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What Is Scorbutus?

Updated on March 4, 2015

Graves at Andersonville Prison

Many of the prisoners of war succumbed to scorbutus during the American Civil War.
Many of the prisoners of war succumbed to scorbutus during the American Civil War. | Source

Civil War Deaths from Scorbutus

It confused me at first, to see many of the deaths in Andersonville Civil War prison attributed to scorbutus. What was scorbutus? My great-great grandfather, who spent six months in Andersonville, was listed as suffering from scorbutus when he was paroled.

It didn't take long to solve the first mystery using an Internet search. Scorbutus was an old-fashioned name for scurvy. All I knew about scurvy was that early sailors used limes to avoid the illness during their long times at sea. Now, the question was, "why did so many men in Andersonville suffer from and even die from scurvy?

The focus of this page is on Andersonville Prison and the effects of scurvy or scorbutus on the prisoners of war held there.



Symptoms of Scorbutus or Scurvy - described by Andersonville prisoners in diaries or memoirs

If you want to read some of these accounts yourself, quite a few Andersonville diaries are online.

  • Weakness, aching - John Whitten, Andersonville prisoner, recorded in his diary that he felt like an old man and could hardly get around even with a cane.
  • The hamstrings contract, drawing up the legs so the victim cannot walk.
  • Tender gums and sore mouth
  • Legs and feet begin to swell
  • Sores appear on the body - One prisoner described that many of his comrades were "rotting alive" with scorbutic ulcers (from Andersonville: The Last Depot).
  • Wounds don't heal well

Early History of Scurvy

Vintage medicine bottles.
Vintage medicine bottles. | Source

What to Eat to Prevent Scurvy or Scorbutus

It's disturbing to see the statistics on how many soldiers in the Civil War died not from being shot or stabbed but from diseases like measles or other illnesses that we now consider preventable.

Scurvy was certainly preventable, but ignorance led to many suffering and dying from it. Here's what they needed to eat to keep away scorbutus.

  1. Citrus fruits like limes
  2. Onions
  3. Vinegar
  4. Beans
  5. molasses
  6. rice
  7. most fruits and vegetables like berries, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage...


Rice to Prevent Scurvy

Source

It's sad that so many men died from a disease that could have been cured by a few onions.

What Did You Know about Scorbutus?

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Other Causes of Death at Andersonville Prison

  • Diphtheria
  • Dysentery
  • Jaundice (also called Icterus)
  • Pleurisy
  • Rubeola - Measles
  • Smallpox - Variola
  • Typhoid

Civil War Medicine - Informative Videos from YouTube

Many of the Deaths at Andersonville Were Due to Scurvy

The cemetery shows graves close together as there were mass burials daily.
The cemetery shows graves close together as there were mass burials daily. | Source
Disease in the Civil War: Natural Biological Warfare in 1861-1865
Disease in the Civil War: Natural Biological Warfare in 1861-1865

This one is fairly rare, so rather expensive, I'm afraid.

 
The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine
The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine

This one has an affordable version in Kindle.

 

Read More about the Topic - with these books from Amazon

You can also check at the public library for additional information or to request one of these books. It will probably have to be inter-library loaned as most libraries won't have these vintage titles on hand.

A Sad Spot - The Cemetery at Andersonville

Source

Limeys - How The British Navy Conquered Scurvy

Book - Scurvy, Past and Present

Scurvy, past and present
Scurvy, past and present

I've been reading the free Kindle version of this one. It's available in hard copy also.

It's interesting to see the studies done in 1918 and treatment theories as scurvy was a problem in WWI too.

 

The Health of Men Entering the Army in the Civil War

© 2011 Virginia Allain

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    • Virginia Allain profile image
      Author

      Virginia Allain 2 years ago from Central Florida

      Michael, you might be interested in a Facebook group called Andersonville Descendants.

    • profile image

      Michael E. Dent 2 years ago

      My great great grandfather, John N. Dent, died at Andersonville.

    • Virginia Allain profile image
      Author

      Virginia Allain 4 years ago from Central Florida

      @Lady Lorelei: That was one of the additional hardships at Andersonville. They couldn't cook enough food for the number of prisoners, so sometimes they received uncooked rations. Trying to cook with almost no utensils and limited firewood was difficult for the prisoners. Sometimes they would add water to the cornmeal and place it on a rock in the sun to "cook."

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 4 years ago from Canada

      I had no idea that prisoners suffered from scurvy. For some reason I always presumed that they were fed soups or stews because these can feed many. I did not know either that onions prevent scurvy.

    • Virginia Allain profile image
      Author

      Virginia Allain 4 years ago from Central Florida

      @anonymous: You are right that other Civil War prisons had desperate conditions as well. I focus on Andersonville because that is where my great-great grandfather was held.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Scorbutus was also a major problem of POW Ft Delaware, Delaware. This was an Union Camp to hold Confederate prisoners, this was not just a problem in Andersonville! Have located 5 ancestors with scorbutus in Union POW camps for Confederates.

    • Virginia Allain profile image
      Author

      Virginia Allain 5 years ago from Central Florida

      @anonymous: I've seen "scurvy" used as an adjective when describing someone as a low-life. I've not seen it applied in the situation of chapped skin though.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Was the word scurvy used instead of saying your skin is chapped you can say it looks scurvy?

    • Pam Irie profile image

      Pam Irie 5 years ago from Land of Aloha

      During your research you always come up with the most interesting topics. I learned something new from your page.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 5 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      I didn't know that Scorbutus and Scurvy were the same thing. I had heard of Scurvey.

    • evelynsaenz1 profile image

      Evelyn Saenz 5 years ago from Royalton

      I had heard of Scurvy before but never Scorbutus. Is that the Latin term for scurvy?

      Blessed by a Squid Angel!

    • Coreena Jolene profile image

      Coreena Jolene 5 years ago

      Great info. I was surprised to read it was scurvy.

    • Spook LM profile image

      Spook LM 5 years ago

      I had heard about this in the Navy but first time have heard about it on land..Great lens and enjoyed the read.

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 5 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I knew about scurvy but was surprised with the word scorbutus. Very interesting lens about an ailment that would have been so easily fixed...so sad.

    • Frischy profile image

      Frischy 5 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      I never heard of this disease before. The foods for curing it are pretty diverse and make me wonder what they were feeding the prisoners.