Normally I don’t blog about current events and prefer to focus on subjects directly related to the Civil War, especially the more esoteric or unusual aspects of the Late Unpleasantness. Since there is so much going on in Middle Tennessee regarding the Sesquicentennial, however, I am going to digress a bit this go round. Hopefully I will be able to get back on track with blog entries before the big Battle of Nashville celebrations coming up next week.
While there has been a number of interesting 150th events going on in the Mid South since September, this author has been distracted putting his latest book “to bed,” dealing with Ambrose Bierce and his Civil War experiences (more of that at another time), so I have been very remiss of late. However, this weekend I did have a booth at Mike Kent’s venerable Mid South Civil War Show, now named (I think) the Franklin Civil War Show, ever since the powers that be in Music City decided turning their state fair grounds into a quick profit for developers would be a good idea. That the voters in Nashville did not agree with the politicians and their developer friends has only temporarily delayed them, unfortunately.
As an aside, any travelers to Nashville for the anniversary of the battle should be aware that the state fairground itself is smack dab in the middle of battlefield. There is a Confederate “lunette” just down the road on a hill overlooking Nolensville Pike on a small road that leads over a railroad cut and over to Murfreesboro Road. This is the same part of the Nashville battlefield I blogged about in “Captain Aldrich and the Dance of Death” (July, 2014).
In any case, only fifteen minutes south of Nashville by interstate sits Franklin, which, while it too loves its developers and their bulldozers, has done a great deal to not only preserve its historic heritage, but in recent years been highly pro-active in reclaiming parts of the Battle of Franklin battlefield. Yes, you can have prosperity and history side by side and the city of Franklin is proving it–which is one good reason why one of the largest Civil War shows in the South moved down the road to Franklin a few years back.
As usual, Mike Kent’s show had an army of people attending, many in mufti, and there were excellent booths of all descriptions lining both levels of the Williamson County Agricultural Center. In between selling and jabbering about my Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil Warand The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincolnbooks, I talked with a number of nice folks on various topics of the War, (many of which are still in dispute) and learned a thing or three I didn’t know about before. Besides the two main Civil War books, I also had Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Groundon sale, as well as Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, which also cover a number of Civil War topics and I sold a few of those as well. I also did a bit of jawboning about my upcoming Bierce book and ran into one Civil War enthusiast from Indiana was quite knowledgeable about the Ninth Indiana Infantry regiment. Apropos of Civil War ghosts, several of the visitors to my booth told me about their family’s encounters with the supernatural at Civil War sites, which I will relate in a later blog or two.
When time allowed, I also went to the other booths to take a look see at what they had available. While I did buy one or two items, I wish my budget had been as big as my eyes, as there were quite a few collector’s gems on display there. Of course, by gems I mean uniforms, bayonets, swords, muskets and the like. Military Images magazine, a gold mine of pictorial information about the war, also had a booth there and I got to meet Ron Coddington there. In case you are not familiar with him and his work, he is the go-to expert for Civil War photography, especially cartes de visites and the like, and has written extensively, not only for MI for Civil War News and the New York Times. If ya’ll have never seen Military Images, I recommend it highly.
There were some unusual booths as well. I have blogged about sex and single soldier before and I still have hopes of convincing some publisher to let me do a book just on real romances of the Civil War (yes, folks, grandpa and grandma somehow managed to meet and reproduce, even during the Civil War), but one lady had a booth which was a revelation even to me. It had a wealth of documents, photos and other memorabilia about the distaff side of the Civil War, especially with regard to the armies of “shady ladies” who served their country in way not often written about. All of her displays were interesting and some surprisingly risqué for the 1860’s. Almost all of what her booth on exhibit has never been published before—which goes to show that there is quite a lot still out there about the war all of which have yet to see their way into print.
All in all, the 26th annual show was a success, both for my own books, but for Civil War enthusiasts attending in general. This year in particular the show occurred at an ideal time, bracketing as it does the sesquicentennials of both the Battle of Franklin and the Battle of Nashville. Not to be down on my home town, but compared to little Franklin, one would expect Nashville to have done more over the years regarding its Civil War heritage and preservation. In fairness, there have been some very active people interested in promoting Nashville’s Civil War sites and their preservation; and coming up in mid month there will be a lot going on in Nashville to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the battle one historian called “decisive.” If anyone out there reading this happens to be traveling through the city for the holidays on their way towards other destinations, be sure to take a day or two to linger and take in one or another of the special events happening for the Battle of Nashville anniversary. You’ll be glad you did.
