top of page

Throughout the Civil War, Northern patent medicine manufacturers remained enormously successful, supplying a sundry of remedies to the Union troops, preying on their fears of southern tropical afflictions and, in particular, water-borne dysenteric ailments. Official medical records of the time confirm that bowel complaints were most prevalent among the Union troops and caused the most deaths. To alleviate these digestive disorders troops took a variety of "medicinal" bitters: herbal brews steeped in alcohol.

One popular brand shipped on board the SS Republic was Dr. J. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters (nearly 100 green and amber bottles), first introduced to the market in 1853. Fortified by up to 47% alcohol, advertisements directed towards army consumption claimed that the bitters provided “a positive protection against the fatal maladies of the Southern swamps, and the poisonous tendency of the impure rivers and bayous”. The Hostetter marketing campaign proved so successful that the War Department authorized the distribution of Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters to the Union Army.

A major concern for the military was cholera, a lethal bacterial disease borne largely through contaminated water supplies and designated America’s greatest scourge after its widespread ravages in 1849 in New York and New Orleans, spreading ultimately across the entire country into Canada. Cholera once again reached New Orleans in 1865 and broke out into an epidemic the following year. While contemporary eruptions in other cities were often mild and short-lived, New Orleans suffered greatly and repeatedly until 1868.

Union soldiers especially feared yellow fever. While the fever’s mosquito-bred, nautical origins and method of transmission remained a mystery at the time, the virus was known to flourish in southern sub-tropical and swampy environments. Throughout the 1860s, Western medicine had contended with its outbreaks. New Orleans, in particular, was no stranger to the disease. Between 1817 and 1905, the year of the city’s last epidemic, more than 41,000 people died from yellow fever. No doubt, Dr. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitter’s and similar ‘antidotes’ provided bottled courage to frightened men in times of need. Veterans returned home addicted to bitters and other ‘medicinals’ that they believed had prevented these illnesses during the war, spurious remedies which they then passionately advocated to their families and friends. In fact, Hostetter’s Bitters, known as the "Soldier’s Safeguard", was so successful that after the war shots of it were sold in local bars and saloons.

Hostetter's Stomach Bitters Bottle

bottom of page