5 Facts About Opioid Addiction After the Civil War

How many soldiers come home with secrets? How many with scars? Morphine, opium and laudanum, despite being blamed for much heartache, were in the 19th Century seen as miracle drugs. The medical calamity of the Civil War was made  more bearable by the massive use of painkillers.

OPIATE USE DURING CIVIL WAR:

 

1.White Southerners were far more likely to become addicted to MORPHINE and LAUDANUM than their Northern counterparts. [1]

After the Civil War southern men returned home to a ravaged world. Defeat, poverty and the loss of 1 in five men made for lonely, miserable times. Did some of these men seek solace in addiction? Of course.

 

2. The Union Army used approximately 10 million opium pills and nearly 3 million ounces of opium powder and tinctures to treat almost every illness from uneasiness to causalgia (a painful syndrome that sometimes occurs after amputation — and there were approximately 60,000 of them!) [2]

60,000 amputations?! At a time when manual labor was what most veterans had to look forward to, the loss of a limb made them “invalid.”

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3. Old Soldier’s Disease was the euphemism given to veterans addicted to narcotics.

Did you know that veterans, if found to be addicts, were denied pensions? This is one of the reasons my character, JOHN WELDON, hides his addiction. After the war he stays in the military and is terrified that his addiction will shame and destroy his young family.

 

4. The late 19th century opiate epidemic was probably not caused by careless doctors over-prescribing miracle drugs. [3]

While it would be in the soldier’s best interest to hide an addiction for the reasons stated above, there is little evidence that the opiate epidemic of the Gilded Age was caused directly by the Civil War. It wasn’t until the 1880’s that the US saw a rise in opium importation. Citizens could easily purchase over-the-counter opium-laced curatives.

 

5. More women were addicted than men. [4]

After the war women were more likely to be addicted to opiates than men by a ratio of 3:2 as opium was used to alleviate painful “female complaints.”

 

 Was the Civil War a ready excuse for the opiate epidemic of the late 19th century? Maybe so, but war’s pain lingers for generations. Gone men, broken men, some still plagued with incurable venereal disease and anxiety … these wounds bleed out into all of society.

 

House on Tenafly series

When you write about post-Civil War America it’s impossible not to bump up against war wounds. John Weldon in THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD is addicted to morphine, given his first dose in a Civil War hospital by well-meaning doctors trying to keep him comfortable before his eventual death–which never happens. He escapes in his best friend’s new boots with a stash of morphine, laudanum and some new British-made syringes.

 

How do we view opiate addiction today? With compassion? With disgust? How do we deal with pain? These are questions running through my mind. What do you think?

LINKS:

CIVIL WAR VETERANS AND OPIATE ADDICTION

THE OPIUM HABIT 1869 by HORACE B DAY

US MILITARY STRUGGLE WITH OPIOID ADDICTION

BOOKS I’VE KNOWN AND LOVED

Featured Image: The Malingerer by Winslow Homer

Books I’ve Known And Loved

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When you write about post-Civil War America it’s impossible not to bump up against war wounds. John Weldon in The House on Tenafly Road is addicted to morphine, given his first dose in a Civil War hospital by well-meaning doctors trying to keep him comfortable before his eventual death–which never happens. He escapes in his best friend’s new boots with a stash of morphine, laudanum and some new British-made syringes.

Only one man, Doctor Graham Crenshaw with some hidden mental war wounds of his own (his family blames him for the deaths of his brothers) recognizes Weldon’s problems, but he’s a quiet man. I thought after so much medical research he’d eventually get a good medical novel of his own but it’s in his character to work quietly in the background, allowing others to form their misconceptions about him and the bloody work he did during the war as a brilliant young surgeon.

With a name like Graham Crenshaw he deserved fame but instead served a higher purpose–he had piles of children with his wife, one of them being Buck Crenshaw. I think I’ll still get more medical one day (most of the Civil War medicine was cut from the first two novels) and I look forward to it because blood and guts and misplaced emotions are what I’m about as a writer.

By the way, Civil War Medicine by Alfred Jay Bollet, MD is fantastic even if you don’t like blood and guts.

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