In recent months a bit of controversy has arisen over one Southern general’s alleged drug use. A new biography has come out by a distant descendant vehemently denying a “slander” that the said commander was under the influence of either opiates or alcohol during one of the penultimate campaigns of the Late Unpleasantness. The said biographer avers—and correctly so—that there is no written evidence that the Confederate commander was intoxicated or a “drug addict.” However, in tracking down the trail of evidence on that issue, I realized the topic raised much broader issues than simply the drug or alcohol use of one soldier.
There were many things going on during the Civil War that participants on both sides rarely talked about in print; but that doesn’t mean those things weren’t going on a daily basis. Traditionally, historians have relied on the written word; oral tradition, local folklore and similar sources tend to be overlooked or disregarded. Official reports, dispatches, postwar memoirs and the like are the mainstay of the Civil War historians. That is all well and good, but there as Walt Whitman observed, “the real war will never get in the books.” And like any good Victorian, Whitman and others of the Civil War era who did things which they preferred not to talk about, Whitman adds that not only will they not be written about but “perhaps must not and should not be.”
In a previous post, I discussed sex and the single Civil War soldier; a more thorough look at hanky-panky by both sides can also be had by reading The Story the Soldiers Would Not Tell, by Dr. Thomas P. Lowry. In researching my upcoming bio of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War service, it was obvious that the famous author spent his furlough time in the fleshpots of Nashville doing something other than reading newspapers and going to the opera—although proving such is difficult to do.
So, while the sex part has already been dealt with, the drugs have not. While specifics can be elusive, as with the good general mentioned at the start of the article, there is an abundance of period information about the use of narcotics during the era in general. Besides the reluctance of historians to delve into such “off” topics as drug use in the Civil War, there is also a dual cultural barrier to our understanding of what was really going on: in the first instance, the very different social and moral norms of the 1860’s and then our own modern attitudes, which often lead to mistaken assumptions about past behavior.
For the most part, the modern stigma regarding the use of opiates and other drugs which are illicit and illegal today simply wasn’t present during the Civil War. Opium itself has been known and used ancient times; it was used as a cure for headaches in pharaonic Egypt and by all accounts they had no problem with it being abused or wide scale addiction problems. In contrast, nineteenth century Imperial China had a massive problem with drug addiction and tried to prohibit the import of opium. However, the British in India were making a lot of money off of the opium trade and actually fought two wars with China to force them to allow the British to import shiploads of the stuff. Her Majesty’s government was, in effect, the biggest pusher of all times.
In the United States opium was known and used, mostly by the upper classes, before the Civil War. In the South, it was a common ingredient in homemade medicines and used for a wide variety of ailments, including the generic catch-all “female complaints.” The main users of opium it seems were affluent white women. There was no stigma attached to its use. According to one source, the womenfolk of the Jefferson Davis family were prescribed liberal doses of opium by their family physician and became “dangerously addicted” to it. The most common way people took opium as a medicine was in the form of laudanum, a liquid concoction consisting of about 40% alcohol, opium and water to dilute it. Laudanum was given to men, women and children freely for pain, diarrhea, coughs and whatever else physicians could think of. Of course, since it was not regulated at all, people could purchase it on their own or brew up themselves to save money.
The famous Southern diarist, Mary Chestnutt, writing in July of 1861, expressed distain for this commonplace household remedy: “I have no intention of drugging myself now.” However, later in the war she was given an overdose of a medicine called Dover’s Powder, whose main ingredient was—you guessed it, opium. It nearly killed her; as it was, she was unconscious for two days. Of course, the most famous American before the war to use opiates was Edgar Allen Poe, the famed Southern Gothic writer, and how much his morbid stories of the supernatural were inspired by his drug use remains a subject of dispute.
While not nearly as commonplace as opiates, hashish was known and used in America before the war. However, its use seems to have been limited to certain cultured circles and was not widely used as either a medicine or for recreational use. The publication of Fitzhugh Ludlow’s book The Hashish Eater in 1857 seems to have inspired a number of affluent young gentlemen to experiment with the exotic drug. One such young man was John Hay, attending Brown University at the time, “where I used to eat Hashish and dream dreams.” Hay would later become President Lincoln’s personal secretary and after the war co-author of the President’s semi-official biography.
