A Vignette: General R. E. Lee, Wine, Whiskey . . . and Buttermilk?!

General Robert E. Lee

It may sound odd, but laughter is an essential element in the military. Of course, during the Civil War just like now, there existed various senses of humor. Some senior officers were definitely known for being grumpy pants while others had a fun side to them. General R. E. Lee was one of those commanders who displayed a subtle, quick wit.

Many Confederate soldiers enjoyed drinking—understatement of the year.    Even Lee drank a glass of wine on “rare” occasions but stayed away from strong spirits as he was a proponent of sobriety.[1]  He at the same time recognized that his men appreciated brandy, whiskey, and whatever hard liquor found its way into camp.  So Lee had fun with this topic.

There are at least two occasions in which General Lee teased his staff officers in respect to

Armistead Lindsay Long, seen in his general’s uniform

their drinking.  His military secretary, Colonel Armistead Lindsey Long, recalled both of these.  Let’s sit back and enjoy Long’s description of both events.

“Although there were no habitual drinkers on the general’s staff, an occasional demijohn would find its way to headquarters.  While at this place one of [Lee’s staff] officers received a present of a jug of fine old rye.  Soon after its advent General JEB Stuart, with Sweeney and his banjo, arrived—not on account, however, of the jug, but, as was his wont, to give us a serenade. The bright camp fire was surrounded by a merry party, and a lively concert commenced.  After a while the general came out, and, observing the jug perched on a boulder, asked with a merry smile, ‘Gentlemen am I to thank General Stuart or the jug for this fine music.’”[2]

After the Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862, another demijohn arrived at Lee’s camp.

“Notwithstanding the responsibility of his position and the difficulties that surrounded him, General Lee usually maintained a cheerful mien toward his staff, and at times indulged his humor for a practical joke in a manner which would have surprised an outsider who saw only the grave and dignified side of his character. As a companion piece to the demijohn story previously told, we may give another in which General Lee was the active agent.  On one occasion a demijohn was observed to be carried into his tent, which excited in the minds of those who beheld it visions of good wine or brandy.  (The general well knew that several of his staff enjoyed a glass of wine, or even something stronger.)  About twelve o’clock he walked out of his tent, and with a twinkle in his eye remarked, ‘Perhaps you gentlemen would like a glass of something?’  All assenting, he directed Bryan, the steward of the mess, to carry the demijohn to the mess-tent and arrange cups for the gentlemen.  They followed him with pleasant anticipations of the unexpected treat.  The general ordered the cork to be drawn and the cups filled.  The disappointment of the expectants and Lee’s enjoyment may be better imagined than described when the contents proved to be buttermilk.”[3]


[1] Armistead Lindsey Long, Memoirs of Robert E. Lee (1886), 29.

[2] Ibid., 229.

[3] Ibid., 240.

3 Responses to A Vignette: General R. E. Lee, Wine, Whiskey . . . and Buttermilk?!

  1. Buttermilk has a bad reputation nowadays. My Confederate maternal grandmother used to drink it daily, and so did I–as a child. I bought some the other day at the grocery just for old times’ sake–it was tart, cold, and very refreshing, just as it had been those many years ago. Give it a try, y’all!

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