Manhood, Madness, and Moonshine

In November 2015, Princeton University economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case published a startling report. Among 45 to 54 year olds with no more than a high school education, they found death rates increased by 134 per 100,000 from 1999 to 2014. These mortality rates, Deaton and Case argued, were not being driven by the usual suspects of diabetes or heart disease, but by suicide, alcoholism, and opioid addiction. This sad revelation was billed by the economists as unparalleled in American history.

However, these rampant alcohol addiction rates do have a historical parallel in the period following the American Civil War. Alcohol abuse wasn’t uncommon in the United States during the nineteenth century, but the science of addiction did not exist yet. Instead, alcohol occupied a peculiar nexus where gender and medicine became intertwined. Excessive consumption of alcohol was believed by many to indicate a lack of self-control that nineteenth-century ideas of manhood demanded. It could also be a factor in mental illness, as intemperance, as it was called then, was thought to lead to moral insanity. This was further complicated by addiction’s prevalence among Civil War veterans, because these men were considered the paragon of masculinity–saviors of the Republic. But even the heroes of the Civil War were not exempt from middle-class values of self-control. Civil War veterans could be unmanned by drinking too much, and their service did not insulate them from postwar blights on their manhood.

Two unidentified soldiers in Union cavalry uniforms with sword share a drink in front of painted backdrop showing camp
Two unidentified soldiers in Union cavalry uniforms with sword share a drink in front of painted backdrop showing camp (Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs | Library of Congress).

By all accounts, drinking was prevalent in camps during the Civil War: officers rationed whiskey to their men, families sent brandy to their sons and husbands, and peddlers sold dram in camp. Teetotalers and temperance advocates like John Marsh remembered the difficulty God-fearing Northerners had in convincing other soldiers to abstain from liquor: “Numerous letters from chaplains in the army, continually assured me of the receipt of tracts, and their distribution; but the evils of intemperance were great, both among officers and soldiers.”[1]

After the war, veterans, like all Americans, had a wide variety of opinions regarding alcoholism among former Yankees. Some counseled civilians to feel empathy for the intemperate. Fellow veterans knew the trials and tribulations that others had faced during the war. “Always take notice in your own vicinity,” wrote Daniel Crotty, veteran of the Third Michigan Infantry, “that when an old soldier settles down, is industrious, keeps sober and makes a good citizen, almost invariably put him down as a good soldier in the field…But let all good people deal lightly with a soldier’s faults, for they have been through the mill for the past four years,” he wrote.[2] Crotty implicitly recognized that some veterans had been to hell and back, and threw themselves into the bottle to deal with their memories.

Many veterans though, especially those of the temperate ilk – white, middle-class Protestants – believed that alcohol could be a litmus test of genteel manhood. Men who nearly drowned themselves in whiskey were not men, they argued, as these men were unable to exert a measure of self-control, which for many was a marker of masculinity, especially in the North. “I will say right here for the benefit of the young men of today, I have seen the effects of drink, and I would not trust my life with the best man living if he drinks,” wrote James Henry Avery, a veteran of the Fifth Michigan Cavalry. “No one who drinks is a man, nor will he ever be a man. He willfully pours down stuff that immediately takes away all the man, and leaves him forever a beast, and worse still, a devil.”[3] Avery viewed alcoholism through the framework of Protestant middle-class morality. Regardless of the circumstances, even amidst war, real men could control themselves and their immoral impulses. Those who could not, or would not, were weak and could not claim the mantle of man.

A particularly revealing case of how excessive use of alcohol was believed to cause mental illness and unman a Civil War veteran was the case of Cincinnati resident Adolph Ahlers. In July of 1861, Ahlers enlisted in the Forty-Seventh Ohio Infantry. During the war, he rose to the position of Second Lieutenant. At the Battle of Atlanta on July 20th, 1864, Adolph temporarily took command of Company C after the Company Captain was injured. While commanding the company, Confederate artillery exploded near him. Shrapnel shredded his left arm, which was immediately amputated.[4]

