Whiskey and War: The Case of Joseph Mower at the Battle of Corinth

Soldiers statue outside the Corinth Interpretive Center.

Soldiers statue outside the Corinth Interpretive Center.

Over the course of the last year and a half, one of the officers who has grabbed my attention is Maj. Gen. Joseph Mower. Having served in the War with Mexico, Mower compiled an impressive combat record during the Civil War, fighting at Island Number 10, Iuka and Vicksburg. He participated in the Red River Campaign and the March to the Sea. He probably had his finest hour at Bentonville, where he turned Gen. Joseph Johnston’s left flank and came within a hair of cutting off the line of retreat of the Confederates. What is all the more extraordinary is that Mower began the war as a Captain of a company in the 1st U.S. Infantry and ended as the commander of the XX Corps in the Army of Georgia, all without a West Point education. Similar to many of his contemporaries, however, Mower does have question marks on his record. Last week’s visit to Corinth left me to further contemplate them and their possible answers. 

Joseph Mower. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Joseph Mower. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On the morning of October 4th, 1862, Mower, then a Colonel and brigade commander executed a reconnaissance of the enemy lines. Apparently the night before, Mower had been imbibing liquor and apparently had become heavily intoxicated. Despite his condition, he led his men out on horseback. While positioning his skirmishers, Mower encountered the Confederates. The Rebels unleashed a volley, striking Mower in the neck and killing his horse. Pinned beneath the animal, he was quickly taken prisoner. During the ensuing Confederate withdrawal from the field, Mower took advantage of the confusion and made his way back to the Union lines. Mower was able to convince the Union commander, Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans that he was indeed not drunk. Writing after the war, Rosecrans indicated that he believed Mower. Several months later, Mower received his Brigadier General’s star. Rather than a roadblock, Corinth became a stepping stone.

There is, however, one more piece to consider: Mower’s health.

At the end of the Mexican War when Mower was discharged from the U.S. Engineers, the reason  given was for disability. Despite his health or overall physical condition, Mower received a Second Lieutenant’s commission in 1855. At the culmination of the Vicksburg Campaign, Mower went home on furlough. During this time, he received a medical examination. The surgeons found that he was suffering from “general debility” and was deemed to be “unfit for duty.” Having experienced the Mississippi heat first hand last week, it could not have helped Mower’s disposition. Eventually, he returned to duty. At the opening of the Carolinas Campaign, Mower’s infantry led the advance of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Army Group into the South Carolina swamps. The weather was bitterly cold and Mower spent much of his time out on the skirmish line. One of his staff officers lamented that his exposure to the elements during the campaign contributed to his health problems that took Mower’s life in 1870.

There is ample evidence that Mower was not in the best health during the war. His nearly constant time in the field took its toll on him. The question remains as to why. Certainly Mower was devoted to the Union cause. At the same time, despite the eventual promotion and continued rise, did the stain of Corinth linger in the back of Mower’s mind? And to the point where he would put his own life in jeopardy for the sake of restoring his personal honor? I am only left to wonder.

The Texas Monument stands today in an area that saw heavy fighting during the battle.

The Texas Monument stands today in an area that saw heavy fighting during the battle.

This entry was posted in Armies, Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Campaigns, Civil War Events, Common Soldier, Leadership--Confederate, Leadership--Federal, Memory, Monuments, National Park Service, Personalities, Western Theater and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Whiskey and War: The Case of Joseph Mower at the Battle of Corinth

  1. wdonohue1 says:

    Has anyone written on the availability of alcohol and its use among civilians and military at that time? At any rate, Davis’ article was very well written and even provocative of further thought and research.

  2. If he had been drinking “the night before” the recon, he might well have not been drunk at all, but only badly hungover. It still might have affected his performance, and might have been something he felt he needed to atone for.

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