Friday, May 3, 2013

Opium Abuse during the Civil War Era: 2/2

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!

Today, Jocelyn continues her discussion on opium abuse during the Civil War. Here is Part I.

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.

Common Opium Abuse Withdrawal Symptoms

If the patient suddenly stops taking opium, either by choice or from lack of supply, which often happened among Confederate soldiers especially, the following symptoms could be present.

§  emotional instability
§  depression
§  feeling shaky
§  nightmares
§  exhaustion
§  general body weakness
§  lethargy
§  mental fogginess
§  anxiety
§  nervousness

Signs of Opium Abuse Withdrawal

§  trouble sleeping
§  nausea and vomiting
§  heart palpitations
§  headaches
§  clammy
§  sweaty skin
§  decreased appetite
§  unusual movements
§  hand tremors
§  alterations of the pupils
§  pale skin

Severe Opium Withdrawal Symptoms

In extreme cases, the following might present themselves.

§  irrational thoughts
§  irritability
§  anger
§  confusion
§  fever
§  seizures
§  convulsions
§  hallucinations


So what did doctors do when a patient was overdosed on opium? The following case study from the archives of the University of Virginia offers some answers. Though this example took place a decade before the Civil War broke out, we can imagine many doctors may have used similar methods.

“On May 7, 1850, Dr. John William Ogilvie traveled eight miles to a plantation in Barnwell County, SC in response to a reported overdose of Laudanum, or a tincture of opium. The patient had attempted suicide, swallowing the tincture at 4:15 that morning. Arriving at 7:15 AM, Dr. Ogilvie found him still alive. Apparently in a state of melancholy, the patient was conscious and calm, but expressed regret that the doctor had come as he still wished to die. Dr. Ogilvie, however, proceeded to treat the patient without any apparent difficulty. Initially, he administered ten doses of zinc sulphate solution, five minutes apart. The patient began to vomit fifteen minutes after the last dose, and Dr. Ogilvie smelled and saw the drug in his regurgitated fluids. The doctor then proceeded to put a tube down his patient's throat and forced four pints of warm water into the man's stomach. Dr. Ogilvie left at 10:45 AM, his patient stabilized and quickly recovering.”

Historically, southern whites were the most susceptible to opium addiction, and prior to 1900, the addiction primarily affected the middle- and upper-class. Country physicians actually had the highest rate of addiction among nineteenth-century professions, so it was not a big leap for me to give an opium addiction to a Confederate surgeon in my novel.

Dependency on the drug during the Civil War was likely magnified by soldiers' traumatic experiences. Opium helped calm frayed nerves and brought sleep to those who otherwise may not have been able to rest. Not only did it numb physical pain, but it numbed emotional pain, as well.

Up until the Civil War, opium use and abuse was so widespread it was not frowned upon. It was not until the significant abuse during and after the Civil War that doctors began to take drug abuse seriously and medical opiate addiction finally began to disappear.

For further reading:

Courtwright, David T. Dark Paradise: Opiate Addictionin America Before 1940. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Hodgson, Barbara. In the Arms of Morpheus: The Tragic History of Laudanum, Morphine, and Patent Medicines. Buffalo: Firefly Books, 2001.


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. This is a great entry. I'm writing on the 1880s when Turkish opium was popular in the US and restrictions on opium trade with China began. Seeing how you used this storyline in the Civil War adds perspective for me. I appreciate the bibliographical references, as well. The pictures are awesome!