Adolph, now missing his arm, returned home to Hamilton County, Ohio to his wife, Philomena. The couple soon gave birth to a son, Charles. However, Adolph slowly developed problems. He was hindered by his physical disability, but the family was able to eke out a living on Adolph’s pension check. Perhaps because of consistent pain, or to nurse his pride, Adolph apparently began to frequent Cincinnati saloons. He often came home drunk and began to waste the family’s meager wages on booze. “The last time he was in the City he was drunk all the time,” Philomena remembered, “and that worried me day and night.”[5]

He was finally admitted to a soldier’s home, which then transferred him to St. Elizabeths Hospital, an asylum in Washington D.C. that treated veterans, in January 1877. There, he was diagnosed with chronic mania caused by intemperance. Philomena had little sympathy for Adolph’s condition. “He has no one to blame for his trouble but himself,” she wrote. “He had a good home, I did everything in my power to please him.”[6] Whenever Adolph seemed to be improving, his legal guardian contacted Philomena about possibly releasing him and sending him back home to Cincinnati, which Philomena consistently opposed. She did not believe him capable of recovery because, like a child, he was incapable of caring for himself. “I think like the Dr. that he is great deal better cared for there than any other place,” she wrote. “Just as sure as he is discharged from there, he will get worse, because he does not know how to take care of himself.”[7]

Adolph’s son Charles believed that his father’s intemperance and commitment to the asylum were a blight on his manhood. A true man and a good father would prove his manhood by providing for his family and bequeathing his children a good reputation. Charles inherited none of these gifts. Indeed, Charles was more bitter and angry with his father than Philomena was. He had grown up poor and fatherless, as Adolph had been institutionalized during his formative years. Later in life, Charles heard stories about his father, none of which were good. “[Mother] did not tell me of his treatment towards her until I had heard it from other parties who had known him in his palmy days, and it was only two years ago that she admitted it to me,” Charles wrote to the asylum superintendent. “It was his conduct that made him what he is, and if he had been a man and a good husband, he and she and possibly myself would have been prominent people.”[8]

While the relationship between alcohol and masculinity could vary widely in nineteenth-century society, it was expected that white middle-class Protestants would drink, but never in excess. Drunkenness was seen as a shameful loss of self-control by genteel Americans. This loss of self-control, they argued, could result in mental illness as well as the questioning of manliness by peers. Service in the war, considered by many to be the ultimate expression of manhood, did not protect men from the mental health and gender implications of heavy drinking. It is easy to imagine a world where the devastation of the war – 750,000 dead – would cause genteel Americans to question their previous beliefs regarding drinking and self-control. However, this did not happen. Instead, middle-class Americans continued their belief – for thirty years after the war – that intemperance was unmanly and could lead to insanity.

Gradually, the science of addiction emerged, and medical professionals increasingly treated the survivors of trauma who slip into alcoholism with more empathy and understanding. Today, opioid usage is conceived in similar ways as the nineteenth century scourge of alcoholism. Decades ago, individuals with opioid addictions were treated by the public and many medical professionals as pathetic creatures who exhibited a shameful lack of self-control. Recently, however, the science of opioid addiction has begun to shift our perspective. The greed of the Sackler family, who knowingly exposed Americans to the dangers of OxyContin to line their pockets, has made the public more aware of the complexity of addiction. While many still view individuals with opioid addictions with a mix of disgust and suspicion, others, are slowly beginning to view addicts with sympathy.

Notes

  1. John Marsh, Temperance Recollections: Labors, Defeats, and Triumphs (Scribner, 1866), 341.
  2. Daniel G. Crotty, Four Years in the Army of the Potomac (Dygert Bros & Co., 1874), 93.
  3. Eric J. Wittenberg, ed., Under Custers Command: The Civil War Journal of James Henry Avery (Brassey’s, 2000), 156.
  4. Claim for Invalid Pension, 5 February 1865, Pension No. 38961, 2nd Lieut. Adolph Ahlers.
  5. Philomena Ahlers to Mr. Campbell, 19 September 1881, Case 4207, Adolph Ahlers, Box 20, Record Group 418, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital Records, National Archives.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Philomena Ahlers to Mr. Campbell, 19 September 1881, Case 4207, Adolph Ahlers, Box 20, RG 418, Records of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, National Archives.
  8. Charles Ahlers to William A. White, 11 October 1905, Case 4207, Adolph Ahlers, Box 20, RG 418, Records of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

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