Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won't be in the History Books
Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books

Khalid Elhassan - February 8, 2021

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
Elixir of opium was very popular among Civil War veterans. The Progress-Index

4. The Drug Epidemic at the End of the Civil War

When people think of American wars and drugs, what usually comes to mind is the heroin addiction epidemic that swept the US armed forces in the later of years of the Vietnam War. A century earlier, another epidemic of drug addiction had swept through the veterans of America’s armed forces during and after the US Civil War. It was an epidemic of addiction to morphine, a common pain management medication that had been doled out liberally – at least among Union forces – to alleviate the suffering of the wounded.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
A nurse taking care of wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Los Angeles Civil War Round Table

It is perhaps unsurprising that the Civil War might have produced America’s biggest veterans drug addiction epidemic. That war was the country’s bloodiest, with casualties exceeding the total casualties of all other US wars, combined. About 10 percent of all Northern males, and about 30 percent of all Southern white males, are thought to have perished in the conflict. Modern estimates put the war’s fatalities at between 785,000 to 1 million deaths, the latter figure representing 3.2% of total US population at the time. If extrapolated to America’s 2021 population estimates, it would be the equivalent of about 10,500,000 deaths.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
A Civil War hospital ward. Pintrest

3. Advances in Pain Management Set the Stage for an Epidemic of Addiction

America’s Civil War was one of the first major “modern” wars. It was a conflict in which rapid advances in weapons and their lethality outpaced advances in battlefield tactics. As such, there was an imbalance between ever deadlier weapons on the one hand, and outdated tactics that had not yet caught up with new battlefield realities. The result was high casualties and horrific injuries that confronted the armies’ physicians with unprecedented challenges. The standard of medical care was abysmally low by modern standards, and had not advanced much beyond that of the Napoleonic era, half a century earlier.

One exception to the era’s generally low standards of medical care was the field of pain management. Civil War physicians might not have known about antiseptic practices to prevent infections. However, thanks to the recent invention of the hypodermic needle, coupled with the discovery of morphine decades earlier, they could at least do something to ease the pain of wounded soldiers. When hypodermic needles and morphine were not available, opium pills were in plentiful supply – at least in Union hospitals.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
Nineteenth century opium. British Library

2. Hundreds of Thousands of Civil War Veterans Became Addicted to Morphine

Civil War soldiers – the ones in blue, at least – were often dosed with massive amounts of morphine or opium to deaden the pain of amputations, other surgeries, and various ailments. Many wartime accounts highlight that liberality in dispensing drugs. For example, one Union doctor diagnosed wounded soldiers from horseback, and if any needed morphine, he would pour a dose on his hand, and have the soldier lick it. On the Confederate side, one Rebel doctor was known for giving patients plugs of opium, depending on whether or not they were constipated.

The potential for addiction was known, but the risk was deemed acceptable: it was considered a lesser evil that could be dealt with later. “Later” came when the soldiers were discharged from the hospitals. It is estimated that over 400,000 Civil War became morphine addicts because of their wartime experiences. If that figure is prorated to America’s 2021 population, it would be the equivalent of an American war whose aftermath left about 4,200,000 veterans with a drug addiction. The term “Soldiers Disease” was coined to describe that addiction. Many addicts were readily identifiable by a small bag dangling from a leather thong around their neck, containing morphine tablets and a hypodermic needle.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
Jesse James got his start on a career of violence during the Civil War. National Geographic

1. PTSD-Suffering Civil War Veterans Helped Make the Wild West so Wild

For a while in the 1980s and 1990s, the trope of the PTSD-suffering Vietnam War veteran was so common in movies and TV that it became a clich̩. Like all wars, the US Civil War must have produced its fair share of traumatized veterans. However, that was in the days before PTSD Рor psychology for that matter Рwere well understood. As a result, Civil War veterans dealing with psychological trauma were usually on their own, left to deal with their issues as best they could Рor not. The results could be seen after the war, when America relentlessly pushed its frontier westward in pursuit of Manifest Destiny.

Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books
Cowboys in Arizona in the 1880s. Arizona State University

Unsettled frontiers attract a disproportionate number of single young men, eager for adventure and new horizons. They are often rowdy, rambunctious, restless, and absent the social restraints typically imposed by families and neighbors in more established communities, frequently lawless. Many of them were Civil War veterans, still young in years although aged beyond measure by what they had witnessed and experienced. PTSD amongst their numbers accounts for at least some of what made the Wild West so wild and crazy. Indeed, some of the wilder and most famous of the West’s outlaws, such as Jesse James and his brother Frank, were molded in their early years by their wartime experience as combatants.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Battlefield Trust – Battle of Chancellorsville Facts & Summary

American Battlefield Trust – The Death of John Sedgwick

Catton, Bruce – Bruce Catton’s Civil War: Three Volumes in One (1984)

College of St. Scholastica – Ulysses S. Grant Information Center: Up Close and Personal

Downtown West Chester – WC History: The Youngest Soldier to Die in Battle

Find a Grave – Charles Edwin “Charlie” King (1849 – 1862)

Foote, Shelby – The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 2, Fredericksburg to Meridian (1963)

Keesee, Dennis M. – Too Young to Die: Boy Soldiers of the Civil War (2001)

Loring, William Wing – A Confederate Soldier in Egypt (1884)

Military History Now – Confederates on the Nile: Meet the Civil War Vets Who Volunteered to Fight For the Egyptian Army

National Museum of the United States Navy – Powder Monkeys and the American Civil War

Providentia – Soldier’s Disease

Sears, Stephen W. – To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (1992)

Smithsonian Magazine, April 7th, 2010 – The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln’s Missing Bodyguard

United States Navy Memorial – Aspinwall Fuller

Warfare History Network – Grierson’s Raid: Wrecking the Railroad With the Butternut Guerrillas

Wikipedia – Child Soldiers in the American Civil War

Wikipedia – Ethiopian-Egyptian War