On the Scent for Whiskey

During the third week of October of 1861, the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment found themselves as honored guests among the citizens of Jamaica on Long Island, New York. From the perspective of Company A’s Private Oliver Cromwell Case, he experienced the people of New York as “very familiar (much more than Conn. People) [and] I should also say generous and hospitable.” 

His description of their hospitality continues in a letter to his sister, Abbie:

They gave our Regt. over a thousand  loaves of bread last week besides giving us many apples and welcoming to their houses all who are so fortunate as to get out side of guard.[1]

While the local populace made Oliver and his comrades feel welcomed, the leadership of the regiment made their best efforts to both improve morale and suppress undisciplined behavior during the time at the Camp of Instruction on Long Island.

The morale of the regiments was correspondingly raised. Gambling and liquor-selling were suppressed; offenders being severely punished, and their stakes and stock confiscated for the regimental fund. Profanity was rebuked. Unnecessary Sunday labor was avoided. Religious meetings were frequent…[2]

In spite of these efforts, there were always the few soldiers in the ranks who managed to indulge in the vice of drinking whiskey. This was not unique to the one unit as every Civil War regiment seemed to have a group of soldiers that did not know when to say when with the whiskey. In his famous work about the everyday experiences of the soldiers, Union soldier John D. Billings captured the common experience with alcohol in the army: 

The devices resorted to by those members of the rank and file who hungered and thirsted for commissary to obtain it, are numerous and entertaining enough to occupy a chapter but these I must leave for some one of broader experience and observation. I could name two or three men in my own company whose experience qualified them to fill the bill completely. They were always on the scent for something to drink. Such men were to be found in all organizations. [3] 

Although the fledgling soldiers of the 8th Connecticut had quickly settled into the routine of camp life in New York, it didn’t take them long to prove Billings’ assertion regarding problems with drinking alcohol in every unit. They discovered that alcohol and soldiering don’t always mix. During Civil War times, a drunk soldier was often referred to as being “shot in the neck” or to have “a brick in his hat.” One young corporal in Oliver’s company is reduced in rank and returned to the junior enlisted ranks for his crime of public intoxication John F. Saundbaum of Hartford required to forfeit one month’s pay as part of his punishment. A few weeks later, Saundbaum would be rejected for continued service in the 8th Connecticut following a new round of medical exams possibly as a result of his fondness for spirits.

The “Wooden Overcoat” was one of the possible punishments for drunkenness [4]

Drunkenness was not limited to the enlist ranks as the officer corps was occupied by many officers of various ranks who overindulged in strong drink. In fact, Billings recounts that “officers who did not drink more or less were too scarce in the service.” Possessing a much greater level of freedom gave occasion for a number of those officers, especially those senior in rank, to find opportunities to source whiskey for personal consumption. According to Billings, this led a significant number of officers to imbibe in drink when the situation demanded sober thought.  

They had only to send to the commissary to obtain as much as they pleased, whenever they pleased, by paying for it… there was nothing but his sense of honor, his self-respect, or his fear of exposure and punishment, to restrain a captain, a colonel, or a general, of whatever command, from being intoxicated at a moment when he should have been in the full possession of his senses leading his command on to battle ; and I regret to relate that these motives, strong as they are to impel to right and restrain from wrong-doing, were no barrier to many an officer whose appetite in a crisis thus imperiled the cause and disgraced himself. [5]

For Oliver Case and the 8th Connecticut, this would not be their last encounter with the effects of alcohol consumption in the ranks. Other soldiers would succumb to the temptation to drown their fears in a bottle of spirits. 

ENDNOTES:

[1] The Letters of Oliver Cromwell Case (Unpublished), Simsbury Historical Society, Simsbury, CT, 1861-1862. (20 October 1861)

[2] The Military and Civil History of Connecticut: The War of 1861-1865, W.A. Croffut and John M. Morris, Ledyard Bill, New York, 1868

[3] Hardtack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life, John D. Billings, George M. Smith and Company, Boston, 1887

[4] IBID.

[5] IBID.

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