Liquor has a special place in the diaries and journals of the Civil War. Doctors in the field medicated the wounded with alcohol. Nurses and doctors in hospitals used liquor to quiet and sedate patients. Liquor accompanied many celebrations and festivities. Even chaplains occasionally dispensed alcohol in their ministries.
Occasionally liquor played an ugly role, contributing to criminal violence or just plain dereliction of duty. Mostly, the use of alcohol in the Civil War seems neither good nor evil, happy nor sad. It was just part of the American scene in that era and needs to be understood in that light.
Lacking proper medicines, the surgeons of the Civil War relied on what was available. Often this meant deadening pain or fighting disease with alcohol.
“Our most valued medicament was the alcoholic liquors, which were furnished to us sometimes in the form of whiskey and at other times of apple brandy,” wrote Confederate physician William Henry Taylor. “These preparations were esteemed by the surgical staff very generally as a specific for malaria especially — a condition which was very prevalent.”
Alcohol, consequently, became an essential commodity. Dr. Taylor, who served in Richmond’s hospitals and in the field, remembered, “As alcoholic liquors were indispensable on a battlefield, it is conceivable that the sudden and complete vanishing to which they were liable might at some time prove to be a very serious matter. And so it would have been but that one of our staff, being in tolerably constant communication with his own home, where there was a distillery, was able to keep on hand a full keg of his own, from which he would generously supply the rest of us when an exigency required it.”
Reflecting upon those seeking temperance, and noting their arguments, Taylor wrote, “These may be formidable objections to the use of alcohol, but the military surgeon of my day would have thought that they were offset by the fact, demonstrated by innumerable instances, that it promptly rallies the deep sunk spirits of the wounded soldier, and snatches him from the jaws of imminent death.”
Another medical professional who had a lot to say about liquor was Phoebe Yates Pember, matron of Chimborazo Hospital No. 2 outside Richmond. Pember noted that “the monthly barrel of whiskey which I was entitled to draw still remained at the dispensary under the guardianship of the apothecary and his clerks, and quarts and pints were issued through any order coming from surgeons or their substitutes, so that the contents were apt to be gone long before I was entitled to draw more, and my sick would suffer for want of the stimulant.”
In short, Pember caught the dishonorable and weak among the hospital staff making off with much of the medicinal alcohol. Sometimes, when confronted, they claimed the rats had overturned bottles and barrels. But Pember knew that many on her staff stole and consumed the precious liquids. She ultimately took control of the hospital’s liquor supplies in an effort to get more of it where it belonged: to the patients.
Liquor played a key role in Civil War celebrations such as the Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve. Even simple times of rest and recreation were often accompanied by alcohol. After a famous Confederate army snowball fight of March 22, 1864, Gen. Patrick Cleburne authorized a ration of whiskey for all the troops, who huddled around huge bonfires singing and yelling “at the top of their lungs.”
Army of the Potomac Provost Marshal Gen. Marsena Patrick, a teetotaling Presbyterian, took a stern approach to any amusement, especially involving alcohol. On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1863, Patrick wrote: “In accordance with a Special request from [Gen. Joseph] Hooker, I agreed to go over & witness some of the festivities at the Head Quarters of Meagher’s Irish Brigade. We brought up in the midst of a grand steeple chase, from which the crowd soon adjourned to drink punch at Meagher’s Head Quarters — Everybody got tight & I found it was no place for me — so I came home.”
Patrick had fallen into the devil’s playground. Hooker’s headquarters was widely known for free-flowing liquor and freewheeling women. Some believe the nickname of “hooker” for prostitutes dates to Gen. Hooker’s time.
The Irish Brigade’s Gen. Thomas F. Meagher, some said, fell from his horse while intoxicated at Antietam. The charge was never proved. But after Meagher resigned from the Army, he came back for a visit and Marsena Patrick witnessed him drunk “for days.” Patrick said he observed the former general drunk and wallowing in his own filth. After the war, Meagher fell off a boat and drowned. Again, rumors of drunkenness arose but were never substantiated.
Marsena Patrick investigated his boss’ own servant for misuse of alcohol. “There has been a court martial over at headquarters today to try [Gen. George G.] Meade’s Steward, E.A. Paul, for Selling Whiskey to Soldiers.” Later, Patrick enforced a “no alcohol” order by the notoriously nonteetotaling Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant is perhaps the highest-ranking officer associated with alcohol abuse, but there is little to substantiate any event where Grant’s use of alcohol obviously clouded his mind or impaired his ability to lead.
Despite many charges to the contrary, it seems that Grant knew when and about how much to drink. Lincoln famously wisecracked that he should send Grant a store of his favorite brand, in reward for his successes on the battlefield.
Among immigrants, the overindulgence in alcohol by others became a fuel for prejudice and hatred. One Irish Missourian wrote, “The infidel, Sabbath-breaking, beer-drinking Dutch [Germans] were of the same breed as those who harried Ireland.” Of course, the Irishmen’s use of intoxicating spirits is well known.
Chaplains were sometimes known to carry liquor. At Pea Ridge, Confederate chaplain John Bannon of Missouri was seen tending to the wounded as bullets flew all around, “armed only with the viaticum [Eucharist], the tourniquet and with a bottle of whiskey.” Bannon was ready to offer a wounded man prayer, extreme unction [the last rites] or stronger liquid solace, as the need arose.
At one point, Bannon offered a drink to an exhausted Gen. Sterling Price himself, saying, “Take a drop, ‘twill do you good, and then you can get a nap!” Gen. Dabney Maury of Price’s command recalls, “The good Father never drank a drop himself, but he was indefatigable in his care for the wounded and wearied people and always carried into battle a quart of good whiskey.”
Chaplain James Sheeran of the 14th Louisiana observed his men running amok after pillaging a Yankee train that included all kinds of supplies, including liquor. “I saw the whole army become what appeared to me an ungovernable mob, drunk, some … with liquor but others with excitement.” Similar scenes can be found in both Union and Confederate diaries and reports.
Liquor occasionally altered the course of military operations.
On May 24, 1862, at Middletown, Va., Confederate cavalry Gen. Turner Ashby’s men fell upon the Union supply trains of Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks. The wagons contained whiskey and other liquor, and some of Ashby’s men went on a bacchanalian cavort. An officer attempted to “persuade them to abandon this disgraceful employment and return to their duty.” Gen. Stonewall Jackson accused the troopers of “abandon[ing] themselves to pillage.”
A year later, Jackson, a teetotaler, still blamed Ashby for letting the bulk of the Union force escape while his cavalry wallowed in whiskey and frolic. Jackson noted in his official report: “Had the cavalry played its part in this pursuit … but a small portion of Banks’s army would have made its escape to the Potomac.”
Several trial records of violent crimes such as rape suggest that liquor may have played a role. But consumption of alcohol was a fact of life in the Civil War.
Gen. Robert E. Lee summed up what many enlightened abstainers in the Civil War era believed: “My experience through life has convinced me that, while moderation and temperance in all things are commendable and beneficial, abstinence from spirituous liquors is the best safeguard of morals and health.”
John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to this page.