Liquor Numbed the Pain, Took the Edge Off Homesickness… and Caused Havoc During the Civil War
Rain fell along Virginia’s Rapidan River in December 1863 as the 5th New York Cavalry set about building its winter quarters at Germanna Ford. The thickly wooded hill of Devil’s Leap offered a good location—so good, in fact, that Confederate soldiers encamped along the other side of the river were also racing to clear the hill’s timber for their own winter quarters.
Rain fell. Cold, wet, and miserable, the Federals built their temporary home among the hills. The taskmaster camp adjutant pushed the men to finish while enlisted men pooled their carpentry skills, motivated to put up shelters as quickly as possible to get themselves out of the weather. But on December 30, the building process hit a snag, of sorts. The adjutant took a break from construction to enjoy “a jollification time with an old crony.”
After what must have been a pleasant evening of drinking, the adjutant decided “to make use of one of the deep-dug sinks”—presumably newly constructed by hard-working soldiers. Unfortunately, the adjutant lost his balance and tumbled into the latrine trench head-first—“spoiling his entire suit of clothes.” The adjutant suffered no long-term ill effects of his tumble, although work on the camp construction ground to a halt the next day (presumably because he was hungover and, perhaps, doing laundry). Most of the cavalrymen found his misfortune to be hilarious.
Although the story remains comical more than a century and a half later, it also contains many of the typical elements of soldier drinking during the Civil War: the soldiers in this story were cold and wet from exposure; they were performing what they called fatigue duty by building winter structures; they were in winter camp; the officer was, seemingly, the first to get drunk; and though the mishap caused by the drinking was fairly minor (in this case) it prevented the completion of tasks.
So while it may seem like a random occurrence that a poor drunken adjutant would inadvertently fall into the latrines on Devil’s Leap, military regulations in place during the war created the culture that led to his drinking and subsequent tumble. Liquor was an integral part of military medicine and military life in both the Union and Confederate armies. And officers and soldiers used various forms of liquor for self-care in order to treat themselves for various ailments, both physical and mental. The result of their drinking was a chaotic environment full of mishaps and uncompleted tasks.
In the 21st century, Americans typically associate alcohol with its numbing characteristics—its painkilling, cough relieving, and seeming alleviation of emotional distress. When the Civil War began, the medical community did not describe alcohol (which they typically called “liquor” or “ardent spirits”) as a depressant at all. In fact, medical manuals regarded liquor as a stimulant.
Confederate surgeon John Julian Chisholm described two ways that liquor stimulated the body: it could reinvigorate a body that had lost a lot of blood and it could “restore nervous energy” when men were suffering from shock. U.S. Surgeon-General William A. Hammond noted that when people became intoxicated, “the nervous and circulatory systems become excited, the mental faculties are more active, the heart beats fuller and more rapidly, the face becomes flushed, and the senses are rendered more acute in their perceptions.” Because of these properties, he believed that too much liquor could be “a violent poison,” but he also urged Union hospitals to keep liquor on hand at all times. So during the war, surgeons were instructed to prescribe liquor when soldiers were sick or wounded to stimulate the body to help it recover. Every use of liquor was designed to give the body a jolt.
A Civil War-era alcohol flask, shaped like an oval so it could easily slip into a pocket. The bottom section slid off to be used as a cup. But if time was short and shells were flying, you could simply take a wee nip right out of the flask.
Both the Union and Confederate armies published guidelines on when to use liquor, which were based on the guidelines of the antebellum United States Army. The most obvious uses involved prescribing liquor in hospitals to treat acutely ill soldiers. The medical departments also used whiskey rations to try to prevent malaria by mixing it with quinine. In the 1860s, physicians still did not know that malaria was a mosquito-borne illness, but the British empire—and the U.S. Army—had figured out that malaria tended to occur in swampy, low-lying areas. They also perceived that quinine (which comes from the bark of a cinchona tree) prevented and treated malaria. But quinine tasted unbearably bitter, so whiskey made drinking quinine possible. Any time that the armies were encamped near water, medical departments doled out whiskey and quinine rations (if those supplies were available).
Beyond the medical department, military regulations stated that whiskey (or other types of liquor) could be used in cases of exposure, which meant that soldiers could receive a spirit ration whenever they were stuck in extreme elements, such as rain, snow, or mud. Liquor rations at the end of a shift on picket duty were therefore especially common, as the goal was to prevent the soldiers from becoming ill after they had been cold or damp.
