During the War of 1812 (1812-1815), 75% of U.S. casualties were the result of disease, not combat or wounds. Cannabidiol (CBD), found in the cannabis sativa plant, treats three of the diseases that were decimating American, British, Canadian and Native American armed forces throughout the war. Its use could have saved thousands – if not tens of thousands – of lives among servicemen and civilians of all peoples.

Tragically, medical science was about 125 years away from discovering CBD and conducting pharmacological experiments. (Of note, however, cannabis went on to become standard issue for U.S. Army medics in the 1890s.) Moreover, competing demands for the resources needed to produce full-spectrum CBD would have required sacrifices from those not in uniform – sacrifices not to be taken for granted.

If CBD had been used in the War of 1812 to treat diseases though, imagine how different the outcome could have been. As the United States honors fallen U.S. service members on Memorial Day, let’s imagine a less grim fate for those who perished during two years and eight months of carnage on land and at sea.

Cannabis Sativa-Produced Hemp: Worth Going to War Over

Cannabis sativa, chosen over sister subspecies cannabis indica to produce hemp, was fundamental to why the fledgling United States entered what was then a conflict between the British and French empires. The United States remained neutral up until British maneuvering resulted in Americans being cut off from 80% of their Russian hemp supply.

Americans needed hemp to produce cordage, cloth, canvas, sacks and paper from its fiber. Hemp was available domestically from Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois, but it was 3 times faster and cheaper to import it from Russia than to transport Southern and Midwestern hemp. So, this meant war.

Until the cotton gin was introduced roughly 10 years after the War of 1812, an estimated 80% of all clothes, textiles, fabrics, linen, bedsheets and drapes were made of hemp.

Until the cotton gin was introduced roughly 10 years after the War of 1812, an estimated 80% of all clothes, textiles, fabrics, linen, bedsheets and drapes were made of hemp.

Siding with France, the United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. Initially, 7,000 men served in the U.S. military; by the end of the war, there were 35,000, plus a militia of 458,000. Those who died in battle numbered 2,260; twice that (4,505) endured nonmortal wounds. Those who died from disease numbered roughly 12,700.

Conditions in the Field

The odds of dying of disease were so intimidating that around 20% of American land forces chose desertion – which meant being shot on sight if caught – over risking exposure to illness. Although that choice is fiercely unpatriotic, consider the following common scenario for context:

You’re in a cramped, muddy trench, wanting nothing more than shelter from the elements and a good night’s sleep. Instead, you’re freezing and exhausted, and in front and back of you are dozens of men struck with the gastrointestinal disease dysentery. And the trench has no area set aside for a latrine (i.e., toilet) due to that era’s limited understanding of the science of germs in relation to poor sanitation.

That was just one alternative to running off into the woods as a deserter, so the fact that the remaining 80% of American land forces persevered says a lot about them. The patriotism of those who fought in what’s often called the Second War of Independence is incredible.   

The war ended on Feb. 17, 1815, when Great Britain and the United States ratified the Treaty of Ghent that both sides’ delegates had signed on Dec. 24, 1814. Interestingly, the date Dec. 24 factored into peace amid a U.S.-entangled war again, 100 years later, for the Christmas Truce of 1914 during World War I.

Dec. 24 was a harbinger of peace in U.S. military history more than once, as Head shows in our feature on the Christmas Truce during World War ICassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

CBD Production in the Field as an Idea

Could military surgeons have made a CBD concoction to administer to disease-ravaged soldiers and seamen? The answer to that question – spoiler alert, it’s “yes” – lies in the answers to these three other questions.

1. Was CBD-rich cannabis likely to exist?

Yes. And the reason for that is the motivation to produce ever-coveted hemp. A cannabis sativa crop is easily optimized for hemp production by leaving both the male and female plants in the crop – the same strategy for maximizing the plant’s CBD contents.

2. Could you perform CBD extraction right there in the battlefield?

Probably. Although this article’s author is no chemist or botanist, logic defends the following possibility.

Once you have the raw cannabis sativa plant, one way to extract its CBD is to use ethanol. Ethanol extraction via maceration in particular was used for centuries to obtain botanical extracts. This is the option that War of 1812 medics could have improvised in the field. In its simplest terms, the method entails:

1) Soaking cannabis in ethanol.

