If there is any place on God’s fair earth where wickedness ‘stalketh abroad in daylight’ it is in the army.” a Confederate soldier, in a letter to his family
General William Tecumseh Sherman’s declaration that “war is all hell” was never more true than when applied to the Civil War. A long, bloody, and tiresome war for those who were pressed into service, the Civil War proved to be so stressful to many that they sought comfort from a bottle. Whether a bottle of whisky or a bottle of opium, drug and alcohol abuse was a fact of life for many during the Civil War era, and that number included several of the most renowned heroes of the war. An often overlooked fact of the war, alcohol and drug use were nevertheless an influential, if sometimes disregarded, factor in the war.
Drinking in the Camp
There is some of the onerest men here that I ever saw, and the most swearing and card playing and fitin [fighting] and drunkenness that I ever saw at any place.An astonished recruit in a letter home.
Life in a military camp during the Civil War bred as much drunkenness as it did lice; when not engaged in battle, Union and Confederate soldiers alike had little to do aside from drill, and when drill was over, entertained themselves with other pursuits – pursuits that often involved alcohol. Although the U.S. Army forbade enlisted men to purchase alcohol, and punished those who were caught, this did little to deter determined soldiers from acquiring alcohol. Sometimes bringing the contraband into camp required creativity; one Mississippi company sneaked whisky into camp guards in a watermelon rind, which they buried in their tent. More enterprising soldiers simply made their own. Moonshine stills were easily hidden in the wooded areas of a camp, and one recipe for liquor concocted by Union soldiers included such hearty ingredients as turpentine and lamp oil, flavored with brown sugar.
The propensity of soldiers to pass the time with drink led Confederate General Braxton Bragg to lament:
We have lost more valuable lives at the hands of whiskey sellers than by the balls of our enemies.
Drinking – and Drug Use – by Officers
Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk…William T. Sherman
Officers in both the U.S. and Confederate Armies were not prohibited from the purchase of alcohol, and a few made for poor examples when it came to barring enlisted men from drinking.
Probably the most famous example of an officer with a drinking problem was that of General Ulysses S. Grant, whose tendency toward overindulging was well-known – and well-documented – by the time of his service during the Civil War. While reports that his drunkenness contributed to the losses at Shiloh are unfounded, there are many other documented instances of his reliance on alcohol throughout the course of the war. Sylvanus Cadwaller, a newspaper reporter who followed Grant’s staff during 1863, wrote of several incidents in which Grant was apparently inebriated while on the job. However, after 1863, there are few stories of Grant’s drunkenness that can be substantiated.
Another Union general whose propensity for drink tarnished his reputation was Joseph Hooker, whose exploits were known throughout the country. Hooker’s name has long been associated with the nickname for prostitutes, due in part to the fact that his tendency to overindulge in both whisky and women hounded him throughout his service during the war. Hooker’s headquarters in Falmouth, earned a reputation as a den of iniquity, prompting one observer to describe it as a combination of a “bar-room and a brothel.”
Confederate general James Longstreet was known for the drinking and gambling that went on in his headquarters early on in the war; however, after the death of his son in late 1861, Longstreet seems to have settled down.
Another Confederate general, John Bell Hood, has been the subject of suspected drug use during his service in the war. Several sources attributed Hood’s less-than-stellar performances on the battlefield to an addiction to laudanum, taken to ease constant pain from injuries he sustained at Gettysburg and Chickamauga. His loss at the second Battle of Franklin has been attributed to the fact that he was taking laudanum, which is a tincture of opium.
Alcohol and drugs are part of the secret history of the Civil War, the one not found in textbooks. Enlisted men and officers alike sought to dull physical and psychic pains associated with the war in drink or drugs, a fact that few realize.