Finally, whiskey rations were used in cases of extreme fatigue. Officially this meant that soldiers could have whiskey rations any time they were building bridges, digging trenches, burying the dead, or performing other similar tasks. In practice, this regulation was often expanded to include any task that was arduous, such as marching long distances.
The guidelines, on paper, seemed fairly straightforward. The uses of liquor were clearly defined and the amount of the rations were regulated, usually at a gill or a half gill (so about a shot or two, in the modern sense). In practice, however, these guidelines were not actually very specific at all. In large part the confusion came from the fact that supplying rations was left to the discretion of the commanding officer. In some cases, commanding generals set their own rules for spirit rations. For example, after Fredericksburg, General Robert E. Lee forbade Christmas rations. But just across the river, in the camps of the Army of the Potomac, Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker celebrated the holidays by doling out whiskey rations widely. Often, though, the decision about whiskey rations passed down the chain of command, so the implementation of regulations varied a lot by who was in charge. If a colonel or a major was a teetotaler, the soldiers were probably not getting any rations. Other times, the company officers happily ladled out whiskey.
Throughout the conflict, many low-ranking officers (some of whom had been elected by enlisted men) made decisions about what constituted “exposure” and what constituted “fatigue.” When men had to march, for example, some commanding officers thought that a ration of whiskey could stimulate them for the journey. This did not always work. Whiskey rations promoted straggling.
Federal troops line up for a ration of whiskey or rum—a bit of liquid courage—before they continue the hazardous work of entrenching during the 1864 siege of Petersburg, Va.
Perhaps the most infamous instance of whiskey-related trouble occurred during Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Mud March after the Battle of Fredericksburg. The soldiers were demoralized. Union officers decided to try to cheer them up with whiskey rations. Instead, the men became drunk and fought. Sometimes, commanding officers would try to give the ration at the end of the march, which seemingly made more sense. Except that orders could change. For example, in 1863, Confederates had similar troubles (albeit on a smaller scale) while on their way to Pennsylvania. After crossing the Potomac River in Maryland on a rainy, muddy day, Confederate soldiers were told they would have time to eat dinner. They received hearty rations of whiskey to combat the nasty weather, and “about one-third got pretty tight.” Orders came to march again, and the tipsy soldiers “dragged” themselves toward Pennsylvania. “Many slipped down and literally rolled over in the mud for it rained all the time.”
In the most extreme instances, officers concluded that battle constituted extreme fatigue. Obviously, this was not what the military considered fatigue duty. But the officers’ perspective seemed to be that if soldiers needed whiskey to dig a ditch, they definitely needed whiskey to charge a hill. The general understanding was that it calmed the men’s nerves and stimulated the body for the attack. But serving these rations could backfire. At the start of the siege of Petersburg in June 1864, a Union captain gave his men a whiskey ration right before an engagement. The men began “dropping into a little ditch just outside of the line of trees.”
The captain stood, “with tears streaming down his face,” screaming at his men, prodding them, and “begging them to get out and keep in line and not disgrace themselves or him.” Despite this fear that men might stop fighting if drinking during battle, plenty of officers served their men rations if they had been under heavy fire, especially if they were celebrating a victory. When Union Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter heard of the U.S. Army’s successes in Tennessee in early 1862, he gave all the colonels permission to issue celebratory whiskey rations to their men. Porter happily predicted that the U.S. Army would take Richmond within six weeks. These celebratory whiskey rations were, in a way, the biggest stretch of the official regulations. Yet officers passed out the drinks because it raised morale. This, indirectly, combated exhaustion.
this article first appeared in civil war times magazine
It is important to remember, though, that unless a soldier got an official government ration supplied at the request of his commanding officer, enlisted men were not supposed to drink. Only officers could drink. They could keep private stores of liquor, they could buy liquor from camp merchants, and they could get passes to go to town and drink.
Enlisted men in the Civil War could not legally procure their own spirits. They could not buy any spirits from the camp merchant (sutler) nor could they drink in town without risking punishment. But enlisted men drank—ALL THE TIME. They based their own uses of liquor off of the armies’ regulations and employed what other historians have identified as “self-care” to make up for inadequacies in the medical departments. Soldiers foraged liquor on the sly in order to keep themselves healthy.
Many soldiers had grown up in households where liquor was used medicinally, and this formed the basis of their drinking. Much like medical professionals, many young men believed that liquors treated illness. So, when soldiers became sick in the army (which was often) they typically tried to find liquor to treat themselves. This was most common with Confederate soldiers, because Federal soldiers tended to receive medicinal liquor rations more regularly. But Confederate soldiers wrote often of trying to procure whiskey, in large part because the Confederate military did not have a steady supply of liquor on hand due to shortages caused by the blockade and the scarcity of grain.
