Thursday, October 20, 2022

Review - "At War With King Alcohol: Debating Drinking and Masculinity in the Civil War" by Megan Bever

[At War With King Alcohol: Debating Drinking and Masculinity in the Civil War by Megan L. Bever (University of North Carolina Press, 2022). Softcover, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:172/250. ISBN:978-1-4696-6954-0. $27.95]

Though its strength among adherents in the general population waxed and waned, temperance was perhaps the most popular reform movement of the antebellum period. Outright prohibition succeeded in a number of northern states during the decade preceding the Civil War, only to see most measures struck down by the courts. According to historian Megan Bever, frustrated reformers nevertheless saw both hope and opportunity in the 1860 election of a teetotaling president in Abraham Lincoln and the outbreak of a civil war the successful outcome of which required that society first shed its thirst for intoxicating drink. Bever's At War With King Alcohol: Debating Drinking and Masculinity in the Civil War provides us with the first comprehensive examination of alcohol consumption during the conflict. In addition to scrutinizing the production, supply, and regulation of spirits at home and on the fighting front, the study offers a detailed investigation of army drinking practices and their impact on debates surrounding discipline, patriotism, and ideal soldierly attributes and behaviors.

Class background significantly shaped Civil War-era attitudes toward, and links between, sobriety and conceptualizations of manliness. In coming to that conclusion, Bever finds clear delineations between upper class (where social drinking was perhaps most encouraged), middle class (among whom temperance was most popular), urban working class, and rural citizens. In farming communities, liquor production was an important means of preserving crop yields that might have, for a variety of reasons, otherwise spoiled. All classes brought to the army preconceived notions, common also to the professional medical community, that liquor possessed vital medicinal qualities when consumed responsibly. That alone made absolute prohibition unthinkable to most citizens, who remained unconvinced that the cold water alternative espoused by temperance groups was superior. Interestingly, army officers of all ranks tended to adopt upper class social drinking norms, and there could be significant peer pressure to conform. Bever offers several examples of teetotaling enlisted soldiers who, after being rewarded with commissions during the war, encountered regular peer insistence that they socially drink with their fellow officers.

Though there were vocal promoters of complete abstinence in both Civil War armies, they were a distinct minority. Both officers and men agreed that moderate imbibing at responsible times improved physical health and mental well being, and they equally agreed that intoxication, especially when on duty and in battle, cost lives and critically eroded unit discipline and efficiency. However, in typical human fashion, the two groups differed in judging where blame primarily lay. Officers complained about their men's illegal liquor acquisition and drinking outside of authorized rations, and they regularly accused their intoxicated charges of harming the reputation of the unit, its officers, and the larger war effort. On the other side, the rank and file constantly complained about the drunken misbehavior of officers on and off the battlefield. Such officers failed to fulfill their duties to the men, which included imposing unit discipline without abuse and being judicious when it came to issuing liquor rations.

Bever also shows the ways in which more intimate and direct social pressures often had a greater effect upon promoting soldier sobriety than did faceless national reform movements. Though many officers and men linked sobriety with manly self-discipline and patriotism, wives proved to be strong agents in saving less self-motivated soldier husbands from debauchery. With locally raised companies filled with family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, honor-conscious soldiers knew that news of drunken behavior would eventually get back to home and community. Of course, all of these factors were limited in effect. Without the moral oversight and behavioral strictures associated with home, church, and community, many men found army life full of irresistible temptation. On the other hand, a smaller number of wilder individuals who regularly drank before the war found army regimentation a sobering experience!

Bever's research discovers that rank and file abstinence rates within regiments that had temperance clubs could be significant in scale (perhaps up to 20%, when national temperance as a whole during antebellum decades peaked at around 12%). Interestingly, she also finds that line officers had very little to do with this. Regimental chaplains, often with the assistance of tract publishers and large relief organizations such as sanitary commissions and the U.S. Christian Commission, often took the lead, but, according to Bever's findings, sobriety was most commonly sourced through self-discipline. Of course, adherence was limited, but it's clear that a significant proportion of Civil War soldiers took sobriety in themselves and others very seriously.

Alcohol abuse in Civil War armies clearly led to widespread incidence of property destruction, assaults, deadly accidents, serious injuries to self and others, and outright murder. The army itself saw drinking as primarily a disciplinary, not moral, problem and addressed it mostly through pay deductions and hard labor punishments (with humiliation and corporal punishments less common for alcohol-related offenses and far more resisted by the men as anti-republican). Shaping attitudes toward drinking and punishing excess after the fact were one thing, but military authorities also attempted, without success, to control supply. Smuggling was a never-ending problem in both armies (troops in camp and on the march had an almost magical ability to obtain alcohol by some means), and Union authorities in particular never made consistent and effective management of liquor sales by licensed sutlers a priority.

