped in tallow or beeswax then wound around a long bottle and lighted. The cord being stiff with tallow or wax could be bent out from the standing bottle and lighted. This served the purpose of a candle but did not look well.

At our home, we never used this kind of light, but I saw it in other places. Some people made wax from mistletoe, but we did not, for we had enough tallow and beeswax for all the candles we needed. At the beginning of the war, Mother had candle molds which lasted until it closed. With these, she could mold from four to six candles at a time. Although we had to be very economical with our candles, we had plenty of “light wood knots” and other “fat” light wood to furnish good lights as long as we wished to sit up at night to study, or read, or work. The “fat lightwood” and knots was pine wood with much turpentine in it, and it burned with a cheerful, soft, bright light.

At the proper season of the year my brothers and the negro servants were sent into the woods to procure barks, roots, leaves, etc., that were used for making medicines and dyes. The boys were quite young, but they knew all of the trees, bushes, and shrubs that grew in the woods and swamps near us.

Queen’s Delight herb Alabama

They usually carried with them a small basket, a drawing knife, and an axe. They chopped off the outer part of the bark of the trees which was not used, and then they peeled off the inside bark with the drawing knife. One creek and two smaller streams flowed through our farm, and Clay Bank, a large creek was about a mile away, and it was from the swamps of these streams that we procured these barks, leaves, and shrubs for our medicines and dyes.

Dyes were made from the barks of trees, from weeds, roots, red clay, etc., and most of the colors were “set” with copperas rock. Green dye was made from green paint, when it could be gotten, blue was made from indigo weed; yellow from green broom straw steeped in boiling water; brown and black from walnut hulls; grey from Pine and Maple bark; purple from the young tips of Pine boughs. Copperas rock was found in the beds and near the banks of nearly all of our creeks, and this was usually taken out during the summer when the water was low. It was then pried up with hoes and axes. One of our neighbors, Mary Goff, contracted pneumonia and died from getting her feet wet while helping her brothers get copperas rock from the bed of a creek on our farm and near her home. Her parents had only two daughters, and she was the oldest child.

There were two good physicians in our community but most of the families had no money to pay the doctors or to buy medicines when they could be had. So they had to rely on home-made remedies except in serious cases. But I think the people were healthier then than today when they use so much medicine. The doctors did not use regular drugs during the war because they could not get them. When the doctors had used the suitable drugs found in the stores they advised home remedies, as there was nothing else they could prescribe.

When Mother’s children began to look pale or “puny,” she would dose them with tar water, which was made by putting tar into a pitcher and pouring water on it. Or she would make a tonic for them from such barks as dog-wood or cherry. Teas made from red-oak bark, or from resin were used for astringents. Pomegranate skil tea was also sometimes used for the same purpose, and tea made from some variety of grass was used as a purgative. Sage tea and catnip tea were used for little babies. Syrup, lard, and tallow were used for croup and colds. A small plant called agrimony, together with sassafras was considered best for use in poultices. Soft turpentine arid vinegar were used for linament. There were many other home remedies that were good. Mother made pills of some kind, but I do not remember what they were made of. There was not a drug store nearer than Troy, forty miles away, or Eufaula, sixty miles away, but I do not believe any of us except Sarah suffered from the lack of medicine. The people seemed as well as today when there are drugstores and doctors.


  • Excerpt Transcribed from The Alabama Historical Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 01, Spring Issue 1957

Dale County And Its People During The Civil War by Mary Love Edwards Fleming (Author), David G. Edwards (Introduction)

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By (author):  Fleming, Mary Love Edwards

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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and All her books can be purchased at and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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  1. I love reading stories like this! Amazing!

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