Confederate soldiers used liquor to treat a variety of ailments. Texan Elijah P. Petty imbibed “about 4 fingers of brandy” and took a bath in a spring to treat a fever brought on by a “severe cold,” a case of piles, and a “very sore and painful” ripped fingernail that was undoubtedly infected. The brandy and bath readied Petty for “the full discharge of my duty and more.” Mississippian Robert A. Moore blamed a rainy march for landing him on the sick list with the measles. He purchased some brandy and ginger and concocted a brandy-infused ginger tea, which “made the measles go a little easier.” Soldiers expanded their own use of spirits well beyond treating infected thumbs and head colds. Enlisted men seemingly interpreted “exposure,” “exhaustion,” and “fatigue” broadly.
Much more often than the official documents, soldiers wrote about mental fatigue, especially when they were in winter encampments. By and large, the fighting stopped in the winter and the soldiers ended up living—for months—in massive tent cities. When soldiers moved into winter quarters they tried to make their shelters as home-like as possible, and one of the ways they made themselves warm and comfortable was by drinking. Some men wrote about keeping jugs of whiskey by their beds—officers especially. This seemed like a straightforward use—combating exposure, staving off the cold. But men also wrote about keeping warm by playing whiskey poker and other games. This seemed to be a bit more than just combating exposure. Clearly, soldiers were trying to pass the time, to relieve boredom. They were certainly trying to re-create some kind of familial environment that they had left behind.
And this element of emotional self-care became clearer around holidays such as Christmas, a time when most soldiers were used to drinking with their families. During the war, the men went to fantastic lengths to find liquor around the holidays. A few friends in Walker’s Texas Division pooled their resources to purchase “some whisky at $40 per gallon to have a frolick” on Christmas Day. Soldiers in the 17th Mississippi paid between $30 and $50 per gallon to buy liquor for a “grand camp dance” to celebrate the holiday.
Soldiers often posed with alcohol as the centerpiece of their images. At left, a sergeant poses with a lieutenant. The cavalrymen at right paid extra to have their image tinted with gilt and color, a luxury they extend to the label of the bottle of liquor that takes center stage and the liquid in the glass of the man at center. Red wine?
Union Corporal Robert Rossi and his own friends “made punch”—on both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. On the latter holiday, they “had a lot of fun and didn’t get to bed until around 3, all of us dutifully drunk.” These men’s attempts to make Christmas in camp similar to Christmas at home fell short. Sometimes, they waited for their families to send care packages, and when those packages did not arrive, they became “melancholy.” Charles Francis Adams Jr., complained to his family of his Christmas dinner of “tough beef” and “commissary whiskey” in 1862. Floridian Robert Watson drank a little, but “did not feel marry [ sic ] as my thoughts were of home.” Liquor became the attempted, if ineffective, curative for homesickness.
Taking His Medicine
Because soldiers could use liquor to treat their emotional and physical needs, both officers and enlisted men ended up drinking pretty much whenever it suited personal needs, provided they could find the liquor. The Union armies had a fairly steady supply of rations (but those did not always include whiskey). The Confederate armies had a chronic shortage of whiskey. It was used only by the medical department, and the surgeons prescribed it sparingly. But just because official government rations were scarce did not mean that soldiers did not manage to find liquor on their own. Men sneaked into town and bought it from civilians. Camp merchants sold liquor illegally. Men’s families sent them care packages with liquor in them. And, these men spent most of their time encamped in apple and peach growing regions. Young soldiers knew how to find rural stills bursting with brandies.
Controlling the Flow
The presence of liquor—even a small amount—wreaked havoc with camp discipline and led to all sorts of mishaps. Men complained about drunks making a lot of noise. Other men stumbled (not just into latrines) or became lost. More seriously, soldiers who were drunk tended to fight with each other and their commanding officers. This sometimes just ended with the drunken men being put under guard until they sobered up. Other times the violence was more severe. Joseph Herring of the 7th Illinois Cavalry was shot in the arm by a drunken soldier and only saved from death by his “suspender buckle” that knocked the ball off its course. Major Joseph D. Bullen of the 28th Maine was killed after being shot by a drunken fellow. One soldier in the Union Army’s Excelsior Brigade “deliberately shot a member of the same company for no cause whatsoever” while “under the influence of liquor.” While the mishaps were not usually severe enough to change the course of a major battle, military officials scrambled to punish drunken soldiers in an effort to try to maintain discipline.
