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Plants in the Civil War: A Botanical History



The Civil War was a period like no other in U. S. history, during a century in which people depended on plants for nearly all basic commodities, including food, fibers, drugs, and timber. Indeed at the core of the conflict was slavery, which had botanical roots in the labor-intensive cash crops that drove the southern economy. This plant-centered history of the Civil War will examine in detail the economic botany and ethnobotany of the Civil War period, including discussions of diet and foodways; medicinal plants and herbal practices; selection and cultivation of cash crops; plantation landscapes, agriculture, and gardens; and the ethnobotany of enslaved people. In addition, plants provided virtually of the natural products essential to the war effort, from the raw material for uniforms and military engineering to dietary rations and antimalarial drugs.

As Richard Evans Schultes observed on occasion, historians stumble because they know little about plants. According to his world view, botanical knowledge is fundamental to understanding civilization and interpreting conflict, hence the  interest in examining this period of American history through a botanical lens. This book is a contribution to Schultes’ desire for history viewed and interpreted through a botanical lens. The goal is to provide an encyclopedic synthesis of civilian and military plant uses and botanical connections as they relate to the American Civil War. The project has emphasized civilian and military life in the South, which experienced a greater impact from wartime conditions than the North.  The research has involved a wide range of primary and secondary sources, including newspapers; journals and magazines; cookbooks; household, farm, and agriculture manuals; military manuals and texts; period agricultural, gardening, and medical texts; travel reminiscences; and the WPA slave narratives. Judith's next book will provide a reference and resource for anyone interested in historic economic botany or a “botanical snapshot” of the Civil War.

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