Sex n’ Drugs n’ Civil War: What great grandpa never bothered to mention about his service in the War of the Rebellion

Early opiate based medicines.  They were an essential part of  the Civil War doctor's

Early opiate based medicines. They were an essential part of the Civil War doctor’s

In recent months a bit of controversy has arisen over one Southern general’s alleged drug use.  A new biography has come out by a distant descendant vehemently denying a “slander” that the said commander was under the influence of either opiates or alcohol during one of the penultimate campaigns of the Late Unpleasantness.  The said biographer avers—and correctly so—that there is no written evidence that the Confederate commander was intoxicated or a “drug addict.”  However, in tracking down the trail of evidence on that issue, I realized the topic raised much broader issues than simply the drug or alcohol use of one soldier.

There were many things going on during the Civil War that participants on both sides rarely talked about in print; but that doesn’t mean those things weren’t going on a daily basis.  Traditionally, historians have relied on the written word; oral tradition, local folklore and similar sources tend to be overlooked or disregarded.  Official reports, dispatches, postwar memoirs and the like are the mainstay of the Civil War historians.  That is all well and good, but there as Walt Whitman observed, “the real war will never get in the books.”  And like any good Victorian, Whitman and others of the Civil War era who did things which they preferred not to talk about, Whitman adds that not only will they not be written about but “perhaps must not and should not be.”

In a previous post, I discussed sex and the single Civil War soldier; a more thorough look at hanky-panky by both sides can also be had by reading The Story the Soldiers Would Not Tell, by Dr. Thomas P. Lowry.  In researching my upcoming bio of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War service, it was obvious that the famous author spent his furlough time in the fleshpots of Nashville doing something other than reading newspapers and going to the opera—although proving such is difficult to do.

So, while the sex part has already been dealt with, the drugs have not.  While specifics can be elusive, as with the good general mentioned at the start of the article, there is an abundance of period information about the use of narcotics during the era in general.  Besides the reluctance of historians to delve into such “off” topics as drug use in the Civil War, there is also a dual cultural barrier to our understanding of what was really going on: in the first instance, the very different social and moral norms of the 1860’s and then our own modern attitudes, which often lead to mistaken assumptions about past behavior.

For the most part, the modern stigma regarding the use of opiates and other drugs which are illicit and illegal today simply wasn’t present during the Civil War.  Opium itself has been known and used ancient times; it was used as a cure for headaches in pharaonic Egypt and by all accounts they had no problem with it being abused or wide scale addiction problems.  In contrast, nineteenth century Imperial China had a massive problem with drug addiction and tried to prohibit the import of opium.  However, the British in India were making a lot of money off of the opium trade and actually fought two wars with China to force them to allow the British to import shiploads of the stuff.  Her Majesty’s government was, in effect, the biggest pusher of all times.

Civil War doll "Nina" which was used to smuggle Morphine to aid the Confederate cause.

Civil War doll “Nina” which was used to smuggle Morphine to aid the Confederate cause.

In the United States opium was known and used, mostly by the upper classes, before the Civil War.  In the South, it was a common ingredient in homemade medicines and used for a wide variety of ailments, including the generic catch-all “female complaints.”  The main users of opium it seems were affluent white women.  There was no stigma attached to its use.  According to one source, the womenfolk of the Jefferson Davis family were prescribed liberal doses of opium by their family physician and became “dangerously addicted” to it.  The most common way people took opium as a medicine was in the form of laudanum, a liquid concoction consisting of about 40% alcohol, opium and water to dilute it.  Laudanum was given to men, women and children freely for pain, diarrhea, coughs and whatever else physicians could think of.  Of course, since it was not regulated at all, people could purchase it on their own or brew up themselves to save money.

The famous Southern diarist, Mary Chestnutt, writing in July of 1861, expressed distain for this commonplace household remedy: “I have no intention of drugging myself now.”  However, later in the war she was given an overdose of a medicine called Dover’s Powder, whose main ingredient was—you guessed it, opium.  It nearly killed her; as it was, she was unconscious for two days.  Of course, the most famous American before the war to use opiates was Edgar Allen Poe, the famed Southern Gothic writer, and how much his morbid stories of the supernatural were inspired by his drug use remains a subject of dispute.

While not nearly as commonplace as opiates, hashish was known and used in America before the war.  However, its use seems to have been limited to certain cultured circles and was not widely used as either a medicine or for recreational use.  The publication of Fitzhugh Ludlow’s book The Hashish Eater in 1857 seems to have inspired a number of affluent young gentlemen to experiment with the exotic drug.  One such young man was John Hay, attending Brown University at the time, “where I used to eat Hashish and dream dreams.”  Hay would later become President Lincoln’s personal secretary and after the war co-author of the President’s semi-official biography.

