Grain, whiskey and a question of sovereignty – Shenandoah, January 1864

Posted on January 25, 2014 by


Threshing or thrashing wheat... thereby separating the wheat from the chaff.

Threshing/thrashing wheat… thereby separating the wheat from the chaff.

Note: Conscious of the typical in-and-out Web surfer, I figured I better give a heads-up that there’s a long line of quotes that follow below, extracted from the Staunton Spectator… and as regular readers know, this isn’t typically my style. I was just fascinated by the series of whiskey articles that appeared in the paper, over the period of 25 months. More importantly, I think this begins to paint a clearer picture of the impact of “The Burning”, in the Shenandoah Valley, that would follow later in the year, from September 26-October 8, 1864. For those who can be patient and stick it out, enjoy! 

In January, 1864, the Staunton Spectator had what appears to be its last article out a series of articles that had run (albeit with wide gaps in between each) since December 1861. Whiskey had long been considered a problem. Yet, it wasn’t just drunkeness that drove the issue. Bottom line… whiskey required grain, and grain was in high demand. The Shenandoah Valley was the “breadbasket of the Confederacy”, and, with the exception of those who were involved in privately distilling, folks seemed not so much interested in adding the title of the “whiskey barrel of the Confederacy.” While the war on drunkeness is understood… especially considering all of the temperance activities that preceded the war… it’s the impact that whiskey production had on grain use (for other, more valuable items, especially in war) that holds my attention more.

Looking back at various issues of the Staunton Spectator, we can see a very clear trail of thought.

In December, 1861, there was this article:

A Southern contemporary denounces in terms of just but strong reprobation the extensive distillation of the staff of life into one of the most prolific fountains of misery and death that ever was let loose upon an unhappy race. In the present condition of the South, when it is absolutely necessary that all the grain we raise should be converted to its legitimate purposes, the distillation into whiskey should be restricted to such limits as are required for medicinal purposes, and the moderate supply which is necessary for the army. Anything beyond this is a wanton, criminal, and treasonable waste of articles essential to the support of our soldiers and the comfort of our population.

Over a year later, on February 18, 1862, measures were being taken by citizens to deal with the issue (note also the mention of the same issue in North Carolina).

Petitions are in circulation in this county praying the Legislature “speedily to enact the necessary laws to suppress the consumption of grain in the manufacture of spirituous liquor, on account of the numerous evils resulting in the county, under existing circumstances, from the increase of distilleries.”

We have no doubt that these petitions will be numerously signed, as an overwhelming majority of the people feel that some effective step should be taken to prevent such immense quantities of corn and rye from being converted from a blessing into a curse – from being changed from a supporter into a destroyer of life. It is supposed that, in this county, FIFTY THOUSAND bushels of grain are consumed monthly by the fifty or sixty distilleries which are now in active operation. In Richmond, it is said, that one large distillery there consumes a thousand bushels per day. As liquor will command any price, the distilleries can afford to pay an enormous price for grain, and the consequence will be that corn will become so high in price that the poor will have to suffer, as they will not be able to buy.

The Richmond Dispatch says that “the consumption of grain in North Carolina for whiskey was so great, that the press predicts that corn will be worth $5 PER BUSHEL IN THE SUMMER, unless the distilleries are suppressed.”

In reference to the traffic in ardent spirits at this time the same paper says:

“The authorities ought to take this subject in hand. Sumptuary laws are in general improper and odious, but in times of great public emergency like the present, the sale of ardent spirits ought to be suppressed as a measure of public safety and military discipline. The Southern Confederacy would be better off if every drop of spirituous liquors now within its borders were emptied into the sea. The Northern authorities seeing the havoc that hard drinking was doing their armies, have taken strong measures to suppress it. Here is one instance in which we may learn a valuable lesson from the enemy. What can be done in this matter? Who will suggest the proper remedy for an evil crying aloud for reform?”

“If there should be a scarcity of grain commencing in the spring, and the next crop should fail, or not be a good one, what would be the dreadful consequences? That possibility must be taken into view in considering this question.”

Indeed, in that same issue, news from the Richmond Dispatch suggested that the War Department was already moving toward action, with plans to “shortly issue an order directing the seizure of all corn currently held for the purpose of distilling liquor.”

