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  • Prohibition, Sacrifice, and Morality in the Confederate States, 1861–1865
  • Megan L. Bever (bio)

In early 1862, Virginia state senator James M. Whittle found himself in hot water. The legislature had recently voted to prohibit distilling because it wasted grain, and Whittle had voted in support of the measure. He received angry letters from his constituents—the farmers of Pittsylvania County—for his trouble. Writing to a friend and political supporter in Pittsylvania County, Whittle explained that though he had been encouraged "to support the stills"—specifically those of Virginians who distilled grains for their own private use—he believed that the prohibition on distilling could be borne stoically and patriotically. The problem with distilling during a time of war was twofold: the state was running out of grain, and "the army has been demoralized by liquor." If distilling continued, Whittle pointed out, there was no way for the Confederacy to sustain its war effort. "Certainly some will lose money" by being unable to distill, he acknowledged, "but we all lose money by the war & no one ought to complain on that account." Instead, Whittle insisted, all patriotic Virginians must embrace the financial hardships caused by the war. Even Whittle was willing to adjust his habits. Knowing that whiskey "has killed more than the Yankee," he vowed "to take not a drop . . . to save the cause of the country." He insisted that he was "no temperance man & had no such view in my vote." His teetotalism, as he understood it, was a patriotic gesture.1

Whittle's exchange with his constituent proved emblematic of the prohibition-related conversations occurring throughout the Confederacy, but especially in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia.2 At first [End Page 251] glance, these conversations might surprise historians. After all, most of the historiography suggests that white southerners failed to support temperance reform (a movement they sometimes even ridiculed). Nevertheless, in early 1862 six Confederate states passed prohibition, and a seventh followed suit a year later. When discussing prohibition, Confederates regularly cited two intertwined concerns: soldier discipline and food shortages. Both crises, they believed, were exacerbated by distillers, who put profits ahead of patriotic sacrifice. Likewise, both crises could be mitigated by prohibiting distilling at the state level. Abstinence became a wartime necessity. Passing prohibition was necessary to promote the public good.

This embrace of prohibition signals a shift in white southerners' prevailing attitudes about controlling liquor manufacturing. Historians have long noted that before the Civil War, white southerners were slow to embrace temperance reform. Some argue that because white southerners knew that many temperance reformers were also abolitionists, they were wary of any radical movement that sought to upset the status quo.3 Other historians disagree, arguing persuasively that the limited support for temperance in the South probably had more to do with the fact that the great majority of white southerners lived on farms. Distilling, after all, was the best way to preserve fruits and grains, and manufacturing liquor was a necessary part of southern agricultural life. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, sizable towns were popping up in various regions of the South, and the middle-class citizens of these communities tended to regard alcohol as a nuisance and to promote abstinence. In other words, support for temperance existed in the South before the war, and if the movement counted fewer members in the slaveholding states, these historians contend, it was because much of the South was rural, and temperance was largely an urban phenomenon.4 [End Page 252]

When historians weigh southern support for liquor control, they also must consider the ways that slave codes masked prohibitory measures. It is no secret that after the war, white southerners embraced prohibition at the same time that southern states codified segregation. But long before emancipation and segregation, southern states prohibited enslaved people (and free people of color) from consuming alcohol. Because the majority of manual laborers in the antebellum South were enslaved, white southerners had little need for additional prohibitions. The race-based laws adequately controlled their liquor problem, as they perceived it.5 If we consider that white southerners were more in favor of controlling access to liquor...


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