When the Civil War is mentioned, a number of names, places, and events come to mind. President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the Underground Railroad, Sherman's March to the Sea...the list goes on and on. The history of the Civil War is taught in every school, but parts of it are left out.
I was raised near John Brown's homestead in Kansas. The history of Bleeding Kansas and the Civil War was brought to life in my hometown. As a result, a fascination for history took root, and I began to search for more than just what was taught in our history books. My search led me down a path that combined my professional life with the history I had been surrounded by growing up - the history of cannabis during the Civil War.
During the 1800s, cannabis was known as hashish. While industrial hemp had grown across the US for fiber since before the Revolutionary War, the medical usage of cannabis was still fairly new. According to an article published by the US National Library of Medicine, "cannabis was widely utilized as a patent medicine during the 19th and early 20th centuries, described in the United States Pharmacopoeia for the first time in 1850."
In an informative post by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, they display a picture of a Tilden's Extract Vial, a cannabis extract used during the Civil War period. The description above the picture explains, "In our collection is this bottle of Tilden's Extract. It was the preferred recreational drug of choice for Fitz Hugh Ludlow. He confessed in his autobiographical 1857 work "The Hasheesh Eater" that "the whole atmosphere seemed ductile, and spun endlessly out into great spaces surrounding me on every side," but warned that its use "leads at last into poisonous wildernesses."
As previously discussed, cannabis was often compared to opium, which ultimately led to its ban in England. However, during the Civil War, when medical supplies became scarce, medical professionals often turned to whatever was at hand.
According to OSU's Department of History, a Union soldier had a 1 in 56 chance of dying from a combat-inflicted wound, 1 in 13.5 chance of dying from disease, and a 1 in 10 chance of being wounded in action. With such high demand for medical supplies coupled with disrupted supply chains, physicians would often have to improvise.
The US National Library of Medicine estimates that three-quarters of all surgeries performed during the Civil War included amputations. With supply chain limitations, anesthesia would not always be available. To improvise, physicians used everything from cannabis to liquor to ease their patients' suffering.
Cannabis remained a medicinal plant until it was made illegal in 1937. Its role during the Civil War was lost within dusty books and museum shelves for decades to come. However, marijuana legalization has been placing a spotlight on cannabis history, allowing us to see the full picture and gain new insight into our past.