Morphine, Myth & The Civil War: Before Cause and Effect

Editorial by Terry Gotham

Last week, we spoke about the gendering of drug use in America and how that may have led to the original wave of drug prohibition laws. This was one example of the  many times where drug use was distorted as a justification for it to be outlawed. One of the biggest myths associated with heroin usage was that the Civil War “created 500,000 addicts.” This is of course not the case, so let’s unpack the various reasons brought up to justify this erroneous attribution. An exceptional paper published in War In History by Jonathan Lewy of Harvard University helps to round up the main reasons this assumption is wrong, which I’ll be quoting from liberally.

One of the easiest ways people explain the deluge of opiate & whiskey addicts during the last quarter of the 19th century & the first 2 decades of the 20th was the invention of the hypodermic syringe. The Civil War doctor did use opium for much more than just killing pain. Opium was used for diarrhea, dysentery, stomachache, gallstones, hemorrhoids, tetanus, typhus, syphilus & “neuralgia” (an anachronistic diagnosis that loosely translates to peripheral neuropathy today). But, remember, it’s 1860. Opium powder was usually sprinkled on top of the wounds suffered by soldiers in the field. By the end of the Civil War, a little over 2,000 hypodermic syringes had been fabricated & distributed to the 11,000 surgeons employed by the Union Army, which is one of the pieces of evidence used to support the claim that the modern heroin addict was created by the Civil War.

There’s one crucial difference between a modern syringe & those that were used, especially at the beginning of the Civil War. The first syringes were dull. That’s right, doctors had to puncture your skin first using a lancet (yes, that’s where the journal name comes from), before using the dull and large gauge syringe to deliver the medicine. So, the most hyperbolic claim, that soldiers were shooting up because they were taught to do so at field hospitals and by doctors, can immediately be dismissed. If any of you had nightmares that involved Requiem For A Dream and civil war uniforms, you can put that aside.

Not only was injection drug use essentially impossible, Confederate surgeons had little to no access to spare opium. The Confederacy attempted to grow poppy fields to supply their armies with opium. This sounds like a good idea in theory, but resulted in exceptionally poor quality poppy crops and an inferior supply of pain killers for the Confederate Army. Resulted in the Confederacy relying on smugglers & blockade runners to bring it down from the North, as one of the first examples of drug running in the USA.  The North was buying opium on the world market, as their Navy gave them access to trade with Europe. And boy did they take advantage of that. The Federal Army consumed 10 million opium pills and 80 tons of opium powder & laudanum tinctures before the surrender at Appomattox was signed.

People weren’t converting pills into inject-ready substance in the field, and the Confederacy couldn’t even get its hands on syringes and medical staff/training using them. When you’re taking a small pile of opium and spreading it over a wound with a knife, the person receiving care doesn’t know they’re “doing heroin.” It’s hard to develop a drug habit when you don’t know what drug you’re craving.

There were anecdotal cases of physicians becoming addicted to the morphine, but as a record, this was always classified as misuse, not addiction. General Benjamin Butler discovered one such doctor, and relieved him of his duty. However, no note of addiction, health problems, or vice was mentioned, merely a note of dereliction of duty. This is corroborated by The Medical & Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, a six-volume epic tome documenting the case histories of the various field surgeons across the US Army. 13 years of records were submitted, accounting for all of the ailments, diseases and afflictions that these doctors, surgeons and field hospital directors encountered. Zero cases of addiction, or anything resembling the modern, conventional definitions of substance abuse/addiction appear.

This isn’t to say that the maladies associated with excess substance use weren’t known. But the idea that the substance use, if continued, would cause dependence or other negative consequences, hadn’t entered the greater medical world, and wouldn’t for years. The Manual of Military Surgery, introduced in 1861, noted that morphine & laudanum (tincture of 10% opium in alcohol) should be used in managing pain and amputation-related hardship. Interestingly, and without further definition, the reader is warned to not abuse the drugs “lest they induce fatal oppression of the brain.” For serious, no other context is given, you can see for yourself on page 50:

“Reaction must be promoted by the cautious use of stimulants ;while pain is allayed by morphia orlaudanum given with more than ordinary circumspection, lest it induce fatal oppression of the brain.” ~Samuel Gross

