Drugs and Digitization: Investigating Opiate Addiction in the U.S. Civil War Era in the Age of Mass Digitization

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Jonathan S. Jones is the inaugural Postdoctoral Scholar in Civil War History at Penn State’s George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center in 2020-21, where he is currently preparing a book manuscript on opiate addiction in the Civil War era for publication. The project is derived from his dissertation on the same topic, defended at Binghamton University in June 2020. Jonathan’s recent publications include an article in The Journal of the Civil War Era’s June 2020 issue titled “Opium Slavery: Civil War Veterans and Opiate Addiction.” After Penn State, Jonathan will be joining the Department of History at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) as an Assistant Professor starting in August 2021. Connect with Jonathan on Twitter at @_jonathansjones or at jonathansjones.net

In the American Civil War’s wake, thousands of veterans became “enslaved” to morphine, opium, and laudanum. These powerful and addictive medicines were used in nineteenth-century America to dull the pain of amputations, suppress diarrheal sicknesses, and help the war-weary cope with anxiety and depression. In fact, opiates were among Civil War America’s most widely prescribed medicines, and medical authorities considered them to be the most “indispensable drug[s] on the battlefield—important to the surgeon, as gunpowder to the ordnance.” Surgeons doled out opiates heavily to injured and sick soldiers. Without any real regulations on narcotics until the Progressive Era, many veterans simply kept on purchasing and consuming opiates after leaving the army.

But as Americans, then as now, widely recognized, opiate medicines have an unfortunate downside. Veterans who took the drugs for too long risked becoming addicted, with severe personal consequences. Men who developed addictions were widely condemned as “slaves” to opium and morphine, a common contemporary descriptor for opiate addiction that echoed the temperance and racial rhetoric of the day. As one Union veteran put it, after falling sick during the war, he soon became “a slave to the Habit of using Morphine, with not a ray of hope of ever being emancipated.”

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