top of page

Compounding medicine during the Civil War era

Sketch artists attempted to capture the essence of the Civil War's brutal reality and convey it to the American people. Though photographers assembled on battlefields and photographed the war-time carnage, it is the sketch artists like Winslow Homer who captured the intimate moments of the conflict. Sketched in 1861, this detail from an illustration by Homer shows a group of Union soldiers returning from combat and is titled "The Walking Wounded.” Image credit: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.


William Price Carstarphen, born in 1830 to Ralls County slave-holding parents, worked as a druggist in Hannibal, Mo., during the Civil War years, 1860-1864. Upon his death in 1910 he left behind as a legacy an intricately detailed description of his work and the human condition in Hannibal during those war years. His story was included in a compilation of stories titled “Drugstore Memories: American Pharmacists Recall Life Behind the Counter,” Google Books.

He wrote: “I moved to Hannibal, Missouri, from New London, where I entered (the drug) business on my own account.”

While the exact location of his drug business has not been ascertained, his descriptive language paints a vital portrait of the war, as it took place on Hannibal’s Main Street.

He wrote: “I was there when the (Civil) War broke out, and during the whole four years that it lasted.”

While he didn’t join the fighting, his family, none-the-less, paid a high price as a result of the battle. His parents, Chapel and Margaret P. Briggs Carstarphen, lost two sons to the war: Richard Douglas Carstarphen in 1864, and Benjamin Franklin Carstarphen, in 1865. They are buried with their parents at Providence Cemetery, Marion County, Mo.

Chapel Carstarphan was one of the Ralls County’s earliest settlers. During his early years he was elected to responsible posts of sheriff, the state legislature and the county court. Chapel Carstarphen’s wife, Margaret Carstarphen was the daughter of Robert Briggs, who settled in Ralls County in 1822.

Guerrilla warfare

About the war, W.P. Carstarphen wrote: “You must remember that our portion of the State was a battle ground between the North and South, where a sort of guerrilla warfare was waged incessantly …

“I remember one day a band of uniformed militia, composed principally of the roughest element, entered the town, helped themselves to what whiskey could be found, shouting and singing ‘John Brown’s Body’ etc. They procured a barber’s pole from a shop nearby, and with the end smashed in all our (drugstore) windows .. some forty or fifty came into the store, and I began to think life behind a drug counter was not what it was pictured …”

Union forces

During this time, Union forces maintained a presence in Hannibal in order to protect the port city, as well as east-west rail transportation.

In 1861, Col. M.M. Bane of the Fiftieth Illinois, acquired Jackson Riley’s stately home, facing Central Park between Fourth and Fifth streets, to be used by the Union Army as hospital quarters. Injured soldiers were brought to Hannibal aboard steamers for treatment. (Source: Hannibal’s West End, page 10)

That same year, a sort of women’s auxiliary, known as the Ladies Aid Society, led by Mary Ann Griffith (referred to as Mrs. Dr. Griffith) met weekly on the north side of Center, between Third and Fourth Streets, making bandages from unbleached muslin and woolen yarn. (Source: Hannibal’s West End, page 9)

W.P. Carstarphen was not only providing medicine for victims of the war, but also for citizens, whose suffering included such dread diseases as malaria, dysentery and pneumonia.

He wrote: “In those days we paid, on the Mississippi river, $3.50 to $4 an ounce for quinine. P. & W. (Powers & Weightman) in ounce bottles was the only kind sold. Capsules were at that time unknown. The most popular mode of administering quinine was about ten grains dissolved in two ounces of Spiritus Frumenti, repeated every two or three hours … We sold it at ten cents a drink, i.e., when mixed with quinine.”

Ointments were a primary means of administering medicine. Mercurial ointment, as described by W.P. Carstarphen, was an ointment containing about 50 percent of finely divided metallic mercury incorporated with wool fat, white wax, mercury oleate, and white petrolatum.

He wrote: “The Poor Man’s Plaster (a mixture of beeswax, tar and resin) was the only plaster I remember as being kept ready-spread. The rest were spread on (sheep or kid) skin as they were needed, either on prescription or called for by the public. All ointments were made (in the pharmacy), and many hard hours’ work I put in making mercurial ointment.”

Next, W.P. Carstarphen describes the making of liquid medicine, or a tincture. Wikipedia describes tincture as typically an extract of plant or animal material dissolved in ethanol. Solvent concentrations of 25–60 percent are common, but may run as high as 90 percent. In chemistry, a tincture is a solution that has ethanol as its solvent.

He wrote: “Tinctures were the principal liquid medicine; later, fluid extracts were introduced … Tinctures sold from ten to twenty cents per ounce during the war. Alcohol was worth $5 to $6.50 per gallon, and oftentimes hard to get (even) at that price. Turpentine, being distilled entirely in the South, became extremely hard to get, and consequently very high in price … as high as $1 per pint. We used naphtha in its stead for mixing paints, etc.”

The prices charged for prescriptions seem ridiculously low by today’s standards, but during the war years, 25 cents for a plaster (or Poultice) was significant. $0.25 in 1860 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $8.98 today, an increase of $8.73 over 162 years. (Source: U.S. Inflation Rate Calculator.)

He wrote: “Our prices on prescriptions rated ten to fifteen cents per ounce; plus, except quinine, fifteen cents per dozen; plasters that we spread were usually 4x6 inches and sold for twenty-five cents. In early times we never got out prescription blanks (to the doctors). A doctor would just use an old envelope, a paper sack, or a piece of letter paper. Blanks were introduced after the war, and we fell in line.”

Rents for business houses was also a concern for merchants during the Civil War era.

He wrote: “Hannibal in those days was a city of 12,000; and a store on a prominent corner - say about 22x50 feet - would rent from $40 to $50 per month.

And finally, he wrote: “The Federal troops often came into the store with a list of what they wanted and we would put it up, but never got any pay for the drugs that we furnished to either side.”

The aforementioned Jackson Riley, whose home was taken for use as a Union hospital, shared similar sentiments: “Colonel M.M. Bane of the Fiftieth Illinois. The Colonel was so much interested in my claim (for rent on my property) that he presented it personally to the authorities at Washington, and certified to my loyalty. The Colonel said the reason why my claim had not been paid was because there were no funds appropriated for that purpose.” (Source, Hannibal businessman sacrificed farm, home for the Union Cause, by Mary Lou Montgomery.)

The family

W.P. Carstarphen and his family left Hannibal, settling in the mining regions of Colorado in 1879, where he “acquired and lost several fortunes,” according to his 1910 obituary in The Salida Mail newspaper. He ultimately moved to Denver, where he picked up the trade he left in Hannibal, as a druggist. He was considered to be among Denver’s most influential citizens.

His wife, Mrs. Sarah E. Brown Carstarphen, died five years later, in 1915. In Hannibal, she had been a childhood classmate of Sam Clemens, aka Mark Twain. “We thought of him as droll and amusing, but anything but a bright boy,” she was quoted as saying in her obituary.

Pilula hydrargyri (mercury pills) bottle, National Museum of Civil War Medicine collection.

Quinine was an effective and highly sought after preventative medicine and treatment for malaria in the Civil War. Image credits:

Quinine tin, National Museum of Civil War Medicine collection.

A. W. Warren, "Before Petersburg-Issuing Rations of Whisky and Quinine," Harper's Weekly, March 11, 1865, Vol. IX, No. 428. National Museum of Civil War Medicine

Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870,” and “Hannibal’s ‘West End,’” 47 stories of the Market Street Wedge and on west to Lindell Avenue. Montgomery can be reached at Her collective works can be found at


 Recent Posts 
bottom of page