2) Filtering the solid cannabis out of the liquid mixture.

3) Removing the ethanol from the liquid mixture through evaporation. (In the battlefield, atmospheric pressure would suffice, even though rotary or falling-film evaporation would be best.)

4) Using the liquid that remains after the ethanol has evaporated.

NOTE: Head neither advocates nor condones attempting to extract CBD using the above method without the proper knowledge, training, protection and supervision.

In addition to being safe, simple and effective, ethanol extraction can be performed in warm or cold conditions. This is in contrast to the other extraction method, which uses carbon dioxide (CO2). That method is too complex to be improvised with single-ingredient components, and the CBD it produces is an isolate – the purest form of CBD you can get. For medicinal purposes, full-spectrum CBD is preferred to an isolate. This is because full-spectrum CBD contains all the terpenes in the plant, along with trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

To explore terpenes in depth, read our thorough coverage of them in an article on their role in earning cannabis an appellation system comparable to that of wine. Photo by Justin Aikin on Unsplash

3. Did military surgeons have access to both ethanol and CBD-rich cannabis (i.e., hemp)?

Yes. All military surgeons carried ethanol for use in pain management, even using it as a crude form of anesthesia when removing bullets and amputating extremities. Because no numbing agents had been invented yet, the other options were to bite down on something while being operated on, or to simply give in and pass out from the pain.

Surgeons had so much ethanol on hand that drunkenness among soldiers became a concern raised by Dr. James Mann. He was the medical director of the Northern Army and was known as the “most important Army surgeon in the field.” If you had his attention, you had access to plenty of ethanol.

Surgical Kit from the 1800’s Courtesy of Otis Historical Archives Nat'l Museum of Health & Medicine, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Surgical Kit from the 1800’s Courtesy of Otis Historical Archives Nat’l Museum of Health & Medicine, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Hemp had been a valuable commodity since the time of the early settlers. Landowners were mandated by Great Britain’s King James to grow at least 100 plants, and they could even pay taxes in quantities of hemp. So, the hemp (i.e., CBD-rich cannabis) was there. However, access to hemp produced in the United States was, as mentioned before, limited due to the time needed to move it from production centers to battle camps.

Battles fought on U.S. (and Native American) soil occurred in the Old Southwest (Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi), the Old Northwest (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin), Coastal Maine and the Chesapeake. Domestic hemp production centered in Kentucky, where 90% of hemp textiles and cordage came from, but was also prominent in Missouri and Illinois. Consequently, Army medics couldn’t have visited local cannabis farms while on their way to fight or recover from fighting. That said, they weren’t reliant on foreign imports to the point of having no access to hemp at all, either.

In addition to logistical challenges, a competing demand for the scarce hemp supply determined surgeons’ access to hemp. Throughout the war, hemp was crucial to U.S. Navy vessels’ rope and sailcloth. Diverting it to surgeons might have compromised the Navy’s readiness, putting seamen’s lives at risk, among other dangers. So, it’s hard to speculate as to whether knowledge within the medical community of CBD’s value would have resulted in reallocating hemp. In any event, the option to do so was indeed there.

Painting By Thomas Whitcombe Vallejo Gallery, Public Domain

Painting By Thomas Whitcombe Vallejo Gallery, Public Domain

Opportunities to Save Lives and Livelihoods

To repeat this staggering statistic, three-fourths of U.S. casualties in the War of 1812 resulted from diseases. Among the most common diseases were pneumonia, malaria and typhoid fever – all known now to be treatable with CBD. If more hemp had been grown, or if the Erie Canal had been completed sooner to shorten the travel time of transporting hemp, access to CBD would have expanded considerably.

Of added benefit, the hemp industry wouldn’t have been dependent on wartime and pre-Industrial Revolution conditions to thrive. As a result, businesses would have lasted, preserving jobs and families’ livelihoods.


Aforementioned Medical Director Dr. Mann reported that in some cases of pneumonia, death could occur within 24 hours of the appearance of the first symptom. A report from the U.S. Army’s Medical Department describes acute respiratory disease as having “assumed epidemic proportions” only four months into the war.

Pneumonia is caused by the Gram-positive bacterium streptococcus pneumoniae, and it takes very little CBD to kill most Gram-positive bacteria. Inflammatory lung diseases categorically have been shown to attenuate when treated with CBD, along with acute lung injuries. In the modern context, CBD can even reduce damage done to the lungs by COVID-19 by enabling levels of apelin to increase, as found in studies published in May 2022 and October 2020.

