The American Civil War was a drawn-out conflict that involved many days, even weeks and months of inactivity and soldiers turned to drink to help ease the boredom of non-combat. Brewing and distilling was a common activity among both Union and Confederate troops. They produced strong alcoholic beverages and gave them names like 'O Be Joyful,' 'Pop Skull', 'Oil of Gladness', 'Bust Head', or 'Nokum Stiff.'
The annals of military history are filled with reference to beer drinking and reverence among professional soldiers. Indeed it was held in such esteem in military Prussia that Frederick the Great issued orders to encourage his troops to take beer. "Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer." and his highness was convinced it was more prudent than the debilitating effects of coffee.
In America the Continental Congress approved ale as part of each soldiers daily ration. Although the official portions were discontinued in the mid eighteen hundreds, it continued to be held in high regard throughout the ranks. During World War One, despite the spreading prohibition at home, the doughboys' exploits in the Brasseries of France were legendary. And, in World War Two the U.S. armed forces virtually took over breweries, such as Brand, to provide for the needs of thirsty GI's. More recently the Gulf War caused special maneuvers, in locations where drinking is illegal, so troops could be cycled out of country for a little R&R and cold beer.
With abundant passages like these in other major conflicts why is there such little reference to beer during the Civil War? Did each side, and their proponents thinly disguised as historians, consider the events such a "noble cause" that they were compelled to clean up history? As with any cleaning job there is always some corners that get missed, and poking into these provides some insight. Despite some commonly held beliefs, the war was not a series of calvary dashes, brilliant maneuvers and continuous fighting. In fact, this first war of modern weapons was encumbered with old tactics of laying siege; thus, a majority of time was spent in encampments. The daily life of a soldier in camp was less than exciting, causing Lt.Oliver Wendell Holmes to write..."War is an organized bore." and a private to complain that camp was just`Drill, Drill, Drill'. It's no wonder that in the hours not filled with the military's "make work" these men looked for other diversions. Distractions from camp routine were often found in playing cards, baseball, clubs and, of course, drinking beer. Not surprisingly drinking was readily seen in units made up of ethnic groups strongly tied to the beverage. The journal of one Union soldier revealed "...among the German troops, especially beer...is consumed in great quantities". However, beer was so prevalent overall that one soldier wrote home..."Almost everyone (I do not know of an exception) drink their beer".
What were the sources of this beer? Most common was the Sutlers, a name for entrepreneurs who reaped profits following the armies and providing services to the troops. Edward K. Wrightman, of the Ninth New York, (the Hawkin's Zouaves unit) wrote home, "You see I am well clad and lodged...and the Regimental sutler gives us credit for such little extras as we may desire...and have every reason to be satisfied with our condition. Bye the bye, I have just been, by pressing invitation, eating Clams and drinking lager...smooth the anxious minds of the good ladies who trouble themselves so much about my welfare. My health is very good indeed." Another testimony to the supply provided by sutlers was given by Samuel Clear of the 16th Pennsylvania who wrote "Still nice weather but very hot. McCafferty (our Sutler) treated the Regt. to Ale...the boys very noisy to night [SIC]". This was a similar experience for John W.Jacques of the Ninth New York State Militia who described how "On the road outside of camp was a wagon with lager bier...as long as the money lasted, comfort was taken...". Another source noted that, "Cider stocked by Sutlers sometimes had sufficient potency to make imbibers of a few glasses limber and joyful". No doubt the wagon or tent of a Sutler was always a welcome sight.
Finally, if the encampment was long enough, the soldiers would take to the production of home brew and other liquors. The slang for these included `O be Joyful', `How come you so', `Bust Head', and `Oil of Gladness'. Most of the references to these come from Northern troops, not necessarily because Southern chivalry eliminated partaking, but from the Northern army's greater access to raw materials, transportation, and the number of brewers that naturally settled in the cooler regions of the north. Still, the south did have their own recipe for home-brew. They were inclined to add "...raw meat and let the mixture ferment for a month or so to add what one veteran remembered as an old and mellow taste".
The efforts of the people involved should be neither diminished, nor forgotten, their struggle made an imprint that still affect us. However, it's good to remind ourselves that all these noble causes were carried out by average american beer drinkers.