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.”

No mere colloquialism, “opium slavery” was a loaded term that, according to contemporary white Americans, signaled addicted veterans’ emasculation, moral degeneration, and even the loss of whiteness. Families and doctors thus looked on in horror as drug addiction destroyed men’s health while seemingly undermining character and manhood. As the Civil War veterans’ opioid crisis unfolded during between the 1860s and early twentieth century, its wide-ranging social, cultural, and medical implications alarmed the American public and state, and rattled the foundations of American medicine—themes I explore at length in my book manuscript on the topic, currently under revision.

Tentatively titled “Opium Slavery: Veterans and Addiction in the American Civil War Era,” my book manuscript is the first full-length study of Civil War America’s opioid addiction crisis. It uncovers the vast scale of the veterans’ addiction epidemic, as well as the deeply traumatic lived experience and negative outcomes of opiate addiction for Civil War veterans and their families. I also investigate the radical and surprising responses from the American healthcare sector and the state to the veterans’ addiction crisis. Ultimately, the manuscript illuminates America’s long, but often forgotten, history of opioid crises. The project also uncovers previously unknown facets of Civil War veterans’ postwar lives, significantly enhancing historians’ understanding of the gender and health crises stemming from the Civil War.

Mass digitization looms large in my research. Over the last decade, scholarly collectives like the Medical Heritage Library and genealogy companies like Fold3 and Family Search have digitized a huge array of printed and manuscript sources from nineteenth-century America. Thousands of obscure nineteenth-century American medical journals and pamphlets, plus reel-upon-reel of Civil War-era military records are now more accessible than ever to scholars. The result of these mass digitization efforts has been a boon for Civil War historians and historians of medicine.

In fact, without mass digitization, it would be impossible to probe beyond the surface of opiate addiction in Civil War America. Among historians of the Civil War, it is no secret that some veterans became addicted to opiates. Contentious journal articles by David Courtwright and Mark A. Quinones published during the 1970s and ‘80s fiercely debated whether or not the medical circumstances of the Civil War were conducive to opiate addiction. Courtwright settled this heated debate by convincingly demonstrating how the Civil War’s medical practices—like heavy dosing with oral opiates for diarrhea and morphine injections for amputations—could, and did, generate sporadic cases of addiction among veterans who survived the war. But beyond causation, scholars interested in learning more about the phenomenon could go no further—namely because historians could not identify more than a handful of cases.

Only a few case reports describing opiate-addicted Civil War veterans ever appeared in prominent medical journals of the day—the kind of sources readily available to medical historians before now. This is because Civil War veterans tended to mask their addictions whenever possible, fearing the what would happen to their reputations and pensions if their addictions became publicly known. Similarly, Civil War veterans’ letters and diaries, which are ubiquitous in American archives, rarely speak openly about addiction. This secrecy means that when relying on traditional, analog sources, it is impossible to fully interrogate the phenomenon’s social history or uncover its long-term ripple effects on American medicine. Because previous studies relied on analog sources, historians’ view of Civil War America’s opiate addiction crisis has been stuck in a kind of limbo since the 1970s.

As I argue in my book manuscript, until now, the era of mass digitization, we have been unable to recognize the see the bigger picture. But mass digitization has provided a flood of new evidence about opiate addiction in the Civil War era, illuminating the huge scale of addiction among veterans, the severe trauma it entailed, and the visceral reactions that veterans’ addiction generated from American medical and government authorities. Mass digitization has been a true game changer for Civil War historians and historians of American medicine.

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