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America’s first opioid crisis grew out of the carnage of the Civil War

Tens of thousands of sick and injured soldiers became addicted, new research says.

Photographs document Civil War veterans' wounds. Clockwise from top left: John Brink of Company K, 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry; Sgt. Warden; Allison Shutter, Company C, 7th Pennsylvania Reserves; Samuel H. Decker, Company I, 9th U.S. Artillery. (Library of Congress)
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When Frances Goolrick returned to her home on Capitol Hill in Washington after an outing in February 1896, she found her husband, John, in a drugged stupor.

John T. Goolrick, 52, was a prominent lawyer and public figure from Fredericksburg, Va., where he was a judge. He had a brother who was a doctor. He and Frances had been married for 23 years. They had four children.

But during the Civil War, John, then 21, had served in a Confederate artillery outfit and was wounded in the left thigh outside Richmond in 1864. Since then he had become addicted to opioids. And his wife was now about to leave him.

Goolrick was among tens of thousands of Civil War veterans who became addicted to drugs in what historian Jonathan S. Jones calls America’s first opioid epidemic.

As the nation struggles with the current epidemic, which, the latest statistics show, killed more than 100,000 people in a recent 12-month period, Jones has unearthed intimate details of the country’s first such crisis.

“The Civil War caused this massive epidemic of opioid addiction among … veterans,” said Jones, an assistant professor of history at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.

“In a lot of ways this is the first … example … in U.S. history of … the problem of opioid addiction becoming really epidemic in the true sense of the word,” he said in a recent interview.

It was epidemic “both in scale, just the sheer number of people who got addicted, and also the fact that after the Civil War it becomes … front page news,” he said. “It becomes a really major public health, and also kind of a cultural, crisis in the post-Civil War decades.”

One estimate suggests that by 1890, several hundred thousand Americans, many of them, probably, Civil War veterans, were addicted, according to Jones’s research. “It’s the first example of these kind of recurring opioid crises that we have,” he said.

His book, “Opium Slavery: The Civil War Veterans and America’s First Opioid Crisis,” is due out in 2023, according to the University of North Carolina Press.

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The 1861-1865 war claimed over 700,000 lives, and maimed and sickened tens of thousands of people.

Soldiers and sailors suffered terrible wounds, and many underwent amputation at the hands of surgeons who had few other remedies.

Doctors had been aware of the danger of opioid addiction well before the Civil War, Jones said.

“They knew about drug tolerance, that if you take opioids over time, the longer that you take them, the more that you need,” he said. “They knew that it was a problem that eventually led to overdose.”

“But it was never … front page news … until the Civil War caused the number of cases to just go through the roof,” he said.

Opium was also a valuable pharmaceutical. “It does so many different things,” Jones said. It was used to kill pain, stop deadly diarrhea and suppress coughs. “Opium was like a godsend,” he said.

And it was the crucial drug as the war broke out.

The weapons of the Civil War produced ghastly wounds. Bullets were large and made of soft lead. “They tended to not just go through and through, so they wouldn’t leave clean wounds” he said.

Sometimes they would lodge in a bone. Sometimes they would fragment or ricochet off a bone into another part of the body.

Bones of Civil War dead found on a battlefield tell their horror stories.

In addition, fevers and diarrhea were rampant. Soldiers’ camps were dirty and unsanitary. Drinking water could be contaminated with parasites. And the idea of bacterial infection was still a mystery. Many men died or were incapacitated by illness.

At first, opioids were dispensed in powder or pill form. One doctor reported that he would pour some powder in his hand and have the needy soldier lick it. But the advent of an opium derivative, morphine, and the use of the hypodermic syringe gave doctors a faster way to administer a more potent drug, Jones said.

After the war, the sick and wounded found that opioids were easily available in hometown stores, and they continued using what had helped them during the conflict. There was no government regulation until the early 1900s, he said.

Addicts felt helpless. Some became covered with sores where they injected themselves with dirty needles.

“Opium … bound me up with cords that God only knows how often I tried to break, and as many times failed,” Albert W. Henley, a physician in the Confederate army, claimed in 1879.

He had served in a Mississippi regiment and was taken prisoner when the besieged town of Vicksburg, Miss., surrendered to Union forces in 1863. He had earlier contracted typhoid fever and had chronic diarrhea.

On the advice of other doctors, he said, he began to take opium for his ailments and, to his dismay, soon became addicted.

“I consulted learned physicians North and South, tried every expedient I could hear of” to kick the habit, he wrote. “Only to be mocked by my failures.”

“I at length gave up all hopes of emancipating myself [and] gloom and despair haunted my very soul,” he wrote. He said he remained an addict for 15 years.

“Throngs of good, great and useful [people are] under the enchained spell of this monster,” he wrote, in a testimonial about a “cure” he believed had helped him.

J.M. Richards, a Union doctor from Illinois, told a similar story in 1881. He said he began taking opium in 1867 for diarrhea he’d had since the end of the war.

He became alarmed when he realized he was addicted. He tried various “cures.” None worked. Some made him worse.

“I grew wholly unfitted for business,” he wrote in a testimonial that Jones found. “Much of my practice [slipped] out of my hands because I was too sluggish and too procrastinating to attend to calls.”

He spent all of his money on morphine or cures.

“Poverty stared me in the face,” he wrote. He blamed himself. “My life was a failure, and the gloom and despair I felt were constant and unrelieved.” He tried to kill himself twice.

He believed he was saved by the last cure he tried, although its creator, Dr. Leslie E. Keeley, was later suspect. The cure involved taking a potion supposedly made from gold and sodium. He called it “double chloride of gold,” though its actual ingredients were never clear.

In Judge Goolrick’s case, by 1896, his wife was in despair. Behind his image as an upstanding citizen, “in reality he was addicted to morphine for decades,” Jones said.

Now he was drugged again. And Frances planned to leave.

Momentarily, John “will have gotten over the effects of whatever it is that he took and will then beg and implore me not to do this,” she wrote her brother that day. “But I must, I must. I can bear neither for myself or the children, this life any longer.”

“I can see nothing else to do … If only he could break off this horrible habit,” she wrote. “Yet it is terrible to me to leave Mr. Goolrick to meet the consequences of his weakness and folly alone.”

Three days later, her brother wrote her that he was “sorry and disheartened....[but] I am not at all surprised, for I have never had the slightest idea that he would stop until he finally killed himself.”

Frances arranged for Goolrick to be sent to his brother, the doctor, who would care for him on a farm near Fredericksburg, Jones said.

“They literally locked him in a room for weeks and forced him to detox, cold turkey,” he said. His suffering was intense. “Outside his door, they had to station a guard to keep him from sneaking out.”

There was talk of committing him to a mental institution. “He barely survived,” Jones said.

But he did. And eventually the couple reunited. But there were hints that he may have relapsed later, Jones said.

When Goolrick died in 1925 at age 82, he was hailed for his long service as a judge, his literary talents and his devotion to the memory of the Confederacy.

“He reared a family … [and] shouldered without hesitation, as a good citizen does, all the responsibilities that came his way,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote.

There was no mention of his struggle with addiction, although the paper did note that his path “was not strewn with roses.”

“Throughout his life [he] cherished the memories of other days,” the newspaper wrote.

This story has been updated.

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