Thursday, March 27, 2014

Illnesses and Opiates


People remember the Civil War for its tragically high casualty rates—about 970,000 in all, or 3 percent of the population. But among soldiers, disease actually killed far more than battlefield wounds.

Many soldiers fell sick in military camps. Constant exhaustion, lack of adequate clothing, exposure to severe weather and a diet of poorly cooked food made soldiers susceptible to a host of infectious diseases. Worst of all, drinking water contaminated by open latrines caused outbreaks of typhoid fever, which caused the most fatalities.

The most common problems, though, were diarrhea and dysentery. “No matter what else a patient had,” wrote one doctor, “he had diarrhea.”

Civil War–era doctors had few effective ways to cure illness. But they knew that morphine and other opiates (drugs derived from opium) could temporarily relieve the symptoms of a wide variety of ailments. So they readily prescribed them in liberal doses. Opium, which has constipating effects, was used for diarrhea and dysentery. Doctors also prescribed it to relieve violent convulsions from malaria. Because of its effectiveness as a painkiller, opium was commonly rubbed into or sprinkled on severe wounds.

Opiates are highly addictive. As a result of their treatment, a number of Union and Confederate soldiers acquired lasting drug habits. For example, William Anderson Roberts, a private in the 14th Regiment North Carolina Troops, spent a great deal of time in military hospitals. In 1862, he wrote this to his family from Moore Hospital:

“Of all the lonesome places on earth it is a evening in a Hospital. There is a deep gloomy melancholy settling down on my mind. I have taken an Opium pill to counteract the influence of depression of spirits. Opium, that sweet restorer of man as he was before the fall. The King of all medicines. The great restorer of ease and peace to both mind and body. Thanks to the great giver of all good things for that great gift.”

Roberts survived the war and returned home at its end. But he fought his addiction to opium until his death in 1900.


Post a Comment


Facebook Twitter Delicious Stumbleupon Favorites