Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Opium Abuse during the Civil War Era: 1/2

Author Jocelyn Green returns with another installment in her series of posts on Civil War Medicine. Jocelyn was here last week discussing amputees and prosthetics. You can Part I and Part II by following the links.

As an added bonus, Jocelyn has graciously offered to give away a personalized copy of her latest novel, Widow of Gettysburg, to one commentor. To enter, leave a comment on any of her posts over the next three weeks WITH your e-mail address. Must live in the USA. Winner drawn midnight, Saturday, May 11th, 2013 and announced here at Redwood's on May 12th, 2013.

Jocelyn has also graciously said she'll send you a signed bookplate if you have any of her novels and would like one. Again, MUST have your e-mail. 

Good Luck!

As you can image by the title of my novel, Widow of Gettysburg, writing it required extensive research into the condition of wounded soldiers and their treatment. I soon discovered that opium was considered a wonder drug by battlefield surgeons. It was sprinkled on wounds to help slow blood loss, and taken orally to relieve pain and induce sleep. Opium and morphine were the most popular painkillers—but they were also used in the treatment of cholera and sometimes dysentery.

The most significant incidence of opium abuse in the United States occurred during the Civil War, when an estimated 400,000 soldiers became addicted to the drug. Two of my characters in Widow of Gettysburg struggle with it. The following signs and symptoms helped guide those storylines.

Opium Abuse Side Effects

These side-effects depend on factors such as the dose, how the drug is taken, and the individual’s metabolism. In addition, these side-effects depend on the duration of time in which the drug has been taken. Opium abuse brings about side-effects such as:

  • Drowsiness
  • Sedation
  • Depressed or slowed breathing
  • Glazed or red eyes
  • Slurred speech
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Small pupils
  • Nausea
  • Sleeping disorders
  • A runny nose
  • Sinus irritation
  • Excessive energy
  • Rapid speed
  • Mania
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Apathy
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Extreme anxiety
  • Restlessness and tension

In most cases, side-effects are experienced at the early stages of abuse and decrease as time goes by.

Depression was one of the most serious side effects of long-term users, and could lead to suicide.

In severe cases, the individual may have a weak pulse, lower blood pressure, reduced heart rate, difficulty or labored breathing, and changes in the color of lips and fingertips. Seizures, convulsions, hallucinations, confusion and psychomotor retardation also take place.

 A former military wife, Jocelyn Green authored, along with contributing writers, the award-winning Faith Deployed: Daily Encouragement for Military Wives and Faith Deployed . . . Again. Jocelyn also co-authored Stories of Faith and Couragefrom the Home Front, which inspired her first novel: Wedded to War. She loves Mexican food, Broadway musicals, Toblerone chocolate bars, the color red, and reading on her patio. Jocelyn lives with her husband Rob and two small children in Cedar Falls, Iowa.


  1. 400,000 became addicted?? I had no idea!! Terrible. Poor, poor men!

  2. There was such a tremendous number of wounded and killed on both sides of the war and such limited means of relieving the pain and suffering. Many had to endure without any pain relief. And those that had access to it were given drugs that were most likely less diluted than that which would be administered today for the same pain. We have better means of delivering drugs to capture the most benefit with the less amount. The drugs were not available to all, though, and amputations were not unknown to occur without any means of pain relief. Such suffering. So sad.

    I think probably, too, that some of the addictions came after the fighting when they were trying to cope with the mental breakdowns inevitable for those going through the battles. If relief was there, they took advantage of it. Much the same as our taking an aspirin or a Tylenol today for a headache. (I realize that is a simplistic example.)

    godleyv (at) yahoo[dot]com

  3. Yes, Virginia and Vera, it's very sad. Vera, you're spot on. Many took opium simply to help them sleep rather than to cope with pain, because their nerves were so fried they had become insomniacs, or just hypervigilant. And at the time, there wasn't any real stigma for taking opium.
    Thanks for stopping by, ladies!

  4. Great comments! Great post, Jocelyn. I'm not sure it's much different today. People taking narcotics to ease emotional suffering and not just physical pain.