Guardhouse - Alcoholism In Army

Note: This Article addresses a common problem in the army that earned many people time in the guardhouse. It was written by a park ranger at Fort Scott NHS.


Galen R. Ewing

Drinking in the Sutler's Store

From the inception of the United States Army, one of the problems that has plagued countless commanders is the abuse of "Bug Juice," army slang for alcohol. This problem can be traced all the way back to 1776 when the newly formed Continental Army granted its soldiers a daily ration of 1 gill (approximately 2 ounces) of whiskey, rum, or brandy. Obviously the Government felt the medicinal qualities of alcohol far outweighed the detrimental qualities inherent to drink.

By 1818, at least a few people recognized there was a problem. Surgeon General Joseph Lovell recommended that "this troublesome poison caused dysentery and should be banned." This was not done and in fact the next year in addition to there regular ration of liquor, each soldier that performed extra duty work was granted extra money and a gill of whiskey per day.

Everyone is entitled to change their opinion on an issue as did Lovell in 1829. Explaining to Secretary of War Peter Porter why liquor should remain as a ration, Lovell stated two reasons to continue. Since his earlier report he had investigated the matter and determined that the consumption of alcohol was such a common habit among the civilian class from which soldiers came that it would be "both impolitic and inefficient" to impose this "grievous privation" upon men who have been accustomed "to this stimulus from youth, if not from infancy." In 1820, the army had experimented with giving men at some posts the equivalent cost of the whiskey ration in cash without success. This failure was due to Lovell's second reason for continuing the ration. Soldiers can always get liquor "from the innumerable host of hucksters which infest almost every military post."

Lovell's reasoning, though sound, failed to shake the determination of the Army to limit alcohol consumption. In 1830, General Order #72 was issued by the War Department which discontinued whiskey and provided for money in its place. Two years later the money was replaced with rations of sugar and coffee. It seems as though the Navy was not as concerned at the Army about alcohol abuse as liquor was kept as part of a sailors ration until 1862.

As Lovell stated, the civilian class was as addicted to drink as the regular soldier. In 1852, 13,338 men were rejected for service at recruiting stations. The top three reasons listed were Minors - 3,162, Those who lacked English - 2,434, and Drunkards - 1,965. Small wonder when the annual national consumption of beer and wine was so high such as in 1890 when it was 13.5 gallons per capita.

Enlisted men were usually more open while the Officer corps were generally more discreet with their drinking problems. Two cases of abuse show that this problem was not only found in the ranks. In 1849 at Fort Vancouver, Major John Hatheway suffered a series of seizures of Delirium Tremens (mental confusion marked by anxiety, tremors, and hallucinations caused by severe abuse of alcohol), or DTs, during which he attempted suicide. Major Hatheway was successful in 1853. George Crook upon joining the 4th Infantry at Benecia Barracks, California in 1852 reported:

The Commandant Maj. Day . . . seemed head and foremost of the revelers, one of his pastimes when drunk was to pitch furniture in the center of the room and set fire to it. . . . My first duty after reporting was to serve as file closer to the funeral escort of Maj. Miller who had just died from the effects of strong drink. We all assembled in the room where lie the corps. When Maj. Day . . . said, "hell fellars old Miller is dead and he can't drink." You can imagine my horror at hearing such an impious speech and coming from an officer of his age and rank. I couldn't believe this was real army life. Duty was performed in such a lax manner that I didn't even see my company for over a week after I joined, when I would suggest visiting it, I would be put off by its commander with some trivial excuse and probably would be invited to take a drink.

Army regulations stated a man should be sober when he enlisted but it was not uncommon for the recruiter to look the other way in order to fill his quota. In 1851, Private John Deugnan's wife successfully appealed to the Secretary of War saying her husband had been so intoxicated when enlisting, he was mentally incompetent. The nameless drunken recruit with whom James Bennett shared quarters in Rochester, New York was not as fortunate in receiving his release. As a result, he unsuccessfully tried to cut his own throat with a razor.

Violence associated with drinking was not limited to self-injury. On March 17, 1845 Private Nehemiah Evans of Company A, 1st Dragoons at Fort Scott was shot and killed by a fellow soldier, Private Nathaniel Bacon. It seems that Private Evans came across Bacon beating the company dog in the stables. Evans, assuming the role of protector for the poor dog, promptly administered a sound thrashing of the soldier. After picking himself up, Bacon went into his barracks, picked up his dragoon pistol, and upon returning to the scene of his drubbing shot Evans who succumbed 15 minutes later. In later testimony, Bacon admitted being drunk and normally Evans and he got along real well.