Speaking of Abraham Lincoln, it should be noted that, while Lincoln was a teetotaler and is not known to have ever imbibed, one of his biographers has suggested that he may have partaken of cocaine. In his book, The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln, Harry F. Pratt claimed that on Oct. 12, 1860, Lincoln purchased cocaine from the local Springfield pharmacy of Corneau and Diller’s for the princely sum of fifty cents. This was scarcely a month before the crucial Presidential election that put Lincoln in the White House and the issue of whether or not Honest Abe actually did use cocaine has been a bone of contention among Lincoln scholars for some years.
Of course, far and away, the drug of choice before the war, and continuing on up to the present day, was alcohol. While the consumption of alcohol in its many forms is a longstanding pastime and certainly the drug of choice for twentieth and twentieth century America, the modern American recreational use of this drug pales before the prodigious quantities of John Barleycorn and his cousins that were consumed in early America. The Temperance Movement, while much derided after the failure of Prohibition in the 1920’s, nonetheless had valid reasons for attacking alcohol besides Victorian prudery. Of course the dispute over General Grant’s alcohol use, or lack of it, has been going on for 150 years and shows no sigh of abating.
During the war, all these drugs and even more toxic substances were regularly used by army surgeons on both sides. It may be hard for us today to understand how common some of these substances were for treatment of a wide variety of ailments, yet it is an incontrovertible fact. Dr. Charles Beneulyn Johnson, a regimental surgeon with the Union Army described the typical medicine chest that an army surgeon would carry with him into the field: “During a campaign our stocks of medicines were necessarily limited to standard remedies. “During a campaign our stocks of medicines were necessarily limited to standard remedies,” he wrote, and included opium, morphine, Dover’s Powder (also containing opium), quinine, rhubarb, Rochelle Salts, Epsom salts, castor oil, sugar of lead, tannin, sulphate of copper, sulphate of zinc, camphor, tincture of iron, tincture of opium, camphorate, syrup of squills, simple syrup, alcohol, whiskey, brandy, port wine, sherry wine, to give the short list.
The most common treatment for dysentery and diarrhea was morphine, an opium derivative which was invented before the war. While it could be injected, it was most commonly given out in powder or pill form. William H. Taylor, a Confederate surgeon with the Army of Northern Virginia, would deal with sick call by dispensing morphine for diarrhea and “blue mass” (whose main ingredient was mercury) for constipation. A Union physician simplified sick call even more by performing diagnosis from horseback, dispensing morphine powder by pouring it into his hand and letting the patients lick it out of his hand!
I could go on and on with more illustrations of the common use of what are now banned chemicals during the war; in fact it would take a whole book to discuss this topic properly. But it is important to understand how commonplace the issuing of such drugs was to put the dispute over famous general’s alleged use of opiates or alcohol in proper context.
Right now John Bell Hood, the embattled commander of the Army of Tennessee, is the main focus of attention. As I mentioned above, there is no written evidence that he was under the influence of opiates or alcohol when he allowed the trapped Federals under his old schoolmate, General John Schofield, escape at Springhill, or his ill considered attack at the Battle of Franklin. However, the suggestion that he did use Laudanum has been floated by historians for many years. Hood had lost a leg at Gettysburg and shattered an arm at Chickamauga and if he did partake of Laudanum or any other opiate to ease the pain of those severe injuries would not mean he was a “drug addict” or junkie by any means, and it is not slander to suggest so. His use of such a painkiller, even if it could be proved, would have been perfectly legitimate, and indeed would have, if anything, enabled him to better cope with the terrible pain he most certainly would have been in.
But Hood is by no means the only Confederate commander to whom the suggestion of drug use has been ascribed. General Braxton Bragg, the contentious previous commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, is also thought to have used opiates. Some historians have described him as erratic and suffering from a variety of ailments including malaria, dyspepsia and the boils, the standard treatments for which would have included either Laudanum or morphine. Again, as with Hood, we cannot be sure he did partake; but it would not have been unusual—or immoral–if he had.
In my researches into Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce’s wartime career, I found that Bierce specifically testified to observing General Grant imbibing while observing the Battle of Missionary Ridge. Grant, however, was not one to drink alone; his senior commanders “bit the snake” as did Bierce himself, and Bierce argued that neither his nor Grants having a nip as shot and shell whizzed around them in any way affected his ability to command. While one may question Bierce judgment on the matter, one cannot question his testimony.
