How Civil War Medicine Led to America’s First Opioid Crisis

During the Civil War, military hospitals viewed opioids as essential drugs. Doctors and nurses used opium and morphine to treat soldiers’ pain, stop internal bleeding, and reduce vomiting and diarrhea caused by infectious diseases. However, this led some soldiers to develop an opioid addiction, either during the war or afterwards, when they sought medical treatment for wounds or war illnesses.

For many Civil War veterans, opioid addiction ruined their lives. The addiction of the veterans made them tired and emaciated, and could lead to a fatal overdose. In some cases, opioid addiction could threaten a veteran’s ability to receive a pension. In 1895, a Union veteran named Charles L. Williams said in a request to a soldier’s home that he was “totally incapable of earning a living” because he had “contracted [the] the use of opium during the war.

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