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.

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