Graduate Student Interviews - Jonathan Jones and "Opium Slavery"

John Legg Discussion

Hello H-CivWar subscribers,

We’re back with another installment of the Graduate Student Interview series. This week we welcome Dr. Jonathan Jones, a recent graduate of Binghamton University’s Ph.D. program. He is the inaugural Postdoctoral Scholar in Civil War History at Penn State’s George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center in 2020-21, where he is currently preparing his first book manuscript for publication, derived from his dissertation on opiate addiction in the Civil War era. After Penn State, Jonathan will be joining the Department of History at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) as an Assistant Professor starting in August 2021. You can contact him at, on Twitter at @_jonathansjones, or at

This week’s interview comes not only from Dr. Jones’s dissertation work, but his recent article in The Journal of the Civil War Era, “Opium Slavery: Civil War Veterans and Opiate Addiction,” published in June 2020.

I enjoyed reading through your article! I wonder, how did you get interested in this topic?


Thanks! Throughout my (admittedly short) career as a scholar, I’ve always gravitated toward Civil War veterans. What happened to the ordinary people who fought the Civil War after the war ended? Congratulations, you’ve just survived a horrific war—now what? Those have pretty much been the animating questions for most of my research. This particular aspect of veterans’ postwar lives—addiction to opiates, like morphine—came into the picture when I was researching and writing my M.A. thesis at Texas Christian University (TCU) in 2013. That project was on PTSD among Union veterans living at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (NHDVS). In reading through the NHDVS’s medical records, I kept discovering the cases of old soldiers who were addicted to morphine and opium during the 1870s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. At the time, drug addiction wasn’t my primary focus, so I filed the cases away in my mental curiosity cabinet. When I came to Binghamton University to do my PhD starting in 2015, opiate addiction among Civil War veterans seemed like a natural choice for a dissertation topic, considering the current state of Civil War veterans’ studies. At that point, in 2015, I was, naively, largely unaware of the U.S.’s ongoing opioid crisis, which hadn’t yet really filtered into my personal news bubble. But as I started researching this project in earnest, around 2016-17, the dire news of today’s opioid addiction epidemic added a sense of urgency to the project for me. 


When did you first start finding primary source material related to the lived experience of addiction for Civil War soldiers/veterans? 


Not for a while! Opiate addiction was taboo in 19th-century America, and addicted veterans’ risked serious repercussions, which I discuss in the article. So, they didn’t usually write openly about addiction in the usual sources, like letters and diaries. So the first step of this project for me was to basically document as many cases as I could find in NHDVS annual reports. These sources recorded the number of veterans suffering from the “morphine habit” that any given NHDVS hospital treated, but little else. I wasn’t finding anything on what it was like to be addicted, how veterans and doctors thought about addiction, or the outcomes of addiction for veterans. So from there, I started looking at nineteenth-century medical periodicals and pamphlets, many of which have been very recently digitized by the Medical Heritage Library—that’s when I started finding the good stuff! Subsequently, I turned to the medical records of Civil War era mental asylums. There are rare and access is often restricted, which I discuss in the dissertation. So it took a while to get at these sources. But once I got access, they were a goldmine concerning the difficult lives of addicted vets, many of whom ended up institutionalized.


Could you briefly speak on the connection between manhood and opiate addiction? Also, the connection between addiction and slavery? 


Absolutely. Opiate addiction was, at its core, a gendered phenomenon. Most Americans who were addicted to opiates in the antebellum decades had been women. Consequently, the condition of opiate addiction took on characteristics ascribed to women by the gender constructs of the era, namely dependency. So, when male Civil War veterans became addicted to opiates in large numbers from the 1860s onward, their addictions basically branded them as effeminate. As American’s understanding of addiction evolved in the wake of the war, additional layers of this gendering got added on. For example, most addicted veterans became impotent, a common consequence of long-term opiate abuse. So, addiction literally and figuratively emasculated men. Also, men were supposed to basically grit their teeth and endure pain stoically, according to the era’s conventions of masculinity. So when addicted veterans compulsively took painkillers like morphine, it meant that they defied ideals of manhood. And, last but not least, addicted men became severely emaciated after years and years of opiate abuse. Some of the men in my sample lost 1/3 of their body weight. They looked skeletal—which is literally how people often described opiate addicted men. In the Gilded Age, when being buff became a hallmark of manly men, being extremely thin and frail-looking meant that addicted men defied the idealized male body.


