by Margo Callaghan
The Chittenden County Historical Society combined an ice cream social, their annual meeting, and a fascinating presentation titled “Pills & Potions, Liquor & Laudanum: Medicine in the Civil War Era” Sunday afternoon at the Charlotte Congregational Church. David Perrin, member of the historical society, opened the event sharing insights into the early history of not only the town of Charlotte but specifically the Congregational Church. He mentioned the many historically significant local family names that appeared on the stained glass windows of the current church, which date back to 1896, including Prindle, Yale, and McNeil. At one point in his opening comments, Perrin pointed to the handsome wall mounted light figures in the sanctuary, and explained that these were the church’s original gas lights, that were electrified, and “turned upside down.”
Local history expert Dan Cole then took to the podium and proceeded to keep the audience of close to 30 history buffs spellbound as he painted vivid images of medical treatments available to soldiers of the Civil War era. His talk was partially based on letters written between soldiers from the local area and their families, including the plight of a Cassius Frederick Newell, who was baptized at the very church in which this crowd gathered Sunday afternoon. Newell joined the ranks of the Union Army as Private at the age of 16, having run away from home to do so, and died in 1862, Charlotte’s first reported soldier’s death. Cole offered that, as with 60 percent of casualties of the Civil War, Newell’s death was attributed not to wounds incurred in battle, but by dysentery and diarrhea, which was rampant throughout battalions on both sides of the conflict. Typhus, measles, scurvy, diphtheria, and mumps were also root causes for the deaths of many soldiers. Cole outlined the growth in popularity of the dubious elixirs and tablets that claimed to treat these and a vast array of other illnesses of the time. Most of the “cure all” tonics contained heavy doses of alcohol and opiates, including those produced by The Wells Richardson Company of Burlington.
Upon their return, Cole shared that many soldiers were emaciated, malnourished, and crippled due to the level of medical care they received. Many of those who survived to return home from battle would then have to battle chronic pain and stress throughout their remaining years.
The Chittenden County Historical Society welcomes all who have an interest in Vermont history to join their group. For more information, contact Carol Casey, chairperson, at 985-3063.