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America’s Civil War: January 1998 From the Editor

9/23/1998 • America's Civil War, Archives

Whether hidden in coffins or hollowed-out watermelons, contraband whiskey regularly found its way into camp.

During the Civil War, as with all wars, excessive drinking was not limited to high-ranking officers. Humble men in the ranks also turned to alcohol to relieve the tensions and terrors of battle and the wearying tedium of camp. But while officers could simply requisition their whiskey supplies, the men serving under them had to resort to a variety of ingenious ploys to fill their cups.

One enterprising group of Rebs once created a “circus” diversion in front of a Southern store, distracting the shopkeeper’s attention long enough to switch a full barrel of liquor with an empty one. The soldiers lugged the heavy barrel back to camp and buried it above a spring where they went to draw their water. To the bafflement of their officers, they always returned from water detail in a notably better humor than when they left.

A Mississippi company smuggled a half-gallon of whiskey into a tent in the center of a hollowed-out watermelon, which the men buried beneath the tent floor and tapped into with a long straw. Whenever one of the culprits wanted a drink, he would simply lie flat on the floor and suck through the straw.

Sometimes Nature herself lent a helping hand to thirsty soldiers. The 48th New York Regiment was stationed on Tybee Island, S.C., in June 1862 when a vicious storm blew ashore a treasure trove of beer and wine. The New Yorkers proceeded to get roaring drunk.

In the 2nd Tennessee, an Irish private (inevitably nicknamed “Pat”) caught the attention of his colonel by upending his rifle and taking a long pull from the muzzle. When questioned about what he had in the gun, Pat immediately responded, “Colonel, I was looking in the barrel of my gun to see whether she was clean.” The weapon should have been clean–Pat had poured the better part of a pint of whiskey into it.

On occasion, men concocted their own bootleg whiskey, which they variously nicknamed “bust-head,” “pop-skull,” “old red eye,” “spill skull,” “knock-knee,” “tanglefoot,” “oh, be joyful” and “nockum stiff.” In 1863, a correspondent for the Richmond Enquirer noted (with perhaps more than an impersonal professional interest) that the scarcity of good whiskey had led to widespread whiskey doctoring by “as arrant a race of rogues as ever breathed. They make whiskey out of apple brandy, and French brandy out of whiskey, all sorts of brandies and wines out of ingenious concoctions of all three. The whiskey is not composed of but about thirty percent of genuine alcohol, and the rest is made up with water, vitriol, and coloring matter. An old and mellow taste is secured by adding the raw flesh of wild game, or young veal, or lamb and soaking for three or four weeks.”

Soldiers stationed in or near large cities would simply avail themselves of local supplies. Wisconsin Colonel Hans Heg (later killed at Chickamauga) wrote to his wife that he had lost three men while passing through Chicago and many others “got awfull drunk.” The Richmond Examiner noted sourly that one could go into the streets any night “and see hundreds of good looking young men wearing the uniform of their country’s service, embruted by liquor, converted into barroom vagabonds.” The newspaper noted, with scarcely concealed satisfaction, that dozens of drunken soldiers had been knocked down and robbed during their revels.

For soldiers stationed in camps too far from the cities, registered sutlers and casual camp followers often supplied contraband liquor. A correspondent from the Augusta Chronicle noted that a visitor to the Confederate camp at Dalton, Ga., “would be smitten with the great number of mysterious men seen walking around with canteens by their sides and tin thimbles in their hands retailing pestilence at the rate of two dollars a jigger.” Sutlers resorted to elaborate stratagems to market their wares. One brought into camp a case marked “canteens”; the canteens in question were filled with whiskey. Another smuggled in a supply of wine and beer in a wooden coffin, alerting wised-up customers to the ruse by nailing up a sign reading, “No Licker Sold to Soljers.”

Such whiskey peddling was illegal in both armies, and numerous attempts were made to combat the practice. One sutler for a New York regiment who had been caught selling whiskey to soldiers was summarily drummed out of camp with a dozen liquor bottles dangling from his neck. Another, convicted of peddling “condensed corn,” was made to stand on a barrel for hours, while his equally guilty wife was forced to carry a heavy log through camp.

As officers have learned throughout history, however, no measures–however stringent–can completely prevent thirsty soldiers from drinking. Mississippi Lieutenant John Brynam spoke with the voice of experience when he noted resignedly, “A soldier will get whiskey at any risk–if anywhere in the neighborhood.” Or even near the neighborhood–Union General Abner Doubleday once overheard an Irish infantryman lament, after watching his captain pour out a cache of rotgut: “Dennis, if I’m kilt in the next battle, bring me back and bury me here.” Doubleday neglected to say whether the dispirited soldier got his wish.

Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War

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