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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.