  2. So glad this is interesting to you! Your own WIP sounds fascinating as well! Thanks for chiming in.

  3. Jocelyn, thanks for sharing this. Very informative. Loved both your novels, "Wedded to War" and "Widow of Gettysburg." Blessings, Cass

    1. Hi Cass, You're very welcome for this, and thanks for dropping in! So glad you enjoyed both Wedded and Widow. :)

  4. I found your following statement interesting.... "Historically, southern whites were the most susceptible to opium addiction, and prior to 1900, the addiction primarily affected the middle- and upper-class." Question: Why the geographic distinction that southern whites were most susceptible? And I presume that "the addiction primarily affected the middle- and upper-class" was primarily because they could more readily afford the cost of paying the medical or drug professional to acquire the opium. True? Would love to hear your response.

    godleyv [at]yahoo(dot)com

  5. Hi Jocelyn--

    Wow. Did not know this. Somehow we don't think that drug addiction has been around for centuries, and that it only happens to a very small percentage of people. I remember your "Wedded to War" and think of Five Points people in N.Y. during the Civil War; the poorest and most desperate. They must have had a large number of addicts in order to numb themselves to their difficult lives.

    And I remember the poor vets who came home from Vietnam, and how the drug culture suddenly blossomed in this country; even advocated by celebrities.

    Now, I learn about the "southern whites" as well. I too would like to know the answer.

    Perhaps due to their overall sense of loss? Of lives and homes, and the harsh treatment by the "victors" at the end of the war? I also think of our poor vets today, and any part of the general population unable to rise above the pain in their lives as well.

    Thanks for this new slant on the Civil War!

  6. Vera and Pat, the statement about the southern whites being most susceptible to opium addiction comes from a research paper published by the University of Richmond. I'll attempt to answer the "why" the best I can, but realize my research is limited. There were several cholera and dysentery outbreaks in the South in the 19th century, and opium was a drug of choice to treat it. Pharmacists often did not even require a prescription before dispensing it, and a visiting doctor often left a supply of opiates with the family of the sick member. So it would seem to be that these outbreaks (one of which took place between 1847-1851)and their treatments sort of primed the pump for southerners to be addicted to the drug. Middle and upper class would have had more access to the drug than lower class, simply because they would have had more access to medical care, and to transportation which could bring them to a pharmacy.

    Then add the Civil War, and there are plenty more reasons to use opium. Now consider that the Union blockade made many medicines unavailable in the South, but they discovered they could grow their own opium. They made great campaigns for civilians to grow poppies, but the plan to harvest the seeds was not well executed for the relief of the Confederate army. the logistics were just too complicated. So if lots of civilians grew their own poppies, but didn't send the harvest to the soldiers, one can reasonably imagine they used it for their own purposes.

    Then we consider that the South lost the war, and you have a region in despondency. Even if they were not fervent secessionists to begin with, many, many of their lives were turned upside down nonetheless. The South also had a much higher percentage of its men in the army, compared to the North, simply because the North had a far greater population. That means almost every family has a male relative connected with the war. Those that survived it would have been vulnerable, I'd imagine, to the numbing effects of opium.

    Does that help? I hope so.

    This research was very interesting to me, because a couple of years ago, I wrote a magazine article on prescription drug abuse (the primary drug type being opiates) and how prevalent it has become in white middle class America today. Prescription drug abuse, at the time I wrote the article, accounted for more lives lost than crack or cocaine. That research was really eye-opening--maybe I'll come back and talk about that a different time. :)

  7. Jocelyn,

    I'm glad you tackled the question because I was interested in the answer myself.

    You're right-- drug addiction is probably a very untalked about scourge on our society. I've done a few blog posts about it here but what was eye opening to me was a story with Dianne Sawyer on ABC news where she stated Americans buy something like 95% of all Vicodin/Lortab manufactured. Staggering.

    1. Oh my gosh, Jordyn-I must have come across that stat earlier, too, but just forgot about it. YES it is staggering! Rx drug abuse is way more prominent than most of us realize.

  8. Love reading stuff like this. SO interesting to me. THank you for sharing! :) I'll be back to read more and more! :)

  9. I read both the first part and now the second, I'm a huge civil war fan (thanks to my dad lol) I had no clue opiates were this prevalent back then. Thank you so much, I found this incredibly interesting, and can't wait to go get your book.