Speaking of Abraham Lincoln, it should be noted that, while Lincoln was a teetotaler and is not known to have ever imbibed, one of his biographers has suggested that he may have partaken of cocaine.  In his book, The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln, Harry F. Pratt claimed that on Oct. 12, 1860, Lincoln purchased cocaine from the local Springfield pharmacy of Corneau and Diller’s for the princely sum of fifty cents.  This was scarcely a month before the crucial Presidential election that put Lincoln in the White House and the issue of whether or not Honest Abe actually did use cocaine has been a bone of contention among Lincoln scholars for some years.

Did Abraham Lincoln take cocaine?  Some historians say he did.

Did Abraham Lincoln take cocaine? Some historians say he did.

Of course, far and away, the drug of choice before the war, and continuing on up to the present day, was alcohol.  While the consumption of alcohol in its many forms is a longstanding pastime and certainly the drug of choice for twentieth and twentieth century America, the modern American recreational use of this drug pales before the prodigious quantities of John Barleycorn and his cousins that were consumed in early America.  The Temperance Movement, while much derided after the failure of Prohibition in the 1920’s, nonetheless had valid reasons for attacking alcohol besides Victorian prudery.  Of course the dispute over General Grant’s alcohol use, or lack of it, has been going on for 150 years and shows no sigh of abating.

Grant in the field late in the war.  The debate over his alcohol use has been going on for 150 years.

Grant in the field late in the war. The debate over his alcohol use has been going on for 150 years.

During the war, all these drugs and even more toxic substances were regularly used by army surgeons on both sides.  It may be hard for us today to understand how common some of these substances were for treatment of a wide variety of ailments, yet it is an incontrovertible fact.  Dr. Charles Beneulyn Johnson, a regimental surgeon with the Union Army described the typical medicine chest that an army surgeon would carry with him into the field: “During a campaign our stocks of medicines were necessarily limited to standard remedies.  “During a campaign our stocks of medicines were necessarily limited to standard remedies,” he wrote, and included opium, morphine, Dover’s Powder (also containing opium), quinine, rhubarb, Rochelle Salts, Epsom salts, castor oil, sugar of lead, tannin, sulphate of copper, sulphate of zinc, camphor, tincture of iron, tincture of opium, camphorate, syrup of squills, simple syrup, alcohol, whiskey, brandy, port wine, sherry wine, to give the short list.

a homemade first aid kit belonging to Charles E. White of a New Hampshire regiment and containing opiates.

a homemade first aid kit belonging to Charles E. White of a New Hampshire regiment and containing opiates.

The most common treatment for dysentery and diarrhea was morphine, an opium derivative which was invented before the war.  While it could be injected, it was most commonly given out in powder or pill form.  William H. Taylor, a Confederate surgeon with the Army of Northern Virginia, would deal with sick call by dispensing morphine for diarrhea and “blue mass” (whose main ingredient was mercury) for constipation.  A Union physician simplified sick call even more by performing diagnosis from horseback, dispensing morphine powder by pouring it into his hand and letting the patients lick it out of his hand!

I could go on and on with more illustrations of the common use of what are now banned chemicals during the war; in fact it would take a whole book to discuss this topic properly.  But it is important to understand how commonplace the issuing of such drugs was to put the dispute over famous general’s alleged use of opiates or alcohol in proper context.

General John Bell Hood.  On September 30, 1864, when he learned that Schofield's army had escaped in the night, Hood was reported to be "wrathy as a snake."  Was it simply bad luck, or did Hood's  failure to destroy the Yankee army involve something more:?

General John Bell Hood. On September 30, 1864, when he learned that Schofield’s army had escaped in the night, Hood was reported to be “wrathy as a snake.” Was it simply bad luck, or did Hood’s failure to destroy the Yankee army involve something more?

Right now John Bell Hood, the embattled commander of the Army of Tennessee, is the main focus of attention.  As I mentioned above, there is no written evidence that he was under the influence of opiates or alcohol when he allowed the trapped Federals under his old schoolmate, General John Schofield, escape at Springhill, or his ill considered attack at the Battle of Franklin.  However, the suggestion that he did use Laudanum has been floated by historians for many years.  Hood had lost a leg at Gettysburg and shattered an arm at Chickamauga and if he did partake of Laudanum or any other opiate to ease the pain of those severe injuries would not mean he was a “drug addict” or junkie by any means, and it is not slander to suggest so.  His use of such a painkiller, even if it could be proved, would have been perfectly legitimate, and indeed would have, if anything, enabled him to better cope with the terrible pain he most certainly would have been in.

