Aley on Bever, 'At War With King Alcohol: Debating Drinking and Masculinity in the Civil War'

Megan L. Bever. At War With King Alcohol: Debating Drinking and Masculinity in the Civil War. Civil War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022. 250 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-6953-3; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-6954-0

Reviewed by Ginette Aley (Kansas State University)
Published on H-Nationalism (June, 2023)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version:

When the Civil War commenced in 1861, the temperance movement’s moral crusade against demon rum was several decades old and, though often popular, had experienced uneven growth and support for its ultimate goal of prohibition. Reformers were initially concerned that a large-scale national crisis such as a civil war would sideline the Temperance Cause. Yet, as Megan L. Bever shows in At War with King Alcohol: Debating Drinking and Masculinity in the Civil War, the war merely changed the parameters and tone of discussions that mainstream Americans were having about drinking, access to alcohol, and national well-being. Bever is particularly interested in tracing the complex relationship between drunkenness, war, masculinity, and the power of the state across Union and Confederate states. We see this in chapters that focus on “spirit rations” in both armies; drinking practices among officers and enlisted men; mishaps and military discipline; military regulations and civilian sellers; controlling the liquor traffic; and the intersection of drinking, duty, and disloyalty. The main actors in this analysis are white, native-born males often with shared middle-class ideals of morality and who also set the parameters for debates by virtue of their status. Enslaved and free Blacks as well as immigrants typically represented those whom reformers targeted. Women, especially White women, appear at various junctures in this study. Bever analyzed a range of sources including military policies; temperance publications; legislative journals (state and national) for insight on taxation, licensing, and prohibition; newspapers, and soldiers’ and officers’ descriptions about alcohol use (their own and in the ranks) and its impact on performance.

With the military’s reinstitution of the daily spirit ration at the war’s outset after the practice had waned, temperance reformers faced an uphill challenge in seeking to discourage alcohol consumption in Union and Confederate armies. More than the ration itself, whiskey and brandy were seen as offering some health benefits, while medical practitioners believed alcohol specifically had “stimulating medical properties.” Consequently, great efforts were made to keep hospitals supplied, which proved to be a daunting challenge for the shortage-plagued Confederacy. Rations were also regularly distributed to ease a soldier’s difficult duty, whether it be burying the dead or exposure to an unfriendly climate. Alcohol became a kind of comfort currency, which explains soldiers’ lack of interest in the American Temperance Union’s fervent plea to choose invigorating cold water instead. “Ultimately,” writes Bever, “the military’s reliance on medicinal rations laid the foundation for a martial masculine culture in which drinking was commonplace” (p. 14). Yet, as Bever notes in a subsequent chapter, the rigors and horrors of military life made it painfully clear that the men were no longer in the relative safety of “home.” Thus, she observes, “life in the military required different codes of behavior than middle-class neighborhoods and evangelical congregations” (p. 58). Temperance debates seemed out of step under these circumstances.

Drinking is one thing; drunkenness resulting in mishaps is another. While some mishaps, especially if they involved an officer, provided a bit of levity in the ranks, others could quickly lead to a breakdown in discipline, chaos, brawling, even mutiny. Military punishment countered some of this behavior, but perhaps equally impactful were the expressions of concerns from family members and reformers’ efforts at reaching out. The American Temperance Union sought and received donations to print and distribute tracts to regimental chaplains in Union and Confederate armies. Chaplains also found support in the US Christian Commission in setting up camp temperance clubs and urging men to take (or renew) temperance pledges. The Sons of Temperance sought the same camp interactions in the South, although to a lesser extent. Often, soldiers themselves determined the line that crossed from overindulging to creating dangerous circumstances for others or for military victory. Clearly, however, if the military could control soldiers’ access to liquor, it would give officials the upper hand at controlling drunkenness. According to Bever, that was challenging due to the decentralized structure of Union and Confederate armies and the overwhelming availability of civilian sellers who increasingly came to be viewed as culpable in soldiers’ drunkenness. Sometimes the offender was close at hand, such as the usually licensed sutler. At other times, liquor came by way of family members and smuggling. Confederate officials were more likely than Union officials to enact martial law and close shops, while Union officials focused on upending large-scale liquor trafficking.

But it is in chapter 5 where the focus on controlling the liquor traffic in Union and Confederate states brings fresh insight about the role of Confederate civilian women’s particular concerns over soldier drunkenness and the reason local grain distillers presented a considerable threat to the food supply. Taken together, these issues influenced a shift in Confederate support for prohibition during the war. As Bever notes, “Confederates faced severe food shortages, which made distillers, who diverted grain from bread production into liquor, appear wasteful,” and even unpatriotic (p. 113). Yet there was an additional, fundamental complexity in Southern agriculture not addressed by the author: namely, that there was a larger war of words being flung between the cotton growers and the food producers, each of whom believed that the success of the Confederacy depended upon them.[1] Thus, distillers were not the only ones to stand accused of profiteering (and may not actually have been perceived as as great a threat to food production more broadly as were the cotton growers).

Bever concludes with an engaging look at the severe criticism leveled at generals and the rank and file when a failed command decision or battlefield performance could be linked to drinking. Criticisms were even harsher based upon prejudicial assumptions about immigrant and African American soldiers, even when they turned out to be false. In essence, drinking interfered with duty, which, during wartime, could be construed as being disloyal since it put military victories at risk. She ends with an insightful point about how an overwhelming human experience ultimately shaped outlooks, making that view nearly impervious to external opinions like those from the temperance movement. “The war illustrated,” she concludes, “how many Americans—especially men—were not only uninterested in prohibition but considered drinking an important part of their masculine cultural expression” (p. 172). The war with “King Alcohol” during the Civil War era was for all intents and purposes over, for now.

At War with King Alcohol is a well-researched and well-written study that succeeds in demonstrating how Union and Confederate soldiers’ drinking represented a consequential and contested element of military life that came under the scrutiny of numerous “stakeholders.” It is a fascinating read and should be included on reading lists for courses on the Civil War, reform movements, and military history, to name a few.


[1]. Ginette Aley, “‘We Are All Good Scavengers Now’: The Crisis in Virginia Agriculture during the Civil War,” in Virginia at War: 1864, ed. William C. Davis and James I. Robertson Jr. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009): 81-98.

Citation: Ginette Aley. Review of Bever, Megan L., At War With King Alcohol: Debating Drinking and Masculinity in the Civil War. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. June, 2023.

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