Coca-Cola Was the Result of a Wounded Soldier Trying to Ease His Own Pain

Coca-Cola Was the Result of a Wounded Soldier Trying to Ease His Own Pain

Fighting in the Civil War didn’t end when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. A week later, Union troops that hadn’t heard the news set out to destroy the city of Columbus, Georgia. Confederate defenders positioned themselves across the Chattahoochee River, forcing Union troops to cross one of two bridges to attack.

When Union cavalry assaulted the upper bridge, a Confederate officer named Lt. Col. John Pemberton took a saber slash to the chest. When the war ended, he became addicted to the morphine used to ease the pain. In trying to cure his addiction, he created not only a $260 billion business but an entire global industry.

Pemberton had been a doctor since the age of 19 and was a skilled chemist with a drug store in Columbus. He began creating patent medicines after the war, and started selling his first popular medicine, Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.

A derivative of a celebrated European beverage of wine and cocaine, Vin Mariani, it was a potent mix of caffeinated kola nuts and damiana, a flower used to make early versions of margarita cocktails.

The active ingredient, however, was still cocaine mixed with wine. As one might imagine, it was marketed as a remedy for almost any ailment, which technically worked. By today’s standards, it sounds like he was trying to cure an expensive morphine addiction with a cheap cocaine addiction, but that’s not really the case. Cocaine was widely regarded as a cure for morphine addicts.

Pemberton wasn’t the only wounded Confederate veteran addicted to morphine. There were many of them. To top it all off, the people of the rapidly changing South were known for suffering from fatigue, headaches, anxiety and depression, later called “neurasthenia” by doctors, after the war. Pemberton was looking for a cure-all to help veterans and civilians alike.

French Wine Coca seemed to do the trick, and it was, of course, really popular. He soon moved his operation to Atlanta, where it sold even more. Everything was going smoothly until 1886, when alcohol was outlawed in Fulton County. He kept selling the French Wine Coca elsewhere, but in Atlanta, he needed to formulate.

In trying to make a non-alcoholic version of his medicine in a brass kettle in his backyard, he experimented with different ingredients (the final recipe, called 7x flavoring, is still a trade secret). While at a pharmacy, he mixed the syrup with carbonated water and knew he’d found the magic. He called it Coca-Cola because he liked the alliteration.

His new beverage, marketed as “The Temperance Drink,” still contained the coca leaves and kola nuts, but used sugar syrup instead of wine. He sold it at the soda fountains in and around pharmacies, still selling it as a cure “for nervous affections.” Although he found interested investors, he didn’t really see Coca-Cola’s potential and gradually sold off his own interest in the company.

The statue of John Pemberton outside of Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.

Pemberton died in August 1888, but Coca-Cola lived on. It wasn’t long before Atlanta businessman and former druggist Asa Griggs Candler controlled the entire enterprise. Candler’s operation began bottling the beverage, then sold licensing rights for others to bottle Coca-Cola throughout the country. Aggressive marketing led to an explosion in popularity.

The Coca-Cola company claims the soda never contained actual cocaine, but fact checkers have found evidence the recipe contained cocaine until the turn of the 20th century. It still uses coca leaves in the recipe, but the cocaine has been removed from its coca extract by the New Jersey-based company Stepan. The Coca-Cola Company sells an estimated 1.9 billion drinks every day, all without wine, cocaine or any other intoxicating substance.

— Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on LinkedIn.

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