War and Herbaria: The US Civil War

Asclepias viridiflora collected by Thomas Meehan in Gettyburg, August 20, 1863; Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

In terms of full disclosure, I should say at the outset of this post on the Civil War that I am a life-long Northerner now living in the South.  I feel very lucky for the opportunity to broaden my viewpoint and to learn about the history of my adopted land.  But I’ve only been here for three years, so I’m not an expert despite my audacity in writing recent posts on several South Carolina botanists (1,2,3,4).  Yet through reading, visits to historic sites, and talks with Southerners, including my daughter-in-law, Laura, who is well-versed in Southern history, I am slowing coming to realize the complexities of that history.  In the last post, I quoted Eran Pichersky (2019) writing that “plants are the foundation of our existence and the ultimate cause of our wars” (p. 12).  This is very true of the Civil War.  Yes, it was about slavery, but it was also about the South’s agriculture; growing rice and cotton were particularly labor-intensive crops, leading Southerners to create an economy based on enslaved laborers. 

Reading Walter Edgar’s (1998) history of South Carolina made me realize how pivotal this state, and particularly Charleston, were to the secession movement.  It was a wealthy city, and its citizens were determined to keep it that way by maintaining the status quo.  Thanks to Bruce Catton’s the Coming Fury (1961) on the buildup to the war, I have a better sense of the machinations on both sides that made the split seem inevitable.  But what has all this to do with herbaria?  I have already written about the work of Francis Peyre Porcher, a Charleston physician, botanist, and plant collector, who produced a book on the plants of the South in 1863 as a reference for those seeking replacements for medicines, foods, and materials no longer available to Southerners cut off from trade.  In addition, Kelby Ouchley (2010) has written an interesting review of plants and animals that were important to troops on both sides; some were useful, some harmful or a nuisance.  Ouchley makes the point that much of the South was still covered by forests at the beginning of the war, and this could both provide cover for troops and also hamper travel.  The animals living there could provide food and also danger.  He presents an interesting perspective on the ecology of war.

By the time the Civil War took place, there was a tradition of botanists traveling with the military on expeditions into the West for surveying, dealing with Mexican and Indian uprisings, and in general learning as much as possible about the relatively unknown parts of the country (McKelvey, 1955).  A number of these botanists were physicians for whom plant knowledge was useful in treating illnesses and injuries, especially when medicines were scarce.  In some cases plant collectors were enlisted to study the flora and geography of untraveled areas and sent their finds to avid botanists in the East, such as John Torrey and Asa Gray who were attempting to document as much of the botanical wealth of the nation as well. 

Traveling alone was dangerous so botanists often sought military protection for their collectors.  Sometimes one person served several roles.  When General Stephen Kearny took Santa Fe during Mexican-American War, his chief engineer and an amateur botanist, William Emory, noted in his journal that the native potato was in full bloom, and he often described battles and plants on the same page.  Botany was a passion that seemingly decreased the stress of conflict (McKelvey, 1955).  The noted California plant collector, John Lemmon, was so distressed by his time in the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville that he turned to botany for relief of what we would now call post-traumatic stress syndrome. 

Several years ago, the Charleston Museum mounted an exhibit of specimens collected by Charles K. Bell from the former Gettysburg battlefield in the spring of 1894.  He was a student at the Lutheran Seminary near where the first day’s fighting occurred.  Each sheet is marked with the location on the battlefield where Bell collected the plant.  He also included a photo of what the battlefield looked like at the time of the war—bodies, artillery, etc.  There is a note:  “Last thing some mortally wounded Confederate or Union soldier saw was one of these plants,” definitely the thought of a botanically sensitive soul. 

There are hints of botany as diversion in specimens, such as one in the Wisconsin State herbarium collected by a Union soldier, Captain John McMullen, during Sherman’s infamous march through Atlanta.  McMullen sent it to his friend, the botanist Increase Latham, back home in Wisconsin with a note calling it “certainly the most interesting specimen I ever saw” (Senna obtusifolia) and adding that it was “stained with the blood of heroes.”   The Philadelphia nurseryman, Thomas Meehan, did not collect specimens during the battle of Gettysburg, but shortly afterwards.  He visited the site seven weeks later with his brother, who had fought and been wounded there.  It was perhaps a way for his brother to come to terms with his experiences and to share them with someone close to him.  Meehan’s specimen collected that day is at the Academy of Natural Sciences herbarium in Philadelphia, where he was later a curator.  It, like the McMullen specimen, had been sitting there for years unrecognized until recent work on both collections brought these historical treasures to light. 


Catton, B. (1961). The Coming Fury. New York, Doubleday.

de Beer, G. R. (1952). The relations between Fellows of the Royal Society and French men of science when France and Britain were at war. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 9(2), 144–199.

Edgar, W. (1998). South Carolina: A History. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

McKelvey, S. D. (1955). Botanical Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi West 1790-1850. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Ouchley, K. (2010). Flora and Fauna of the Civil War: An Environmental Reference Guide. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

Pichersky, E. (2019). Plants and Human Conflict. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

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