A Bridge for Whiskey: The 51st Pennsylvania and Its Famous Request Examined

It is one of Antietam’s most memorable stories. After two unsuccessful tries to seize the Lower Bridge, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside turned to one of his 9th Corps brigade commanders Col. Edward Ferrero and—through an orderly—told him to “take the two 51sts” and seize the bridge (“the two 51sts” were the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania Infantry regiments). “It is General Burnside’s special request,” Ferrero yelled to the two regiments, “that the two 51sts take that bridge. Will you do it?” Quickly, the teetotaling Cpl. Lewis Patterson replied, “Will you give us our whiskey, Colonel, if we take it?” The fired-up Ferrero answered affirmatively before asking again, “Will you take it?” “Yes,” the men shouted back. Sure enough, they did, and the men of the 51st Pennsylvania got their whiskey back.

“Will You Give Us Our Whisky Now?” by Don Stivers

That is how 51st Pennsylvania regimental historian Thomas H. Parker described the events of September 17 in the regiment’s history published in 1869 (I paraphrased Parker’s retelling a bit). Of any account of the charge of the two 51sts, Parker’s is the most detailed. And it is the only one to name Lewis Patterson as the whiskey seeker and, in fact, the only one that shares the story of the alcoholic incentive for his regiment.

Since Parker’s book is the only source for this well-known story and since it was written seven years after the fact, historians have called into question its veracity. Until approximately 2009, an interpretive marker stood near the Burnside Bridge titled, “Will You Give Us Our Whiskey?” It even quoted Ferrero and Patterson, though the latter was simply labeled as a Pennsylvania soldier. Antietam National Battlefield replaced this sign in 2009; the current sign does not mention the whiskey story at all.

I intended to write this examining why I believed the whiskey story is false. However, history threw me for a loop and I now think the story has more truth to it than I originally believed.

First, to establish if Patterson’s 51st Pennsylvania had their whiskey ration taken from them by their teetotaling brigade commander, Edward Ferrero, it is important to establish why the Pennsylvanians may have had their whiskey stripped from their diet in the first place.

Parker’s regimental history mentions the word “whiskey” 27 times (only twice is it mentioned in direct relation to Antietam). Clearly, it was a part of the 51st Pennsylvania’s story. During their time in North Carolina in early 1862, surgeons prescribed the regiment “a ration of whiskey.” This is one element of the story that often is lost on visitors. When Patterson asked for their whiskey to be returned, he was not asking for copious amounts of whiskey. A ration consisted of two to four ounces of whiskey, though occasionally enough was issued to fill an entire canteen. Regardless, the 51st Pennsylvania received whiskey rations at times during the war, as did much of the United States Army. Especially in North Carolina, wrote Parker, “quinine and whiskey had to be resorted to prevent fever and ague, and other diseases incident to a marshy country.”

At Newbern, North Carolina, in early April, the Pennsylvanians had their first run-in with their superior officers over whiskey. Burnside and his provost marshal forbade the city’s residents from selling liquor to the troops but, as Parker said, “whiskey was in town and the boys did get it—much as they wanted and more than they needed.” Edward Ferrero later said of his men’s ability to find spiritous liquors: “Were my men to be cast on an island where whiskey was never known to have been, and they allowed to run at will, scarcely a man but what would come into camp with his canteen full, even if they would have to rend rocks asunder searching for it.”

Despite the orders, Burnside and Ferrero restored the regiment’s whiskey ration by April 25. That night, members of the regiment tasked with guarding the commissary tent and the barrels of whiskey “tapped a barrel and became greatly intoxicated…” Tongue-in-cheek, Parker wrote of the incident, “The mode adopted by the guard to extract the whiskey was certainly an ingenious one. They had taken the barrels of their guns off the stocks,” he wrote, “unscrewed the tubes, and inserted the breech of the barrels in the bung-hole of the cask, and applied their mouths to the muzzles, and sucked themselves to intoxication…” Incredibly, punishment for this infraction was light.

Then, for the next five months and 73 pages of the regimental history, Parker goes silent on whiskey. He picks up the regiment’s flirtations with the liquor again in the tale related above: Patterson’s request for the regiment to have its whiskey ration restored after carrying the Burnside Bridge. Interestingly, Parker never shares why the regiment lost its whiskey ration before Antietam (though it may simply have been that the regiment was no longer serving in the Deep South). And again, Parker is the only 51st Pennsylvania veteran to mention this specific story, and he does so seven years later. It is for these reasons that the whiskey tale has been doubted.