At various times through the 19th Century, attempts at controlling liquor use were initiated by enlisted men, usually at the behest of officers. In the ante-bellum Army, Temperance societies at a post occasionally were formed, although more common was Private Percival Lowe's comment that 10% of his company could be found in the guardhouse for offenses committed while drunk. In January 1845, Captain William Graham at Fort Scott wrote:

I have the honor to inform you (General Gibson, Commissary of Subsistence) that I ordered the whiskey that was in the Subsistence Store at this Post to be transported to Independence, Mo. the place at which it had been purchased; as the majority of the men on extra duty had taken a pledge to abstain from Spirituous [sic] liquor during their enlistment. I believed that it would add to the discipline of the command to discontinue the issue of the extra gill of whiskey, and in this opinion I was supported by several of the officers.

By August, Captain Thomas Swords lamented the lack of whiskey when he complained that, "no body drinks, no body hunts, no body does any thing but eat and sleep, and so our lives pass in vegetable state of existence."

Temperance societies were generally not successful until well approaching the 20th Century due to the prevalence of liquor. Besides obtaining liquor off post, often of questionable quality, the soldier could visit the Post Sutler to obtain various spirits. Before the Temperance movement gathered momentum in the 1830s, whiskey could be purchased. Beer and wine, not being considered ardent spirits, continued to be purchased from the Sutler until the Post Canteen replaced him in the late 19th Century. The Post Commandant's did exercise the right to outlaw the sale of beer and wine at various posts although this was rarely utilized in the frontier Army.

With our modern technology of today, we are aware of the direct correlation between alcohol abuse and disease. In the 19th Century Army, Post Surgeons strongly suspected this relationship as well. At New England Coastal garrisons from 1829-38, 90% of the deaths were due at least in part to drink. Dr. Beaumont from Jefferson Barracks, Missouri attributed more than 3/4 of diseases and injuries directly or indirectly to drink. Inspector General George Croghan in 1830 recommended the abandonment of Fort Leavenworth because of disease. The Post Surgeons attempted to improve the situation but stated that heavy drinking complicated efforts to improve the command's health. Paydays and unit moves could turn into sprees of several days duration.
Dr. Tripler of a garrison at Detroit in 1842 recommended that they be moved to more isolated quarters because, "No troops have constitutions capable of standing such persevering intemperance; they must be quartered differently, or they must die." Dr. Porter at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina in 1852 listed of the 112 soldiers of the command that there were "51 sober, 11 drinkers, 14 hard drinkers, 63 drunkards, and one opium taker." The use of narcotic drugs in the frontier army was undoubtedly not as prevalent as the abuse of alcohol; although, it did occur. The surgeon at Ft. Leavenworth in the 31 December 1843 report stated that, "Nearly all the cases arise primarily from liquor." In recording the discharge of a dragoon, however, he said, "This man destroyed himself with vicious secret practices."

What was the reason for the abundant abuse of alcohol in the Army? Many a recruiter when attempting to persuade a prospective soldier painted a glorious picture of perpetual excitement and adventure. Reality for the soldier was often an eye-opening as well as a bottle-opening experience. The boredom associated with the monotonous day in/day out existence combined with the lack of activities during leisure time led to drinking, often excessively. Assistant Surgeon S.W. Crawford at Fort McKavett in 1853 said the consequence of the labor soldiers had to perform was that the enlisted man "loses any interest he may have had in his profession, which finally becomes distasteful to him and he falls, in many instances, the easy victim of the liquor-sellers that crowd around the frontier posts."

Private George Ballentine felt that uncomfortable quarters and bad treatment, which degraded the soldier and killed his self-respect led to drinking. He also felt making whiskey hard to get and drunkenness a punishable offense led to the problem. He recommended the legalized garrison tavern of the British was a much better solution. It wasn't until the 1880s that the Post Canteen was adopted by the United States Army. By 1897, admissions to sick call for drunkenness were down half from the years 1866-1885, to 28 per 1000. Doctors attributed the decline to the Post Canteen.

Alcohol abuse is a problem that may always be with us but as for the frontier army, soldiers would have been well to listen to the wisdom of a song popular at military posts following the Civil War. The chorus describes the woes of a poor soldier who fell off the wagon, got tossed in the guardhouse, and was awaiting his dishonorable discharge.

O'Reilly's gone to Hell

Since down the pole he fell.

He drank up all the bug juice

The whiskey man would sell.

Oh, they rammed him in the mill

They've got him in their still.

His bobtail's coming back by mail

O'Reilly's gone to Hell.

Ball and Chain
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Last updated: July 25, 2016

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