Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cracking Down on Drinking in the Union Army Around Washington

A few of my recent posts have discussed the role that drinking played in the everyday lives of the soldiers encamped around Washington during the first winter of the war.  While whiskey and other intoxicating beverages helped to alleviate the boredom of camp life, the consumption of alcohol also led to trouble and disciplinary actions.  No less a figure that Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, weighed in on the subject at the start of February 1862. 

As part of his review of a court-martial involving a drunken solider in Gen. Joseph Hooker's Division, McClellan expressed his concern with the level of intoxication:
No one evil agent so much obstructs this army in its progress to that condition which will enable it to accomplish all that true soldiers can, as the degrading vice of drunkenness. It is the cause of by far the greater part of the disorders which are examined by courts-martial. It is impossible to estimate the benefits that would accrue to the service from the adoption of a resolution on the part of officers to set their men an example of total abstinence from intoxicating liquors. It would be worth 50,000 men to the armies of the United States. (Gen. Orders No. 40, Feb. 4, 1862.)
McClellan noted that he was not singling out Hooker's Division for criticism.  Rather, in examining the file, he saw the "evils of intemperance and the terrible consequences of it to the individual soldier."  (Gen. Orders No. 40.)  McClellan hoped that other divisions would also draw lessons from the court-martial and "resolve to contribute their exertions to the cure of this giant evil."  (Gen. Orders No. 40.)

As February got underway, the Union Army around Washington was taking various measures to prevent intoxication in the ranks, at least among enlisted men.  A captain had been stationed at the Long Bridge over the Potomac "to see that no spirituous liquors [were] either carried over that structure or down the river for troops."  (Phila. Press, Feb. 5, 1862.)  On February 4, the steamer Telegraph headed towards Budd's Ferry, Maryland with a cargo of twenty barrels of whiskey.  The army stopped the vessel and seized the liquor.  The newspaper reported, however, that "[o]fficers . . . are at liberty to claim any which may be intended for them, and must appear at the Provost Marshal's office for that purpose."  (Phila. Press, Feb. 5, 1862.) 
"Drunken Soldiers Tied Up for Fighting and Other Unruly Conduct," by A.R. Waud (courtesy of Library of Congress)
A little later in February, Owen McCarty, a grave digger known by the nickname "Old Mortality," was arrested for selling liquor to soldiers of the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves at Camp Pierpont in Langley, Virginia.  The offender "was seated high upon wagon, surrounded by a guard, and wore suspended from his neck a miniature head-board; on which was printed the words; 'Old Morality' digs soldiers' graves; and by selling whiskey, helps to fill them.'"  (Weekly Mariettian, Feb. 15, 1862.)  The wagon passed through Washington en route to the guard house and caused "considerable excitement among the pedestrians on the side walk."  (Weekly Mariettian, Feb. 15, 1862.)  Perhaps Old Morality would have been better off working in one of the numerous Washington saloons.

At the end of February, McClellan issued a general order appointing Andrew Porter as Provost Marshal General in the Army of the Potomac and establishing a department under his command.  The commanding general entrusted provost marshals with several duties related to his fight against intoxication, including "suppression of drunkenness, beyond the limits of the camps," "[s]uppression of . . . drinking-houses or bar-rooms," "regulations of . . . taverns," and "[e]nforcement of orders prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquors, whether by tradesmen or sutlers."  (General Orders No. 60, Feb. 21, 1862.)  Despite McClellan's efforts, however, Union soldiers would continue to indulge their fancy for intoxicating liquors.  The fight against drunkenness was a hard one, and certainly not one that McClellan or any other general could ever completely win.

Army of the Potomac, General Orders and Index to General Orders, 1862 (1863)David M. Delo, Peddlers and Post Traders: The Army Sutler on the Frontier (1998 ed.); George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac (1864); Philadelphia Press, Feb. 5, 1862; Weekly Mariettian, Feb. 15, 1862; Bell I. Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank (1983 ed.)

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