But Hood is by no means the only Confederate commander to whom the suggestion of drug use has been ascribed.  General Braxton Bragg, the contentious previous commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, is also thought to have used opiates.  Some historians have described him as erratic and suffering from a variety of ailments including malaria, dyspepsia and the boils, the standard treatments for which would have included either Laudanum or morphine.  Again, as with Hood, we cannot be sure he did partake; but it would not have been unusual—or immoral–if he had.

Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce,.  Bierce fought in nearly every major battle in the Western Theatre and  witnessed Grant and his staff pass the bottle around at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce,. Bierce fought in nearly every major battle in the Western Theatre and witnessed Grant and his staff pass the bottle around at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

In my researches into Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce’s wartime career, I found that Bierce specifically testified to observing General Grant imbibing while observing the Battle of Missionary Ridge.  Grant, however, was not one to drink alone; his senior commanders “bit the snake” as did Bierce himself, and Bierce argued that neither his nor Grants having a nip as shot and shell whizzed around them in any way affected his ability to command.  While one may question Bierce judgment on the matter, one cannot question his testimony.

There remain many unanswered questions regarding the Civil War and perhaps some may never be fully answered.  Certainly, what your great great grandpa (or grandma) did back then may not sit well with what you or I believe today.  But we should at least grant them the grace to allow that what they did was done according to their own lights and in line with the accepted values of the day.  Perhaps the “better angels of our nature” sang a different song back then than we hear today.

For other esoteric aspects of the American Civil War, see: Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.


About Christopher Coleman

I am an author, lecturer, and sometime instructor. My interests span a variety of subjects, including Southern tales of the supernatural, American history and folklore, military history in general, as well as archaeology, anthropology, plus various and sundry things that go bump in the night. I currently have six books in print: Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Dixie Spirits, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a factual history of some more esoteric--and hitherto overlooked--aspects the sixteenth President. My book is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published in hardcover by the University of Tennessee Press and chronicling the wartime experiences of young Ambrose Bierce, noted American author. Bierce has been called many things by many people, but idealist, hero and patriot are terms that should be added to the list after reading this book. I am currently at work on several projects, some dealing with the American experience but also several fiction and non-fiction works looking into the Age of Arthur.
This entry was posted in Abraham Lincoln, Ambrose Bierce, Battle of Franklin, Battle of Missionary Ridge, Chattanooga, Civil War Historians, Civil War History, Civil War Leaders, Drug and Alcohol Use in the Civil War\, General Braxton Bragg, General John Bell Hood, Lincoln and Cocaine, Morphine, Opium, SEX and the Civil War, The American Civil War, The Army of Cumberland, The Army of Northern Virginia, The Army of Tennessee, Varina Davis and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Sex n’ Drugs n’ Civil War: What great grandpa never bothered to mention about his service in the War of the Rebellion

  1. samhood says:

    Mr Coleman,

    Sam Hood here again.(I commented on Dec. 8 to your John Bell Hood: Eminent Confederate article, which is still awaiting moderation and posting.)

    You call my current book a biography of Hood, and it is not, and you refer to me as the biographer, which I am not. My book is a study and analysis of the historiography literature of John Bell Hood. There is only a short biographical chapter on Hood for the benefit of any reader who might not be familiar with him.

    The controversy that you mention about Hood’s possible drug use is not, as you state, a recent phenomenon, rather, it goes back to the 1990s, and in fact the myth of Hood’s laudanum use was largely disproven by Dr. Stephen Davis in a “Blue and Gray” magazine article in 1998. Dr. Davis established that the first suggestion of Hood using laudanum was a biography of Richard Ewell in 1940.

    There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of Hood using any pain medication; no mention by contemporaries–either friends or rivals–or any documentation.

    One of the main arguments historians use to support the possible use of narcotics by Hood is the liberal prescription of opiates by Civil War-era doctors. This may be true, but not in the case of Hood’s physician Dr. John T. Darby. In Hood’s recently discovered personal papers is Darby’s highly detailed 3,000-word medical report and daily log of Hood’s Chickamauga amputation and recovery. Hood was given “morphia” in small doses, only at night for sleep, and as Hood’s condition improved, he was weaned off of the morphia. In fact Darby noted on the days near the end of Hood’s recovery period (the last entry was November 24, 1863 in Richmond) that Hood was sleeping without morphia. Far from being freely and haphazardly prescribed opiates, Hood was given morphia very judiciously by Darby, who clearly knew of the addictive nature of the drug.

