Soldier's Disease and Addicts

The Mythical Roots of U.S. Drug Policy: Soldier's Disease and Addicts in The Civil War
Jerry Mandel

(For Union troops, 62% "disease," 19% "battle," and 12% "Wounds" of 360,000 deaths among Union troops). (Duncan, 1912:397) Union medical records (for medical problems, not deaths) show approximately 1,400,000 acute and 200,000 chronic cases of diarrhea or dysentery, 250,000 wounds, and 300,000 cases, combined, of typhoid, typhus, continued fever, venereal disease, scurvy, delerium tremens, insanity and paralysis. (Brooks, 1966:127) There were 30,000 amputations reported performed by the Union's doctors. (US Surgeon General, 1883) Among Confederate prisoners, 32% of the almost 19,000 who died in captivity in the north succumbed to diarrhea or dysentery. (Brooks, 1966:126) In Andersonville prison from February 1864 to April 1865, of 12,541 recorded Union soldier captives who died, 45% did so from diarrhea or dysentery, and only 7% from wounds, gangrene or "debility." (US Surgeon General, 1879:32) There was obviously a great need for opiates.

Civil War physicians frequently dispensed opiates. The Secretary of War just after 1865 stated the Union Army was issued 10 million opium pills, over 2,840,000 ounces of other opiate preparations (such as laudanum or paregoric which, by weight, were well under half opium), and almost 30,000 ounces of morphine sulfate. (Courtwright, 1978:106-7 and 1982)

The two other references suggest that for a while, in some places, there were some addicted veterans ... reported by those who would notice addicts even if the general public did not recognize them -- i.e. the apothecaries who sold opiates. Terry and Pellens, reviewing an 1 878 study , noted that even physicians did not recognize the extent of addiction:

Druggists were in a much better position to know the truth .... when counter sales were legal, and as a matter of common practice, physicians were called upon only by those opiate users seeking (cure). (Terry and Pellens, 15)

A Massachusetts study of 1871 "consulted" 20-30 druggists and got mailed responses from 125 physicians. 40 of these physicians did not know of a single case of "opium eating," and of 46 who commented on whether "the injurious use of opium has increased of late years," 6 1 % answered it had not and another 13% answered it was diminishing. Only one physician, but at least two druggists, stated that opiate use begun during the late war was an important cause for addiction. (Oliver, 1872) Without denying the significance of this report, these mentions of addicted veterans had no ramifications in the drug literature at the time. It was a state publication with very limited circulation, the few summaries or reviews of the report in the medical literature at the time did not mention the Civil War,25 and save for Terry and Pellens' lengthy excerpt from it in 1928 we might never have known that some pharmacists, at least, recognized that addicted veterans, as a class, were among the ranks of addicts.26

In Chicago in 1880, 50 pharmacists were surveyed about the cause of addiction of their regular opiate using customers. The most mentioned were " rheumatism and neuralgia" (38 each); "some" respondents, (but less than four), believed addiction was caused by sickness and pain and/or the "loss of property and position in society" due to the recent war. (Earle, 1880) (On another government survey, of doctors in Michigan in 1878, the Civil War was not mentioned). (Marshall, 1966)

In toto, these surveys indicate that there was a small, temporary phenomenon of addicted veterans, which was not a social problem in the sense that anyone but a few pharmacists recognized it in the quarter century after the Civil War.