A post-Antietam image of Edward Ferrero

Parts of Parker’s story are corroborated by more contemporary accounts. Capt. William Bolton, who led the regiment’s Company A at Antietam, wrote in his diary that before assaulting the bridge, “Ferrero in a loud clear voice called for [Col. John F.] Hartranft,” who commanded the regiment, “and in a voice we all could hear, [Ferrero] commanded ‘Burnside orders you to take the 51st P.V. and storm the bridge.’” The fact that Ferrero spoke with the men of the two 51sts before they rushed towards Antietam Creek rings true.

Maj. Edwin Schall of the regimental staff wrote in a letter to the National Defender, dated October 11, 1862, that as the regiment began its advance, “There, by the roadside, stand Gen. Sturgis, and Gen. Ferrero. Says Gen. Sturgis as we pass, ‘If you take that bridge, you will accomplish one of the greatest feats of the war, and your name will be recorded in History.’ ‘We will do it,’ is the responding cry of the soldiers.” There was no shortage of motivational speeches before the assault of the two regiments.

In an October 1, 1862, letter to the same newspaper, a private likely to be either Henry Gerhart or Henry Groff, also mentioned receiving encouraging words from Ferrero. As the two regiments “moved forward Gen. Ferrero, the commander of the 2d Brigade, reminded them of Roanoke, and Newbern, and promising them a treat if they succeeded [emphasis added].” Unfortunately, the rest of the letter does not indicate what this extra incentive was that Ferrero promised but it might have been whiskey.

Unfortunately, the evidence examined above does not concretely affirm Parker’s tale. It does, however, show parts of Parker’s story to be true and shows that Ferrero did offer the 51st Pennsylvania “a treat” if they carried the bridge. The regiment did get into trouble with whiskey before Antietam and Ferrero did personally promise them something prior to their famous attack. Whether or not that treat was whiskey is still unclear. But the story of the whiskey incentivized attack should not be put to rest so easily.

18 Responses to A Bridge for Whiskey: The 51st Pennsylvania and Its Famous Request Examined

  1. What does the 51st NYVI histories and letters say about the incident? A hard-fighting unit recruited in NYC in the day probably had a demonstrated fondness for at least a “wee dram”. Having visited Burnside’s Bridge in the days of the now retired Whiskey Sign and seen the terrain from both the federal and confederate sides, it would have taken something special to encourage me to make that charge.

    1. They are mute on the topic. Apparently the whiskey was just a motivation for the Pennsylvanians.

  2. I don’t think7 years is necessarily too long a post-war period to cast aspersions on one’s memory–though of course contemporaneous accounts (or lack thereof) should be given deference. We’ve seen how many conventional narratives turn out to be based on “eyewitness” accounts–but eyewitnesses who only wrote down their recollections decades later.

    1. I agree. Seven years is not that much of a gap in time. I also think we sometimes go too far in saying, “There is no contemporary source for this and just because it is only mentioned after the war, it likely did not happen.”

  3. Excellent article, Kevin. It’s well-researched, thoughtful articles like this that make a stand-out historian.

  4. Speaking as a veteran of one war, it seems to me probable that a regimental history published so soon after the war, when many veterans of that war were still alive, that the story is probably accurate. Veterans tend to be very picky – even nit-picky – about accurate war stories. Heaven help me if I publish a story about the Iraq war and it has some inaccuracy. A hundred veterans would be after me for such a transgression.
    Tom Crane

  5. Well researched and nicely written article. A tip of the whiskey bottle to you sir. – Bruce W. Hartranft (Cousin of Col John F. Hartranft)

  6. Clear through WWI, at least in the British issued whiskey prior to an attack. The US army called it a whiskey ration and based upon the hundreds of primary sources I have read the men got a tin cup of it often mixed with whiskey to fight the ague. The officers of the 12th Ohio at South Mountain had canteens filled with it. The doctors issued opium and whiskey to treat toothache and neuralgia. They also had medicinal whiskey which they used as a stimulant between operations in a room laced with chloroform and cigar smoke.

    As far as postwar recollections generally one can tell when it is a tall tale and when it is not. Having been raised around WWII veterans, the American soldier has a penchant for smoking and drinking.

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