Book Review: At War with King Alcohol: Debating Drinking and Masculinity in the Civil War

At War with King Alcohol: Debating Drinking and Masculinity in the Civil War. By Megan L. Bever. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022. 260 pages, Hardcover, $99; softcover, $27.95.

Reviewed by Tim Talbott

On January 16, 1863, Lt. James B. Thomas, 107th Pennsylvania Infantry, wrote his brother Selim from camp near Fredericksburg, Virginia. James informed Selim that he had just received a circular from brigade headquarters. According to Lt. Thomas, it stated that “the officers of the brigade should be well provided with stimulants at the present time.” To do so, the brigade commissary would issue each officer a canteen full of whiskey. Thomas believed it portended that there “was some hard fighting to do and that whiskey was to keep the courage up.[1]

This single example raises a host of questions concerning alcohol that Civil War armies had to contend with over the course of the conflict: Was it appropriate to issue alcohol to soldiers? If so, under what circumstances? Who controlled the manufacture and distribution of alcohol? What was the motivation and benefit of providing alcohol? Did officers provide soldiers with alcohol to instill courage as Lt. Thomas believed? Or was it primarily medicinal? How much should each soldier receive? In a martial environment where control was key, did alcohol rations cause disciplinary issues? How might soldiers’ alcohol consumption affect interactions with nearby civilians?

Fortunately, At War with King Alcohol: Debating Drinking and Masculinity in the Civil War by Megan L. Bever, a thorough pioneering study on this subject, helps answer these questions as well as a multitude of others. Organized effectively, the book’s helpful introduction provides important context to the subject. Over the following six chapters and epilogue, Bever delves into interwoven themes discussing the topics posed in the questions above, and many more.

Heavily influenced by the Second Great Awakening, Americans (to varying degrees and in certain regions more so than others) during the antebellum years took up a host of perceived social concerns. Prison reform, women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, public education, and of course, temperance, all had their advocates and enemies. Adding a layer of complexity to temperance were large influxes of immigrants who brought with them traditional cultures of alcohol consumption as a means of social interaction. Naturally, these groups mixed when the United States and Confederate States requested, and then later demanded, enlistments, causing a wide range of opinions on the role of alcohol within their armies.

One of the fascinating areas that Bever explores is soldiers’ changed perceptions about drinking due to their military service. Soldiers came into the armies with their own set of ideas about manhood and its responsibilities. However, when their military experiences clashed with their pre-service beliefs, it often required pragmatic adjustments. Some soldiers who enlisted with teetotaling mentalities soon saw the benefits of occasional moderate drinking to maintain one’s physical and mental health and to bond with comrades. On the other side, those who perhaps drank freely before their service began, saw the disciplinary issues drinking caused—particularly if they found themselves in officer roles that required controlling men—and thus altered their habits to meet the demands of their martial obligations.

Bever also spends considerable time discussing drinking and perceptions of duty, patriotism, and loyalty. Soldiers in the camps and on the battlefield, as well as by citizens on the home front, expressed various opinions. While soldiers occasionally overindulged, particularly in winter camp environments and on holiday occasions, the vast majority understood the importance of being sober when it came time for combat. Being mentally able to understand commands and physically capable of carrying them out was a prerequisite trait of a good soldier. Likewise, officers who needed “fortified” with “liquid courage” to go into battle quickly lost the respect of those they commanded and their brother officers. Soldiers who witnessed comrades participating in so-called unsoldierly activities such as deserting and assaulting civilians often chalked up such unmanly behavior to the influence of alcohol.

Civilians and soldiers—especially in the Confederacy—sometimes viewed distillers and those who sold alcohol as unpatriotic. They often labeled as disloyal those who produced the products that dulled soldiers’ skills and who used large amounts of grains to make alcohol that were in short supply and needed to feed the army and at home populations. Others believed distillers and sellers created a serious problem due to the possibility of enslaved people gaining access to alcohol at a time when little social enforcement was available. In addition, some thought that the materials (particularly copper) used to distill whiskey should be repurposed to better effect into war materiel.

Bever makes astute use of an assortment of primary sources to provide evidence for the book’s arguments. Soldiers’ letters and diaries, newspapers, reform periodicals, medical journals and publications, church reports and sermons, court martial records, and other documents from governmental agencies (both state and U.S. and C.S.), as well papers from private auxiliary units like the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the U.S. Christian Commission, make up a significant part of the book’s impressive bibliography.

At War with King Alcohol admirably fills a previous void in Civil War scholarship. The book’s combination of impressive scholarship and readability, while examining a fascinating but previously understudied topic, will surely make it the go-to book on this subject for years to come.

 

[1] Mary Warner Thomas and Richard A. Sauers, editors. “I Never Again Want to Witness Such Sights”: The Civil War Letters of First Lieutenant James B. Thomas, Adjutant, 107th Pennsylvania Volunteers (Baltimore: Butternut and Blue, 1995), 140.



4 Responses to Book Review: At War with King Alcohol: Debating Drinking and Masculinity in the Civil War

  1. I’ll drink to that! An interesting part of American history, especially as it relates to our immigrant communities. I’m following the story of a German abolitionist who was at the same time a fierce anti temperance warrior!

  2. Before the Civil War, Vermont enacted statewide prohibition. The judges who enforced the act by convicting the imbibers and possessors of the noxious ilixirs threw the Bill of Rights out the window to get “Demon Rum” out of the state. Many of the state’s lawyers became officers in the regiments raised in thre Green Mountains, and witnessed the slaughter of their fellow Vermonter and more. Alcohol, not subject to a general prohibition either in the North or South, had a tranquilizing effect on the trauma of witnessing the horrors of battle. One such officer was Wheelock Veazy who was second in command of the 3rd Vermont during the Peninsula Campaign and was the commander of the 16th Vermont who lead the attack on the right flank of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. That attack dissolved Kemper’s Brigade by the 16th Vermont’s flanking fire. COL Veazy then turned and stopped troops from Perry’s Florida and Wilcox’s Alabama Brigades, sent too late to effectively reinforce Pickett’s right flank, capturing one Florida regimantal colors and a portion of the colors of another along with numerous prisoners among the 461 casualties of the Florida Brigade during the three day battle. Veazy wrote home about the fine wines available in the South wishing he could start a winery at home in Vermont. After the Civil War,Veazy became a clerk and later a Justice on the Vermont Supreme Court that quickly restored all of the Bill of Rights’ protections for defendants convicted of violating Vermont’s Prohibition act among whom were the veterans who used alcohol to self-medicate their post-war trauma syndrome disorders.

  3. A factor we tend to overlook nowadays is that for century after century the water that was generally available was full of germs, parasites, and assorted nastiness. So boozing it up was important in that the alcohol tended to kill the bad stuff. Similarly the importance of coffee and tea as alternatives was that both involved boiling the water, again killing the bad stuff.

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