CBD can even kill Gram-positive and -negative bacteria that are resistant to traditional antibiotics, as proven in a 2021 studyImage courtesy of Public Health Image Library, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CC-CC0 1.0


A study published in April 2023 attests to the antimalarial activity of CBD when paired with cinnamaldehyde, an organic compound found in cinnamon. CBD’s neuroprotective properties proved effective at treating cerebral malaria in particular in a study published in March 2015. Head profiled these and related properties in our analysis of CBD’s capacity to restore and reverse memory loss.

Typhoid Fever

In his authoritative book on the War of 1812, historian Alan Taylor reports that typhoid fever “finished off” soldiers afflicted by colds, dysentery, measles, pleurisy and pneumonia. “They died so fast,” he explains, “that coffin makers and grave diggers could not keep up.”

Typhoid fever is caused by the Gram-negative bacterium salmonella serotype typhimurium. Studies published in April 2022 and May 2022 found that CBD can fight that particular salmonella strain. All the more remarkable, CBD achieves this even though this strain is responsible for the nearly 60% of salmonella infections that are resistant to the antibiotic used to treat them, ampicillin.

As reported by BioResources, CBD extracted from cannabis sativa with ethanol exhibits antibacterial activity against both Gram-positive and -negative bacteria, indicating a high probability that it could have treated typhoid-afflicted service members. Photo Credit: anavrin-ai on DeviantArt/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 DEED


Cities that were booming during the War of 1812 suffered setbacks after trade reopened when peace was ushered in with the Treaty of Ghent. When goods produced overseas couldn’t be imported, American manufacturers had to innovate to meet demand – and they did, marvelously so. In “Protecting American Industry,” University of Houston researchers report that more than $40 million worth of manufactured goods a year were being produced by 1816.

That same report explains how British ministers in Parliament and Thomas Jefferson, then the previous U.S. president, were at odds on the situation. The Brits were eager to “stifle in the cradle those rising manufacturers in the United States which the war had forced into existence.” The strategy for this was to flood the United States with heavily marked-down imported goods.

Jefferson, no pre-war ally of manufacturers’, defended them after the war. He declared, “We must now place the manufacturer by the side of the agriculturalist.” U.S. Congress’ solution was to counter low-cost foreign competition with import duties. This undoubtedly helped new businesses, but it imposed a higher cost of living on Americans as market competition was overrun. CBD could have delivered an alternative greater-good strategy.

If left alone, market competition could have generated the incentive to innovate to outperform and out-sell foreign companies. Domestic companies would have invested in alternative uses of existing merchandise, perhaps funding scientists to explore what had become a surplus of hemp. Upon discovering hemp’s pharmacological properties, including CBD, these scientists could have set off the organic emergence of a non-wartime demand for hemp. Hemp suppliers would have benefitted from the continuity of operations, preserving American jobs without disrupting the burgeoning small-business ecosystem.

Admittedly, that’s an elaborate butterfly effect to conjure. But that doesn’t invalidate the untapped potential of CBD in economic growth, which is the point being made.

The Industrial Revolution shifted the transportation industry from hemp-based sails to steam-powered engines, but hemp’s other applications could have saved and even grown the manufacturing base for domestic hemp suppliers. Photo in Public Domain

The Industrial Revolution shifted the transportation industry from hemp-based sails to steam-powered engines, but hemp’s other applications could have saved and even grown the manufacturing base for domestic hemp suppliers. Photo in Public Domain


Nearly 13,000 U.S. service members in the War of 1812 died from disease, and the United States remembers these and other fallen servicemen and women each Memorial Day. How many fewer dead might there have been in the War of 1812 if CBD had been used to prevent the majority of that war’s deaths? One can’t help but wonder.

Although the speculation in the above hypothetical analysis doesn’t do justice to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, it does add a dimension of purpose to their sacrifice: knowledge. By learning from such tragic missed opportunities, may we never cease to explore every opportunity to protect something as precious as life.

Kathleen Hearons is a writer, editor, linguist and voice over actor from Los Angeles. She specializes in creative writing and research-intensive analysis and reporting.  




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