“Colonel, make it a double, please!”Written by Frank Kuron | | email@example.com
Several years ago I helped a friend paint his house. The idea of sacrificing a whole day off from work, to work; made me balk at first. However, I succumbed out of loyalty toward our friendship and the 12-pack he offered as payment. Vices do have an inherent lure, don’t they? Well, there was a bit of that in the U.S. armed forces during the War of 1812.
Alcohol consumption in our new, emerging country was widespread and prolific and there were few restrictions of its use in the military. In fact, it was used as an incentive to serve. At our own Fort Meigs, and other fortresses in our area, it was pretty standard procedure for every man to receive a gil of whisky or rum per day. A gil? Well, that’s four ounces, or what they called a “quarter-pint,” of hard liquor, packing at least a 100-proof wallop.
Don’t get the wrong idea, there was plenty of patriotism in the 1812 military and militia, and it wasn’t the simple lure of free booze that prompted them to risk their lives, but it did help make up for other deficiencies. Our young government was frequently lax in providing the troops with some vital items like clothing, firearms and even their pay. Alcohol, however, was almost always in-stock even if food wasn’t — the officers made certain of it. The warmth of a few shots probably saved more than a few lives of men who were nearly frozen in threadbare linen shirts during brutal wilderness winters. And wounded soldiers drew courage from it as they faced battlefield amputations and surgeries with no other anesthesia.
Consider that the attack of Fort Meigs came predominantly in the form of British cannonballs being fired across the Maumee River at our fortress. Their arsenal seemed limitless, ours very sparse. What to do? Well, our commander, Gen. William Harrison, offered an extra gil to any man who dared retrieve an enemy cannon ball that had missed its mark. Hundreds of balls were thus recovered.
Now it wasn’t that all these men were alcoholics, though surely many had built up a decent tolerance. Early Americans were raised on alcohol. The reason was not simply for the obvious pleasure. It was primarily a matter of health. Water was often contaminated with all sorts of bacteria and viruses causing disease and death. The frontiersmen didn’t quite understand the specifics, but they found that drinking fermented water solved many of their disease issues, and it sure tasted better.
Since our founding, until temperance movements began to have an influence around 1830, many families on the frontier had their own beer brewing equipment. On a weekly basis, the woman of the house would typically make a batch of hard cider or “small beer,” a low-alcohol stout sweetened with molasses. Men, women and children would routinely have a pint for breakfast. Men would usually have a pint or two at midday, again at dinner, and of course a nightcap.
Although regular drinking was a way of life, drunkenness was seriously frowned upon. There were severe penalties for a sentry who jeopardized numerous lives by being found drunk at his post. And no villages wanted a town drunk causing a ruckus. In a bit of irony, the use of spirits instead of water for health reasons, when consumed in excess, caused those individuals to lose any sense of hygiene, thus making them susceptible to life-threatening germs anyway.
Still another reason for regular consumption of whisky, rum, cider and beer was that it was the only way to keep the abundant excesses of corn, sugarcane, fruit and grains preserved. For the locals on the frontier, a drink was a cheap commodity, but it was also a very lucrative “export” to the East Coast.
Breweries making full-strength stout sprang up everywhere as the country grew. By 1810, 132 of them were in operation in the U.S. It wasn’t until 1838 that the first brewery in the Toledo area began selling its Buckeye beer at Consaul and Front streets, still a landmark today as the home of Tony Packo’s restaurant.
Frank Kuron is author of the War of 1812 book, “Thus Fell Tecumseh.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bugle Call: upcoming events
- Visit Fort Meigs May 26-27 and see recreated battles, musket and artillery demonstrations, and camp life demonstrations during their “1st Siege 1813: War of 1812 Re-enactment & Memorial Day Ceremony.” On Memorial Day, a special wreath-laying ceremony will take place at 2 p.m. in front of the monument within the fort.
- Visit Fort Meigs June 2 for a beautiful, musical summer evening in commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the 50th anniversary of the Perrysburg Symphony Orchestra as it performs Melodies on the Maumee, a celebration concert.
Visit www.fortmeigs.org or call (419) 874-4121 for complete details about all upcoming events.