Army physicians were likewise concerned about soldiers’ overuse of liquor. The 1860s were a transitional time in the way that Americans thought about illness, and specifically, physicians did not regard alcoholism as a disease in the way modern Americans do. When people in the 19th century saw a person who drank too much, they interpreted it as a moral failing. Many people believed that everyone who even tried a drop of liquor was at risk of becoming a chronic drunkard. But Americans during the war did notice the symptoms of too much drinking: the delirium tremens. This shaking and confusion occurred when someone who was regularly intoxicated experienced withdrawal. Yet when they saw a person suffering from delirium tremens, they tended to regard it as the consequence of immorality rather than as illness.
A nurse known as Anne Bell tends to wounded soldiers in a Northern hospital. She holds a cup and spoon. Behind her, bottles, perhaps holding liquor, rest on a bedside table. Confederate nurse Kate Cumming recalled that in her hospital, the “liquor of all kinds is given out on an order from the druggist for each ward separately.”
Moreover, because physicians regarded liquor as a stimulant, no war-era medical books discussed liquor’s numbing effects. Yet even though the medical departments were not officially using liquor to relieve pain, soldiers seemed to be drinking liquor precisely because of its physical and emotional numbing effects, whether they articulated it in those terms or not. Physicians absolutely realized, too, that soldiers—especially those that were sick or wounded—overused liquor to the point that it was a problem.
As a result, physicians tried to control the flow of liquor in the hospitals as much as possible. In the Confederate hospitals, especially, physicians required prescriptions for whiskey and brandy (this also helped to prevent shortages). Union hospitals also tried to curtail chronic intoxication. Virtually all Union hospital newspapers advertised temperance clubs—which urged men to pledge not to drink liquor. The Soldier’s Journal further instructed men: “Don’t sit down listless and inactive and thus enter a course that will make you a curse to yourself and to everybody else because Uncle Sam foots the bill and furnishes rations.” The Cripple described drinking as a vice, which “betrayed the hidden faults of man, and showed them in odious colors and faults to which he is not naturally subject. Wine throws a man out of himself and infuses qualities into the mind making him a stranger in his sober moments.” Drinking excessively was a common enough problem that hospital newspapers devoted significant column space to combating it. And yet, the newspaper writing suggested that while soldiers were drinking because they were bored, homesick, or in pain, society’s understanding of men’s drinking was that it was a moral failure (rather than a physiological condition).
Before the advent of prohibition, the temperance movement gained new advocates among the spouses of Civil War veterans who turned to alcohol to cope with their new realities. Carrie Nation was well-known for her radical opposition to liquor after a tumultuous marriage to David Gloyd, a Union Army doctor and alcoholic. Nation was arrested more than 30 times for raiding bars and using a hatchet to smash fixtures and bottles of booze while singing and praying for the men’s souls inside.
This view persisted as the war came to a close. Members of the American Temperance Union expressed concern that the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who had “learned a wandering life” would be returning to their families shortly. Reformers vowed not to let veterans head down the road to ruin. Their bodies were wounded, and for so long the men had existed only on “hard-tack and salt beef.” When they came in contact with colorful shops filled with goods and carts of “refreshments” on board trains, the returning soldiers would be too weak to resist temptation. These men had “passed through the terrible storm of shot and shell, and hurricanes of flame and smoke.” And while soldiers had “fought and conquered” the rebels, reformers worried that a veteran would “find it difficult to conquer himself.” They were not wrong.
In the late 19th century, veterans of the Civil War struggled to cope with chronic pain from their injuries and the mental trauma from the horrors they experienced. Not surprisingly, they struggled to re-adapt to a civilian world where the prevailing belief was that all men should work hard (usually through manual labor) to support their families. Many veterans continued to drink to self-medicate. And mainstream society, especially in the North, shut the veterans off from the world by establishing veterans’ homes. Yet looking at drinking during the war years reveals that soldiers were beginning to cope with the war—its exhaustions and traumas—while they experienced it. They drank during the war to take the edge off of whatever misery they were experiencing at the moment. And, over time, this led them to become men who behaved outside of the norms civilian society expected of them.
Megan L. Bever is the author of At War With King Alcohol: Debating Drinking and Masculinity in the Civil War (UNC Press, 2022), and an associate professor of history and chair of the Social Sciences Department at Missouri Southern State University. She received her PhD in History at the University of Alabama in 2014. She has published articles in the Journal of Southern History, Civil War History, and the Journal of Sport History and co-edited The Historian Behind the History: Conversations with Southern Historians (University of Alabama Press, 2014) and American Discord: The Republic and Its People in the Civil War Era (LSU Press, 2020).