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What Is Scorbutus?

In researching my Civil War ancestor, I became fascinated by all aspects of that war. If you're a Civil War buff, check out my topics.

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.

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.

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


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?

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.

My Great-Great Grandfather Suffered from Scorbutus While at Andersonville Prison

  • Starvation at Andersonville Prison
    Andersonville Prison in Georgia was notorious for the starvation suffered by Union soldiers there during the Civil War. Why did it happen and how did the prisoners survive the brutal conditions there?
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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


Book - Scurvy, Past and Present

The Health of Men Entering the Army in the Civil War

© 2011 Virginia Allain

Thanks for stopping by - please leave a note

Virginia Allain (author) from Central Florida on February 24, 2020:

Thank you for your input with local information on the situation. Yes, as a librarian, I do know how to read, and have read more than a dozen first-hand accounts written by prisoners. I've also read The Last Depot which details the problems with supplying Andersonville and the issues with prisoner exchanges breaking down. I've kept my focus on Andersonville, which I've visited, and where my ancestor almost died. Others have written about the northern prisons.

I encourage you to write your own page about your ancestor's experience to share your knowledge with others.

scottish hellcat on February 23, 2020:

I live just up the road from Andersonville. I am well aware of conditions there. However, folks fail to talk about the prison guards that were starving right along side of the prisoners. Grant refused a prisoner exchange. The Confederacy had very little supplies and Grant refused to allow northern supplies to be given. These supplies were offered up by northern charities and families of prisoners. Now let us look at my ancestor's POW experience. He resided at Point Lookout Maryland. The yankees had food and supplies but purposely withheld them from our Confederate POWs. The guards also mistreated our kin. Not so at Andersonville. The only problem in that camp was a gang of prisoners that would rob and assault new arrivals Captain Wirz quickly put a halt to that by a trial by peers (the other prisoners) followed by a mass hanging. If you visit the cemetery, the 7 gang members are buried in an area separated from the other graves. You claim to be a professor. Do some real research. I assume you know how to read.

Virginia Allain (author) from Central Florida on January 11, 2015:

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

Michael E. Dent on January 09, 2015:

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

Virginia Allain (author) from Central Florida on March 22, 2013:

@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."

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on March 22, 2013:

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 (author) from Central Florida on February 13, 2013:

@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.

anonymous on February 13, 2013:

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 (author) from Central Florida on June 27, 2012:

@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.

anonymous on June 23, 2012:

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

Pam Irie from Land of Aloha on June 01, 2012:

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

Nancy Tate Hellams from Pendleton, SC on June 01, 2012:

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

Evelyn Saenz from Royalton on May 31, 2012:

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

Blessed by a Squid Angel!

Coreena Jolene on May 31, 2012:

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

Spook LM on October 26, 2011:

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

Nancy Carol Brown Hardin from Las Vegas, NV on October 26, 2011:

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

Frischy from Kentucky, USA on October 26, 2011:

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.

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