“Whiskey Courage in Abundance”
K. Michael Gamble
As the Battle of Antietam raged into a harvest of death, Confederate and Union soldiers were ordered to remain steadfast in the execution of their orders. Evidence of their bravery was evident through out the day as both armies attacked and counterattacked. As the toll of human life mounted, however, many soldiers questioned the decisions that sent men into harms way. Were these orders given by officers who were thinking in rational and logical ways, or were orders given by intoxicated amateurs who were hell bent for glory at the expense of soldier lives? How prevalent was the use of liquor at the battle, and did this affect the welfare of the troops?
The Irish Brigade had achieved a reputation for its fighting spirit. These Irish immigrants were proving that they were worthy of defending their adopted country. During the attack on the sunken road, Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher ordered his troops in Brigade formation over a cornfield, open pasture, and plowed field as well as three fences towards an entrenched position supported by artillery. This frontal attack was ordered while an adjacent brigade commanded by BG John Caldwell was flanking the Confederates defenders to his left. In front of the sunken road were troops from previous attacks protected by a small ridge 60 yards from the Confederates. Troops from Nathan Kimball’s brigade were pouring rifle fire towards Confederate brigades commanded by G.B. Anderson and Robert Rhodes as well as at Richard Anderson’s reinforcements moving towards the lane from the south. In the middle of this intense fire fight, BG Meagher was urging his men forward. Meagher will report that near the end of the engagement “My horse having been shot under me as the engagement was about ending and from the shock which I myself sustained, I was obliged to be carried off the field”. Soon, rumors were circulated that Meagher had been drunk and had actually fallen from his horse. Colonel David H. Strother, a member of General McClellan’s staff wrote in his diary the following day that Meagher was not killed as reported, but drunk, and fell from his horse. Another story was circulated by Whitelaw Reid of the Cincinnati Gazette that Meagher was “too drunk to keep the saddle, fell from his horse …several times, was once assisted to remount by Gen Kimball of Indiana, almost immediately fell off again”. These reports may have reflected prejudiced viewpoints and the power of rumor and innuendo. However, there can be no doubt that Meagher was a heavy drinker and had a lack of military knowledge and experience. For example, of the four regiments in the Irish Brigade, only the 69th NY, 63rd NY and 88th NY were ordered to charge the road after discharging five volleys. The 29th Mass had the most protective position and was positioned between the 69th and 63rd. As Meagher pointed out in his report, he sent orders only to the Irish commanders and not to the 29th Mass. Was there any advantage in holding the 29th Mass back? Was this decision formulated with purpose or a spur of the moment reaction? What type of shock could have been sustained that would entail evacuation from the field of action? One of Meagher’s regimental commanders, Colonel John Burke disgraced himself by being conspicuously absent from his post as the 63rd NY was being shot to pieces. Many questions remain about Meagher’s actions and whether there could have been a cover-up after the battle.
During the afternoon of the battle, Major Thomas W. Hyde of the 7th Maine was ordered to take his regiment across open ground south of the sunken road to clear confederate sharpshooters from the Piper farm and orchard. The officer giving the order was the Sixth Corps Colonel William Irwin. Hyde will claim that only a drunkard would give such an order and suggested that it was a job for a brigade not a regiment. Upon Hyde’s request, Irwin repeated his order and the 7th Maine advanced towards the Piper barn and haystacks where it was hit from three directions by deadly rifle fire. Retreating back to their jumping off point, the 7th Maine lost half of their 181 men. Hyde will later say that the order was “from an inspiration of John Barleycorn in our brigade commander alone”.
Another example of “whiskey courage” might have been MG James Longstreet himself. Suffering from a painful heel spur and a “crippled hand” Longstreet was wearing a carpet slipper on his left foot during the battle. As the Union army took possession of the sunken road, they surged through the cornfield south of the road and towards the Piper Orchard. At this critical point of the battle, Longstreet held the reins of his staff officers’ horses and ordered them to man firing positions among Millers Battery which was on the perimeter of the orchard. LT William Owen described this situation as follows” Longstreet was on horseback at our side, sitting side-saddle fashion, and occasionally making some practical remark about the situation. He talked earnestly and gesticulated to encourage us, as the men of the detachments began to fall around our guns, and told us he would have given us a lift if he had not crippled his hand. But, crippled or not, we noticed that he had strength enough left to carry his flask to his mouth, as probably everybody else did on that terrible hot day, who had any supplies at command to bring to a carry.” Straw papered liquor flasks and a telescoping silver cup were popular accouterments in both the Federal and Confederate Armies. The ready source of liquor by officers was a source of much resentment from the enlisted men.