There remain many unanswered questions regarding the Civil War and perhaps some may never be fully answered. Certainly, what your great great grandpa (or grandma) did back then may not sit well with what you or I believe today. But we should at least grant them the grace to allow that what they did was done according to their own lights and in line with the accepted values of the day. Perhaps the “better angels of our nature” sang a different song back then than we hear today.
While it should be obvious–since everyone living today who can trace an ancestor to the Civil War is in existence–the fact is that great-great grandpa and grandma had sex; in fact, judging from the size of nineteenth century families, they had sex quite a lot. No surprise here; but until one lone book on the subject came along, you would think nobody during the War Between the States ever did the dirty deed. In all the histories, academic studies, articles and scholarly monographs there was, with few exceptions, nary a mention: nada, nothing.
Then along came Dr. Thomas P. Lowry and his groundbreaking book, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War. Of course the information was there all along: in archives, libraries, family attics and even in some official reports. Luckily for us, all those hot letters great grandma wrote great grandpa and vice-versa were never looked at after the war and so were stored in an attic until donated sight unseen to some local library or archive. There is also the uncomfortable fact that young men, away from home for the first time in their lives, whether unmarried or married, frequently availed themselves of the pleasures of the flesh while posted in the major garrison towns that the Northern army occupied, such as Washington, DC, New Orleans and Nashville, Tennessee. Even in some of the more remote posts, prostitutes could and would ply their trade.
There was even one pamphlet that provided a guide to the cat houses of Washington. The section between what is today Pennsylvania Avenue and The Mall was an notorious red light district called Hooker’s Division. This was a play on words that referred to both the prostitutes that occupied neighborhood and their frequent customers–the troops in General Joe Hooker’s division–that were camped nearby. Needless to say, this was the origin of the term, Hooker.
Nashville, in particular, gained some notoriety for its army of whores who occupied the Rebel city shortly after the Yankees did. Of course military authorities were more concerned with prosecuting the war, and the prostitutes became something of an embarrassment; more importantly, in the days before penicillin, they also became a major health hazard. Federal authorities in the occupied Confederate state capitol tried various solutions to deal with the problem, even going to the length of rounding up the trollops, putting them aboard a steamship and sending them back north: unfortunately, no respectable Northern city wanted thousands of prostitutes descending on them and shipped the ladies of the evening right back from whence they came.
Finally, Military authorities in Nashville, failing to outlaw the Oldest Profession, hit upon the solution of regulating it. Col. George Spalding, Provost Marshall of Nashville, instituted a program of licensed prostitution. Military physicians routinely inspected the Soiled Doves, then issued a certificate that they were not infected, which in turn allowed them to ply their trade with the thousands of Union soldiers in the city. Ambrose Bierce, who was a lieutenant in the Army of the Cumberland during the war and who was in and out of Nashville all during the war, was certainly exposed to this situation; whether he was in and out of the loose women as well is not proven–but it would not have been unusual if he had been. In any case, his exposure to the abundance of so many shady ladies in his formative years may well have colored his later low opinion of women in general.
That there were women of low virtue in Nashville in such quantities, however, should not be taken to mean that all the women that Union soldiers came in contact with were of low morals. Most of the females in the city at the start of the war were of good family and since most were confirmed Secessionists, they at first had little interest in fraternizing with the hated Yankee invaders. However, Nashville was occupied in February of 1862 and remained in Union hands throughout the war, despite Rebel attempts to retake it. Eventually, many of the ladies of the South succumbed to the presence of so many eligible young men in their midst, despite their political differences.
That such relationships could be stormy perhaps goes without saying. General Gates P. Thruston, described his future bride when he first met her as, “a Secesh scratch-cat.” No doubt other Federal soldiers could tell a similar tale of their courtship of Southern ladies. When General Thruston finally married his beloved traitor, his future mother-in-law refused to attend the wedding if he wore his Yankee uniform: he did, so she didn’t. It is estimated that close to two hundred young women from Nashville and environs eventually married Union officers.
Of course, like the boys in blue, Southern gentlemen often did not behave like gentlemen when it came to sex in the Civil War. When the Confederates evacuated the stronghold of Island No. 10 in the Mississippi, the occupying Federal troops found a rear-guard of Confederate camp-followers still occupying the Rebel camp. The Yankees did not have to assault their breastworks to gain access to their favors: monetary compensation was sufficient.