Somebody enjoyed the world’s best wines during one of the war’s worst sieges.
No siege in American military history lasted longer than the Union attack on Port Hudson, the Confederate stronghold overlooking a sharp bend in the Mississippi River 20 miles north of Baton Rouge. The garrison’s cannons, perched atop 80-foot bluffs, guarded vital supply lines flowing north to the Confederate defenses at Vicksburg. Beginning on May 23, 1863, some 6,800 Rebels valiantly defied Union attackers through a standoff that lasted 48 days, including two efforts to storm the city in late May.
Southern supplies ran out during the stalemate, forcing the troops trapped inside the fort to slaughter rats, horses, mules and dogs for food. Lieutenant Howard C. Wright of the 30th Louisiana Infantry recalled: “The last quarter ration of beef had been given out to the troops on the 29th of June. On the 1st of July, at the request of many officers, a wounded mule was killed and cut up for experimental eating. All those who partook of it spoke highly of the dish….Some horses were also slaughtered, and their flesh was found to be very good eating, but not equal to mule. Rats, of which there were plenty about the deserted camps, were also caught by many officers and men, and were found to be quite a luxury—superior, in the opinion of those who eat them, to spring chicken.”
What did the Rebels wash it all down with? They made do with what they had. “Sugar and molasses was put to good use by the troops in making a weak description of beer,” Wright wrote, “which was constantly kept at the lines by the barrel-full, and drank by the soldiers in preference to the miserable water with which they were generally supplied.”
But for some individuals, there was apparently a much better tipple to be had—fine French wines. The recent discovery of a cache of empty bottles at the battle site, excavated from a war-era trash heap, poses a mystery. Who would have been able to enjoy such delicacies during that grueling standoff ? The bottles are embossed with the seals of Chateau St. Julien, Chateau Laroze, Haut Sauterne and Chateau Lafite, the latter still one of the world’s most expensive wines. This surprising find also begs a curious question: Which wines paired best with rat? A mature and nutty Chardonnay? A bright, fruit-forward Viognier?
We’ll probably never know who emptied those bottles or how they came by them in the first place. Perhaps they were discovered and then hidden by one or more soldiers, who joined their cohorts in killing and skinning rats, then secretly toasted each other, lifting a peerless glass to wash down their share of rodent. Maybe they felt guilty—or perhaps they were convinced they deserved it more than their comrades. Whatever the case, we can be sure they dreamed of better days as they drank, hoping to enjoy another such vintage in peacetime, after they had drained dry the bitter dregs of mortal combat.
Once Vicksburg fell on July 4th, Port Hudson became untenable. The hard-pressed garrison finally surrendered on July 9.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.