Prior to the battle, Longstreet may have shown self-discipline regarding drinking alcohol from a practical perspective. While visiting his new headquarters at the Piper home, Longstreet and D.H.Hill were offered refreshments in the form of wine by members of the Piper Family. At first, Longstreet politely declined. But after seeing General Hill not experiencing any ill effects from drinking the wine, said “Ladies, I will thank you for some of that wine”. (Too Afraid to Cry, p. 128)
The other Confederate wing commander, Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, appeared more enamored of fresh fruit than alcoholic beverages. However, Major Henry Kyd Douglas, a member of Jackson’s staff, reported that he observed Jackson taking a whiskey toddy on the march towards Martinsburg Va (W.Va). Douglas wrote “While mixing it leisurely, he remarked that he believed he liked the taste of whisky and brandy more that any soldier in the army; that they were more palatable to him than the most fragrant coffee, and for that reason he rarely tasted them “(Battles and Leaders p. 623) Jackson could take his troops to task about the presence of whiskey. During one trip in the Potomac River, Jackson ordered staves of barrels busted apart and dumped into the water. Enterprising confederates went downstream with buckets and dipped the diluted beverage for later use. Perhaps the dilution affected the taste. Commissary whiskey was described as “bark juice, tar water, turpentine, brown sugar, lamp-oil and alcohol.”(p. 253 Billy Yank, Wiley)
Apparently, wine was a favorite drink of the farmers as Mr. William Roulette who resided north of the Sunken Road included “six gallons of blackberry wine @ $2 per gallon on his list of compensatory items presented to the U.S. Government after the battle. This wine could have been used for “medicinal” purposes since the Roulette farmhouse became the site of a field hospital. Spirits were used for medicinal purposes. Regiments had a stock of “commissary” on hand as well as bottles of patient medicine that had high alcohol content. (Soldiers Life, Time Life, 1996)
As the fighting reached its climax at the Lower Bridge, Colonel Edward Ferrero was ordered to take the bridge at about 12:15 PM. The attack plan called for the 51st PA and 51st NY to conduct a direct charge on the bridge from the bluffs east of the Antietam Creek with the 21st Mass. in reserve. Standing in front of the brigade before the attack, Ferrero shouted “It is General Burnside’s special request that the two 51sts take that bridge. Will you do it?” Apparently, the stillness was broken when Corporal Lewis Patterson yelled towards the Colonel “Will you give us our whiskey if we take it?” Ferraro’s reply was “Yes by God, you shall all have as much as you want, if you take the bridge. I don’t mean the whole brigade, but you two regiments shall have just as much as you want, if it is in the commissary or I have to send to New York to get it, and pay for it out of my own private purse, that is if I live to see you through it! Will you take?” “Yes” was the resounding answer. On September 19, 1862, Colonel Edward Ferraro was promoted to Brigadier General and on the next day, the 51st Pa got their whiskey as promised.” (Will you give us our whiskey” p...22 Civil War Battles Brother vs. Brother Special Issue Summer 2006) Perhaps General McClellan was not aware of Ferraro’s promise. McClellan was on record for condemning the use of liquor amongst his troops. After liquor provoked insubordination in Hookers Division in February, 1862, McClellan stated the following “No one evil agent so much obstructs the army…as the degrading vice of drunkenness. It is the cause of by far the greater part of the disorders which are examined by courts martial. It is impossible to estimate the benefits that would accrue to the service from the adoption of a resolution on the part of officers to set the example of total abstinence from intoxicating liquors. It would be worth 50,000 men to the armies of the United States.” (Hqrs. Army of Potomac G.O. 40. February 4, 1862)
After the Battle of Antietam, the disagreeable task of burying bodies left out in the elements for four days fell to the 137th Pennsylvania Regiment. An officer named Bingham secured permission from the provost marshal’s office to buy liquor for his men because he believed they would be able to carry out their orders only if they were drunk. (The Republic of Suffering P. 69).
The evidence is conclusive. Liquor was used by soldiers during the Battle of Antietam. At times, officers in positions of authority had been drinking liquor. Did this drinking affect the final outcome of the battle? It appears as that it was more the absence of well co-coordinated and cohesive planning and the large numbers of inexperienced soldiers that had the most impact. The horrors of combat affected the soldiers in many ways and the acceptance of liquor in the 19th century as a panacea for all problems is evident. It is understandable that the military reflected the values of American society and that the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one day in American history, produced enough horror and devastation to be tempted with some induced relief from liquor.