Happy Holidays from 1862—Drink Up! #1

Tree in a Gettysburg shop

To complement Sarah Kay Bierle’s outstanding work concerning holiday food, I thought I would chime in this year with a few posts about drinking–for the holidays, of course. America was founded as a nation of drunkards–er–drinkers. After all, water wasn’t pure, science was no help (yet), and milk had to be kept cold to stay drinkable, which wasn’t always possible in the early colonies. North and South, Americans drank enough for it to become an issue–maybe even a problem–by the end of the American Revolution. Temperance societies were organized to combat intoxication. Initially, moderation was encouraged. Alcohol was blamed for crimes such as murder, the ill-treatment of women and children, and chronic indebtedness. Bars were seen as places of evil and debauchery, tempting even the most stalwart male on the road to “bad things.” After several decades, the movement came to stand for a complete prohibition of alcohol consumption. Prohibition would, it was hoped, stop husbands from spending all the family income on alcohol and prevent accidents in the workplace caused by workers who drank during lunch. It also gave women their collective first chance to engage in politics on a much higher level than before, when most women politicked at the dinner table but rarely anywhere else.

The Civil War has given us drunken generals, drunken future presidents, and many lonely men who just wanted a drink. But, when the holidays came around, these fellows–with and without shoulder straps–getting a drink was much more manageable. We shall begin our Christmas journey into Civil War libations of the alcoholic variety with a punch. A punch is loosely defined as a drink made with fruit juices, soda, and spices, typically served in small cups from a large bowl. The star of every buffet table in an officer’s mess was, without a doubt, the beautiful crystal punchbowl, probably from Tiffany’s, filled with champagne punch. A typical champagne punch recipe is as follows:

Shoulder Strap Champagne Punch (cold)

Shoulder Strap Punch in my punchbowl

1-quart bottle of champagne

1/4-pound white sugar

1 orange, thinly sliced

The juice of one lemon

3 slices of pine-apple

1 wineglass of raspberry or strawberry syrup

Ornament with seasonal fruit and serve in champagne goblets.

Varina’s Tea Punch (hot)

Make an infusion of the best green tea, an ounce to a quart of boiling water; put before the fire a silver bowl, to become quite hot, and then put into it 1/2-pint good brandy, 1/2 pint of rum, 1/4 pound of lump sugar, and the juice of a large lemon. Set these a-light, and pour in the tea gradually, mixing it from time to time with a ladle. It will remain burning for some time and is to be poured in that state into the glasses. To increase the flavor, a few lumps of the sugar should be rubbed over the lemon peel.

Check those flames!

Of course, sometimes a fellow (or a lady) is alone. So here is a recipe for a single serving of:

69th New York Irish Whiskey Punch

1/3 glass pure whiskey

Fill the glass with boiling water

Sugar to taste

This is the genuine Irish beverage. Irish whiskey is not fit to drink until it is at least three years old.


The recipes for this series are all from a book that should be on the shelf of every Civil War historian: Jerry Thomas’s 1862 Bartenders GuideDeoch suas! (Gaelic–Drink up!)

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!