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Good Beer Hunting

May 6, 2023

In the runup to the American Civil War, the number one political issue on everyone’s minds was…slavery. Of course it was. But it's easy to forget that the number two issue was alcohol. Back then, like today, debates over drinking boiled down to a few key points: who should drink what—and in particular what kind of liquor—how much, when, and what that drinking said about a person’s character.

When American drinkers, usually men, marched to war in the Union and Confederate militaries, the politics of alcohol enlisted with them. It’s the subject of a new book by Missouri Southern State University professor Megan Bever called “At War with King Alcohol: Debating and Drinking Masculinity in the Civil War.”

Her research reveals the many ways alcohol intersected with the war: as medical cures, an escape from the whiplash of combat and boredom in military life, as big business for opportunistic civilians, as a thorn in the side of temperance reformers, and as an ongoing point of discourse among leaders on both sides.

For this episode, I sat down with Megan to talk about this history and the deeper issues it laid on the table. When booze seeped into both Union and Confederate encampments—and it did by the barrel—it raised some big questions. If a soldier drinks, does that make them a coward? Can they perform their duty? Are they even a “real man”?

And in civilian life, contention also raged as to whether distilling whiskey or brewing beer meant entrepreneurs provided a valuable service or acted as profiteers stealing resources from the war effort.

Running through it all was the debate about whether “King Alcohol,” as some called it, was a tool for victory, or another insidious enemy to fight.