Could “fatal oppression” be like our modern definition of “brain death?” You betcha. Will we ever know if it was, definitively, and not the fog, memory loss or other neurological side effects of opiate use described at the time? No, which is a huge problem. It’s really easy to assume, but we need confirming evidence and there simply isn’t any. And, to put this lack of information in context, in the late 19th Century, the closest thing to “addiction” most people were aware of was the “habit” (Source Bias warning: Vaguely pearl clutchy, but still relevant historical portrayal of the time).  Alcohol had been seen to be habit forming as early as 1819, but morphine wasn’t seen in the same light. Using opium was seen as roughly equivalent to swearing, paying for sex, gambling and gossiping. If you couldn’t resist the temptation of drink or poon or dope, you were a sinner, or morally weak, not sick. But in 1877, 12 years after the end of the Civil War, that changed. Die Morphiumsucht was published by Eduard Levinstein, connecting drug use with a craving for more drugs, for the first time in the wider, respected medical literature. And I do really mean for the first time. Between 1864 & 1875, when Levinstein lectured publicly on the topic for the first time, only 24 articles discussed pathology stemming from drug use. In the decade after? Over 230. It’s kind of hard to have a mass of people “addicted to drugs” when they couldn’t access the drugs, and “addiction” wasn’t a word at the time. Oh, and the people weren’t there either.

The USA documented approximately 10,000 habitual opium uses (referred to as habitues) in 1842, with that number peaking at 313,000 in 1896, according to some. However that number gets turned on its head when it’s documented in the same source that there were more women habitues than men. Grief caused by becoming a widow explains why all the women are getting high, but, if all of the soldiers are dead, where is the epidemic of strung out veterans? They weren’t in the Sanatoriums, as a casual review of the Second Annual Report to the Citizens in the Delaware County American shows. Even back in 1868, right at the end of the war, when soldiers were most vulnerable to opiates, 2 out of 26 under his care, were there for opium. The rest? Booze. Additionally, they were in there because of social use or physician prescription, not because they even fought in the war. In the “National Homes” in and around Milwaukee,  only one veteran was admitted to the entire system for non-alcoholic drug use between 1867 & 1872. To put that in perspective, 36 people have died from Fentanyl overdoses alone in Milwaukee this year

Were there people who developed habits? Absolutely. The Confederate vet Doc Pemberton was wounded at the battle of Athens, Georgia and became addicted to cocaine after being given it on the battlefield. After the war, as an unemployed chemist, he created a brew of cocaine and kola nut extract, as an attempt to keep up with the hooch being slung at the saloon across the street. Were there a giant pile of strung out drug addicts walking around after the war? No. What were there? A bunch of wounded veterans.

Lewy really does sum it up quite nicely in his conclusion, so I won’t try to out do his words:

Some contemporaries claimed their experience in the war prompted their addiction. A few decades later, Crothers and other physicians supported the notion that the war caused addiction, but not based on fact, at least statistical fact, but was due to the understanding that wars caused trauma. One can only assume that, with the amount of drugs consumed by the armies of the Civil War, a few soldiers and perhaps even a General or two became addicted to drugs, but it would be next to impossible to determine how many (were), and whether this was, indeed, a historical trend. Especially since addiction was only recognized as a full fledged disease several decades after the war.
Johnathan Lewy, The Army Disease: Drug Addiction and The Civil War (2013)

Finally, it’s important to note that this fear of drug zombie veterans have been used as a justification for drug laws ever since. A heroin resurgence coincided with the end of World War II, the Korean war sparked rumors that Communists were attempting to dope American youth to beguile them, Vietnam managed to vilify drafted soldiers, decrying their drug habits before they even returned, and the war in Afghanistan is already being blamed for heroin use among soldiers. There will always be people attempting to justify drug prohibition using the trope that veterans would be the most vulnerable of American citizens. Yet, this continues not to be the case, even to this day. Don’t believe the hype. Drug use is an ineffective, yet popular way to cope with trauma, whether you were part of a unit that saw incoming fire at the Battle of Gettysburg or if you’re just growing up in rural America after Bain Capital sent all of the jobs in your town away.

One comment on “Morphine, Myth & The Civil War: Before Cause and Effect

  1. Pingback: Louisa May Alcott: Breadwinner, Frustrated Creative and Opiate Addict | Burners.Me: Me, Burners and The Man

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