Another major source of alcohol, perhaps the largest supplier to enlisted men, was the civilian population. Bever finds an interesting contrast between how Union and Confederate authorities attempted to handle civilian sellers of hard spirits. In contrast to Confederate military and civilian leaders, who often inserted liquor stipulations into martial law restrictions in an attempt to broadly suppress the trade, Union authorities employed far more restraint at home and in areas under their military control or occupation. There's something to Bever's suggestion that conciliation toward local southern-sympathizing populations and questions over legality when it came to military regulation of civilian affairs were behind this to some degree, but those same occupation authorities were certainly not similarly shy when it came to imposing draconian responses to other types of civilian intercourse, complaints, and concerns. Generally speaking, though, Bever's interpretation that Union authorities viewed liquor production and distribution as just one of many things needing regulation (preferably through licensing and taxation) in order to maintain order while their Confederate counterparts saw the issue as more of an existential threat makes sense given that it was southern communities that overwhelmingly bore the brunt of both military occupation and the roaming armies of both sides.

Like their counterparts in the North, southern temperance reformers had mixed feelings about what taxing liquor production (which increased as the war progressed) said about government and societal acceptance. However, southern critics of drinking had another great concern, food scarcity. Alcohol production consumed large amounts of grain, and invasion, transportation disruption, and a tightening blockade combined to have a noticeable affect on southern food supplies relatively early in the war. As Bever explains, heading off famine was a major motivator when it came to supporting outright prohibition. Rampant liquor speculation also had a noticeably demoralizing effect on the southern home front. In citing examples such as the Confederate government in Richmond licensing medicinal liquor producers in dry states, Bever also raises a good point that opposing wartime laws over prohibition sparked yet another conflict between state and central governments that a struggling Confederacy could ill afford.

Their beliefs rooted in the values of middle class evangelicals, reformers believed that only abstinent officers fit the bill when it came to defining the moral, masculine, and patriotic ideals associated with a true hero general. The greater populations of both sections did not believe such an extreme was necessary, but there was significant common ground when it came to intolerance for on-duty insobriety. While Bever's study does not go about trying to "answer the question of whether certain generals were drunk on certain days or whether intoxication can be blamed for catastrophes on the battlefield," it does explore the prevalence of ascribing alcohol abuse to leading generals who performed poorly on the battlefield, noting along the way that such accusations were commonly without foundation and the resulting reputational stain often impossible to remove. Officer drinking behaviors, whether true or not, clearly affected how some generals were perceived both inside and outside the army. In the book, the author outlines examples of where a clear contrast can be drawn between the temperance reformer minority and the wider population when it came to assigning blame to generals for military disasters. For instance, General Joseph Hooker certainly had barbs flung his way from all sides after Chancellorsville, but, in the popular mind, General O.O. Howard became the defeat's lead scapegoat. Adopting the direct opposite stance, the reformers praised their hero general, the hard line temperance man Howard, while lambasting the unsavory Hooker, who was assumed (without any solid supporting evidence) to have been drunk at Chancellorsville.

With sobriety linked to manliness, patriotism, and soldierly effectiveness, drunkenness was tied to cowardice and failing commitment to the cause. Most readers are familiar with soldiers of both sides citing alcohol consumption (perhaps laced with gunpowder) as a means of explaining away opponent displays of reckless bravery on the battlefield. However, Bever also notes that enemy prisoners were also widely described as being drunk, and that observation (accurate or not) proved something of a morale boost, the implication being that enemy support for their cause was failing and/or immoral to begin with if their soldiers had to resort to excessive drinking on duty. Soldiers who fought on the same side were targeted as well, most visibly through nativist assaults on German and Irish immigrant drinking cultures. Bever also shows that while many black northerners embraced temperance for similar reasons that white evangelicals did other motivations were unique to their own situation in society. In seeking to bolster their race's aspirations for full citizenship rights, black reformers promoted abstinence as a way to dispel popular prejudice among whites that black freedom would exacerbate that race's already inherent vulnerability to alcohol's worst influences.

Finally, through uncovering the ways through which both warring sections sought to control alcohol production and use, Bever sees the Civil War as having a major influence in the success of the national prohibition movement decades later (though it would take another major war, World War One, to finally bring it to fruition). Both sections tinkered with temperance movements during the antebellum period (and both North and South had sectional peculiarities, including northern Sunday Laws that angered immigrants and southern laws aimed at keeping alcohol from the slave and free black populations), but, absent the war and its patterns of centralization, the author asserts, with solid extrapolative reasoning, that the South would not have widely supported outright prohibition and especially its imposition on a federal level.

In her wide-ranging and complex discussion of alcohol consumption during the Civil War, Megan Bever employs a marvelously integrated approach. Her work reveals marked differences among drinking cultures and practices that affected how those within both armies and home fronts perceived proper soldierly manhood, moral fiber, patriotism, and discipline. The ways through which both governments attempted to regulate or prohibit the production, distribution, and sale of liquor to soldiers are clearly contrasted and proffered motivations behind those measures richly debatable. Viewing all of that through the lens of temperance reform movements active before, during, and the after the war adds an additional interpretive layer of critical significance. At War With King Alcohol should well satisfy any reader seeking a comprehensive treatment of this topic. Highly recommended.

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