    Not only is there zero evidence that Hood ever used laudanum after his return to duty in the spring of 1864, evidence continues to build to the contrary.

    Sam Hood

    • I, as I think many others have, assumed your new book was a biography of Hood, rather than a work of historiography. I stand corrected on that point. As far as Hood’s alleged drug use, I believe I acknowledged in “Sex n Drugs” that there was no evidence of his use or abuse of opiates, although morphine was widely prescribed by doctors on both sides during the war. You cite Dr. Darby’s medical report as conclusive proof of this, although I think even without it there was never any substantial evidence for it. However, I think I do make the point that even were there some evidence of his use of pain-killers, it would have been a perfectly legitimate use of such substances. I think it is highly unfair to label such wounded warriors as “addicts.” Having suffered a broken heel and fractured vertibra a year and a half ago–although nothing compared to Hood’s wounds–let me assure you that that pain does not subside simply because the wounds heal over. Without any remediation of the pain, plus the strain of a very strenuous campaign, General Hood must have frequently been in a great deal of pain. While that does not necessarily mean it affected his generalship, it cannot have helped his patience any, especially dealing with corps and divisional commanders who had a history of disobedience and insubordination.

      Even without reading your book on Hood and the historians, (it is on my to-do list) or your forthcoming collection of documents, the whole discussion surrounding has caused me to reassess Hood’s generalship and the received opinion about it. In researching Ambrose Bierce’s wartime experiences in the Autumn Campaign of 1864, I had of course read a number of historian’s accounts of the campaign which generally are negative regarding Hood’s generalship and who generally regard the whole campaign as hopeless from the start. I now question both propositions. At Springhill and even at Franklin, had just a few circumstances been slightly different the outcome would have been vastly changed. Bierce knew that and I think so too did Schofield. While historians generally take a dim view of might-have-beens, what if Hood had indeed trapped Schofield’s army at Springhill and forced him to surrender; or if Opdycke hadn’t disobeyed orders and been there to plug the gap in the Union center when the Confederates broke through at Franklin? How would historians have viewed Hood then?

  2. samhood says:

    Thanks for the prompt and courteous reply. You are indeed not alone in considering my book a biography; in fact I have received some negative reviews about it because the reviewers consider it a poor biography. This is a bit frustrating since I didn’t attempt to write a biography. Oh well. I am sure after I publish Hood’s newfound cache of personal papers in May one or more biographers will begin writing a new bio of Hood.

    I agree with what you say about the use of opiates in the Civil War; I can only attest to Dr. Darby’s careful use of them with Hood. Not only was Darby judicious with giving Hood morphia, but interestingly enough, on one day just a few days after Hood’s amputation Darby noted in the log that Hood “refused morpnia.” That would indicate that even Hood himself knew of the risks of opiates, otherwise why would he refuse? And he had had morphia before, as Darby noted in the report of Hood’s Gettysburg wounding that Hood was given the drug once. (Darby’s Gettysburg medical report on Hood is also in the newfound collection.)

    I think you will find my book interesting as to the opinions of Hood’s actions at Spring Hill and Franklin. The first words in my Introduction are “It’s a shame a book like this even has to be written” and then I explain that my book is intended to provide the primary source evidence relating to Hood that does not appear in any of the influential books on Hood; namely Thomas Hay, Stanley Horn, Thomas Connelly, and Wiley Sword’s. Almost everything I provide is in the Official Records or public domain, yet don’t appear in the books of these authors. It is undeniable that Hood had many critics, but I think you will be surprised at all of the people–officers and enlisted men, North and South–who supported Hood’s decisions in his failed battles and campaigns. All my book is intended to do is give Hood’s side of the story (so to speak). In fact I urge my readers new to Hood and his campaigns to NOT just read my book, but also those I criticize, in order to get a complete picture of Hood.

    Thanks again,

    Sam Hood

  3. samhood says:

    PS: You cite Dr. Thomas P. Lowry in your article. I assume you are aware of the legal problems Dr. Lowry encountered a few years at the National Archives? Although some of his work is no doubt accurate and legitimate, you may want to consider whether it behooves you to have him appear among your bibliographic sources. In the initial draft of my book I cited Dr. Lowry twice, but then removed his material after the National Archives incident. Citing Dr. Lowry will be ammo for your critics if you publish a book (you mentioned as much in another article.) And trust me, whatever you write will have critics.

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