Beer in the Civil War

By Gregg Smith

The annals of military history are filled with reference to beer drinking and reverence among professional soldiers. Indeed it was held in such esteem in military Prussia that Frederick the Great issued orders to encourage his troops to take beer."Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer." and his highness was convinced it was more prudent than the debilitating effects of coffee.

In America the Continental Congress approved ale as part of each soldiers daily ration. Although the official portions were discontinued in the mid eighteen hundreds, it continued to be held in high regard throughout the ranks. During World War One, despite the spreading prohibition at home, the doughboys' exploits in the Brasseries of France were legendary. And, in World War Two the U.S. armed forces virtually took over breweries, such as Brand, to provide for the needs of thirsty GI's. More recently the Gulf War caused special maneuvers, in locations where drinking is illegal, so troops could be cycled out of country for a little R&R and cold beer.

With abundant passages like these in other major conflicts why is there such little reference to beer during the Civil War? Unlike most works, the recent PBS series by Ken Burns did have a short mention of imbibing. But at first glance it would seem as though the only person responsible for consuming the entire country's output of alcohol was Ulysses S. Grant.

Did each side, and their proponents thinly disguised as historians, consider the events such a "noble cause" that they were compelled to clean up history? As with any cleaning job there is always some corners that get missed, and poking into these provides some insight. Despite some commonly held beliefs, the war was not a series of calvary dashes, brilliant maneuvers and continuous fighting. In fact, this first war of modern weapons was encumbered with old tactics of laying siege; thus, a majority of time was spent in encampments. The daily life of a soldier in camp was less than exciting, causing Lt.Oliver Wendell Holmes to write..."War is an organized bore." and a private to complain that camp was just`Drill, Drill, Drill'. It's no wonder that in the hours not filled with the military's "make work" these men looked for otherdiversions. Distractions from camp routine were often found in playing cards, baseball, clubs and, of course, drinking beer. Not surprisingly drinking was readily seen in units made up of ethnicgroups strongly tied to the beverage. The journal of one Union soldier revealed "...among the German troops, especially consumed in great quantities". However, beer was so prevalent overall that one soldier wrote home..."Almost everyone (I do not know of an exception) drink their beer".

What were the sources of this beer? Most common was the Sutlers, a name for entrepreneurs who reaped profits following the armies and providing services to the troops. Edward K. Wrightman, of the Ninth New York, (the Hawkin's Zouaves unit) wrote home, "You see I am well clad and lodged...and the Regimental sutler gives us credit for such little extras as we may desire...and have every reason to be satisfied with our condition. Bye the bye, I have just been (9PM), by pressing invitation, eating Clams and drinking lager...smooth the anxious minds of the good ladies who trouble themselves so much about my welfare. My health is very good indeed." Another testimony to the supply provided by sutlers was given by Samuel Clear of the 16th Pennsylvania who wrote "Still nice weather but very hot. McCafferty (our Sutler) treated the Regt. to Ale...the boys very noisy to night[SIC]". This was a similar experience for John W.Jacques of the Ninth New York State Militia who described how "On the road outside of camp was a wagon with lager long as the money lasted, comfort was taken...". Another source noted that, "Cider stocked by Sutlers sometimes had sufficient potency to make imbibers of a few glasses limber and joyful". No doubt the wagon or tent of a Sutler was always a welcome sight.

Officers had a much easier time securing the civil war equivalent of a six pack to go and even General "Uncle Billy" Sherman was known to take a smile. Those with a commission could, when supplies were available, draw and pay for allotments from the commissary. The common foot soldiers were not as fortunate, but were able to obtain supplies when signed for by an officer. While in Camp Smith, John Jacques noted his pleasure about "Captain Greene's tent, from which the `Lager' flowed freely...".

Another official source of beer were the military hospitals. One of the best known was Chimarazo, located in Richmond. It not only boasted a large bakery, but it also helped recuperation of the wounded by means of its 400 keg brewery.

Still another means of obtaining beer was, through the process that became an art, called foraging. Tales abound of inventive troops that secured a supply. Units in transit were particularly apt to engage in various techniques of general misappropriation. Indeed one unit paused while marching through a small town and noticed barrels stacked in front of a store. Some proceeded to divert themerchant's attention by a bit of a circus act. The troops were long gone when the proprietor discovered an empty keg had been substituted for a full one. On another occasion a Pennsylvania regiment heading for Baltimore stole a keg of beer and with subterfuge brought it aboard their troop train. Once underway they faced a dilemma of how to open the barrel. Finally, one brusque soldier beat in the head with a musket butt. The results were "The beer shot up into the air 15 feet like a fountain & fell foaming on everything & person...very little of the beer was left."

For every disappointment the universe maintains a balance through serendipity. The life of a civil war soldier had many instances where "Organizations distinguished for sobriety might under unusual temptation, go on a roaring spree". The Forty-Eighth New York was stationed on Tybee Island in June 1862 when a storm sank a ship and resulted in a large number of kegs washing ashore. The commander of the Forty-Eighth was a well known minister and it was much to his chagrin and disgust when his troops "...proceeded to get gloriously drunk." But the beer was not restricted to kegs; there are references such as "...Company B was having a game of ten pins with cannon balls and beer bottles in the company street..." Obviously this was well before the time of nickel deposits.

Finally, if the encampment was long enough, the soldiers would take to the production of home brew and other liquors. The slang for these included `Oh be Joyful', `How come you so', `Bust Head', and `Oil of Gladness'. Most of the references to these come from Northern troops, not necessarily because Southern chivalry eliminated partaking, but from the Northern army's greater access to raw materials, transportation, and the number of brewers that naturally settled in the cooler regions of the north. Still, the south did have their own recipe for home-brew. They were inclined to add "...raw meat and let the mixture ferment for a month or so to add what one veteran remembered as an old and mellow taste".

The efforts of the people involved should be neither diminished, nor forgotten, their struggle made an imprint that still affect us. However, it's good to remind ourselves that all these noble causes were carried out by average american beer drinkers.

Gregg Smith


beer in america
[ Order ]

beer drinkers bible
[ Order ]

beer enthusiasts guide
[ Order ]

More stories
by Gregg Smith