Author Interview--Megan L. Bever (At War with King Alcohol) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Megan L. Bever to talk about her new book, At War with King Alcohol: Debating Drinking and Masculinity in the Civil War, published by the University of North Carolina Press in September 2022.

Megan L. Bever is Department Chair and Associate Professor of History at Missouri Southern State University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Alabama. She has edited The Historian behind the History: Conversations with Southern Historians (2014) and American Discord: The Republic and Its People in the Civil War Era (2020).

To start, Megan, I know many of us academics are pretty fond of booze, especially at our annual shind...ahem...gatherings, how did you come to write a book about alcohol and soldiering during the Civil War? 

MLB: I think I came to this topic the way a lot of Civil War historians come to their research. Back in first or second grade, I really fell in love with studying the war. It had something to do with a trip to Gettysburg. Obviously, my interests ebbed and flowed over the years, but I kept coming back to the war. It really wasn’t until graduate school that I developed an interest in drinking, really (this is true, probably, in more ways than one). I really can’t explain why, but I was fascinated by the reform movements that came out of the market revolution – and, really, the anxieties that led to those movements. I began chatting with my advisor, George Rable, a lot about these two interests, and, as good advisors do, he began suggesting ways to pair them. It started as a study on the temperance movement during the war, but the train quickly left the tracks, and I ended up much more broadly interested in alcohol use in the war.

What do you argue in At War with King Alcohol?

MLB: I argue that liquor was used widely in the Federal and Confederate armies (both officially and unofficially), and this led to a lot of debates about how much (if any) drinking was acceptable. Soldiers argue that some drinking is necessary but that too much is reckless. Civilians are much more concerned that soldiers who drink at all might compromise the war effort. They go further, arguing in some cases that distillers, traffickers – anyone who drinks or causes another man to drink – impede the war effort. Drinking becomes unpatriotic in the minds of a lot of Americans (North and South).

I think many of our readers are vaguely familiar with the temperance movement--but you complicate this a little along sectional lines in your book. What difference do we see between northern and southern advocates of temperance during the pre-Civil War era?

MLB: This is a question that I think historians struggle with a bit. There are clearly differences between northern and southern regions when it comes to antebellum temperance. Some historians argue that southerners didn’t really like temperance reform because they associated it with abolitionists. Other historians argue that the reason for the regional differences is that the South was just more rural – and temperance reform is really an urban phenomenon. I tend to agree more with the latter set of historians; I see temperance sentiments expressed in southern towns – any place big enough to have a middle-class also seemed to have a temperance organization. I also think that it’s really important to think about the ways that slavery shaped southern conversations of temperance (or the lack of conversations). Northern temperance reformers tended to target the working classes with their crusades – they needed sober workers for factories. White southerners had slave codes that prohibited Black people from drinking. So southern communities had prohibition – it was just racialized. But controlling access to liquor was very much a part of antebellum law in both northern and southern states.

So as we head into the Civil War, I assume the first big question to tackle is why did soldiers and officers drink? 

MLB: They drink for practical and recreational reasons. Practically, liquor was used really widely as a medicine. It was thought to stimulate the body against illness and help it recover from wounds. Federal and Confederate medical departments used liquor to treat both illness and wounds. They also mixed it quinine as a prophylactic against malaria. Soldiers’ own uses of liquor seemed to stem from these medical uses. They used whiskey and brandy to self-treat many illnesses. But then they expanded their drinking – using it when they’re cold, hungry, homesick, scared. So, self-care gets a really broad definition. Officers use alcohol for all these same reasons. But, they also are allowed to purchase liquor and keep in their private stores (enlisted men aren’t). So officers drink recreationally much more often than enlisted men. In some cases officers also try to forge prescriptions to get liquor from the medical department for their own personal use.

What means did temperance organizations have to curb alcohol sales and consumption in the armies? Were the officers in favor of temperance and limited alcohol around the camps?

MLB: Reformers don’t really have a lot of formal means to curb sales or consumption in armies. Northern reformers try to convince Congress to pass laws restricting sales in the camps. The liquor ration is banned in the navy, and there’s a bill that restricts the sale of liquor from sutlers’ wagons/tents. But – as far as eliminating the liquor ration from the armies – reformers can’t convince Congress to do it. In the Confederacy, reformers don’t much focus on eliminating rations in the camps. There’s a focus on prohibition more widely, but not so much on restricting rations in the armies. What temperance advocates have to focus on instead is convincing soldiers to “go it cold” – sign pledges promising to abstain. Temperance regiments form in both the Union and the Confederacy. Men vow to drink only cold water (at least for the duration of the war). Then, in the camps themselves, chaplains and reformers form temperance societies to try to convince soldiers to voluntarily give up liquor.

Officers are a complicated bunch. Temperance reformers and chaplains – and also enlisted men, at times – complain about how much officers drink. Officers can keep liquor in their private stores and buy from sutlers. Enlisted men grumble when officers are drunk. Chaplains complain that officers won’t set a good example. At the same time, though, officers go to great lengths to limit their men’s access to liquor because of its threat to order. There are numerous examples of officers moving men away from towns, closing bridges/roads, setting up guards – all to try to keep men from getting drunk.