While, I argue, gender was the predominant frame of reference for the Civil War generation's understanding of opiate addiction, the phenomenon also had racialized elements as well. The condition was widely associated with Chinese opium smokers. Because of the association between the racial “other” and opiate abuse, addiction complicated, and even challenged, the whiteness of addicted Civil War veterans. I talk about this more in the book manuscript than in the article. But the phrase “opium slavery,” the article’s title, had obvious racial connotations for the Civil War generation. To call a white male veteran, especially an ex-Confederate veteran, a “slave” to opium was to directly challenge his whiteness and his manhood, according to the prevailing race and gender constructs of the Civil War era.

Your article raises the historiographical point that scholars have recently started focusing on disability and veterans. How does your work on addiction fit into these conversations, and is addiction a form of disability after the war?

Opiate addiction is an interesting case of war-related disability, in that it tells us so much about the experience of disability for Civil War veterans. First of all, addiction is one of the most commonly referenced Civil War-related disabilities, second to amputation, basically. Scholars have been referencing Civil War veterans’ opiate addictions for a century, but these references have almost always been surface-level. Mentioning in passing that some vets became morphine addicts is pretty much standard fare in Civil War histories. Sometime historians refer to it as the “army disease” or “soldiers’ disease,” although no one in the Civil War generation called it that, I argue. But before now, scholars haven’t really penetrated beyond the rudimentary observation that addiction happened. 


But there’s so much more to unpack here! This is where my article, and the broader book project, fits into the scholarly conversation about Civil War veterans and disability. I think one of the most important lessons we can learn from the phenomenon of opiate addiction is that manhood and health were inextricably intertwined for veterans. Take impotence, for example. If you were a veteran left impotent after years of morphine abuse, according to prevailing constructions of masculinity, you were less of a man than someone who was sexually able. Sarah Handley-Cousins makes a similar argument in her work on Joshua Laurence Chamberlain. In the article, I’m highlighting an understanding of health and disability as gendered. In other words, we can’t separate health/disability and gender. 


The other big point that I make in the article (and the book, in progress) is that Civil War veterans suffered, a lot. Suffering was emblematic of the veteranhood. Many veterans, like the opiate-addicted men whose lives I sketch in the article, never overcame their suffering. They got addicted to opiates usually as young men, during the war or soon after leaving the army, and they mostly stayed addicted for the rest of their lives, even well into the twentieth century. They lived with addiction and all of its cultural baggage every day. So for them, military service caused unyielding suffering in the form of addiction and its many negative consequences, like lost pensions, degraded manhood, and even death by overdose.


What was the experience writing this article for the Journal of the Civil War Era as a Ph.D candidate or someone just finishing their Ph.D. Do you have any advice for those interested in working on a similar project?


This was my first stab at a journal article, and it was such an invaluable experience for me when I was writing my dissertation. I started working on this piece for JCWE in 2018, right after the SCWH meeting in June. At that point, I had started researching my dissertation, but not actually writing it. I worked on this article for about a year, and it went through numerous drafts before it was accepted in current form. I can honestly say that responding to the revisions suggested by Judy Giesberg, JCWE’s editor at that time, the anonymous peer-reviewers, and other scholars like my advisor Diane Miller Sommerville radically altered my dissertation, for the better. The article, in a way, served as a rough draft of my dissertation. The revise-and-resubmit process forced me to pause, hit the archives for new sources, and reconsider sources I had already encountered. Revising the article also caused me to consider new angles in my dissertation, like gender and race. So I think doing this article before writing my dissertation ultimately made the dissertation, which I just defended in June 2020, much better than if I hadn’t previously worked on the article. So, my advice to grad students embarking on the dissertation is: pick a piece of your work and spin it into an article!


I’ll also add that the academic job market of today (at least in our field) demands peer-reviewed publications from PhD candidates. Several scholars kindly shared this info with me early on in grad school. Publishing pieces of your scholarship before applying to a job gives PhD candidates something tangible to show search committees, and I think that’s another really understated, but tremendously important, benefit of publishing an article as a grad student. 


Thanks, Jonathan. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you! Best of luck at Penn State and, eventually, at Virginia Military Institute.

Thanks for having me! It was a pleasure chatting with you. 

We’ll be back in two weeks with another installment of the Graduate Student Interviews. If you’re interested, or know a graduate student who may be interested, contact me to start a conversation (