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.
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.”
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. Crotty implicitly recognized that some veterans had been to hell and back, and threw themselves into the bottle to deal with their memories.