By March, 1862, as the title of another article suggested, the anti-whiskey movement had moved into a “War upon Whiskey”. That said, however, the bill on the floor needed fine-tuning. The following was reprinted from a letter from Bolivar Christian, who had been previously mistaken as one who opposed the bill.

WhiskeyConfederateIt is admitted by its advocates that this particular bill will not diminish the drunkenness of the army or country; but under the high prices its passage will induce, mean liquors from other States will flood the land, and distillers of fruits, vegetable, &c. will be re-doubled all over our own State. While its passage cannot increase the quantity of corn now left, it may encourage the farmer from planting this spring, both because this market is cut off for the present, and also for fear the Legislature may pursue such policy in future and again by law reduce still lower the profits of his labor. While if the price be left undisturbed by law the planters of cotton and tobacco, stimulated by the high prices of corn, will plant it in all their fields, and thus make it abundant and cheap in the end is the only effectual mode. Natural laws regulate such matters far better than hastily constituted human laws can do.

But besides opening wide the door for vicious legislation this bill will have some certain effects: It at once cuts off a revenue at not less than $300,000 this year, and raises the taxes that much more at once on every thing else already groaning with the burden; and by depriving the farmer of his only profitable crop, deprive him at the same time of the means for paying this increased tax, as well as the high prices, daily growing higher, for every thing he has to buy. As for the distillers now working under a license for which they paid the State its own price, with property in which the State has induced them to invest their means, relying on the hitherto unbroken faith of the proud old Commonwealth, this bill as it originally stood, providing for no previous notice, but going into force immediately on its passage, would subject every distiller of Augusta instantly to fines, confiscation of his property and imprisonment of his person!

WhiskeyConfederate2In the short space of this letter I can only give you the prominent characteristics of this bill at the time I “opposed” it. The numbers you report as in favor of “the bill” can scarcely expect me not to oppose such a bill. You mean of course that they desired a bill on the subject that will if possible, check intemperance in times like these, and save grain for other purposes, and yet that the bill shall do no unnecessary evil or injustice to our citizens lawfully engaged now in distillation. I will cheerfully represent their wishes thus far, and it is what I have myself desired; but this bill will be “opposed” a long while yet before it can be made available for anything but evil. This bill when understood can hardly have as many friends as your letter seems to suppose. The temperance men as such can find no comfort from it. The farmer who has grain to sell will find no comfort from it; the farmer who has grain to sell will find it only reduces the price he gets, without curing the evil he abhors; the farmer who has sold his grain at a price, it may be, enhanced by the distiller’s demand, cannot be so ungenerous as to see his neighbor deprived of a like price wherewith to pay the increased tax and support the prices of living: they who live in towns, and incur none of the labor of growing grain can take no pleasure in seeing the farmer above ground to dust merely that they may for a short time get his products for comparatively nothing; the taxes on all will be increased. As for the speculators in stores of liquors on hands looking for the bill to increase its price; speculators in stock-feeding looking for increased profits in proportion as corn is bought lower which they have to buy &c., &c., when they may find in this bill yet an unexpected “rod in pickle.”

Meanwhile as this bill is being perfected or defeated, the people are not without remedy; flour for bread is the cheapest thing in market; bacon as well as whiskey, is making even at the distilleries; and the government has exercised and can yet do it, the power to seize all grain while any distiller may refuse to sell for the wants of the army, and may stop all distilleries, and burst up all barrels of whiskey to prevent drunkenness, if it sees fit, without waiting for “this bill” to pass. And the people, if so universally opposed to the consumption of grain in this way, have the right to refuse selling to distillers at all, and can sell to the needy poor at as low a price as charity requires without waiting for a “law” to require it. In the meantime accept my best wishes, and also my assurance that I will continue (as I have always endeavored.) to do the best I can for the general interests of my country, and if the people are not satisfied let them try to find another, who, if he can’t please everybody, may try his turn. But I doubt if any one will be found perfect until the millennial legislature meets.

On October 27, 1863, yet another wrench had been thrown into the mix, regarding the impressment of grain by the government (note also the opinion expressed regarding the impressment of slave labor, for use away from the farms).

We were surprised to learn that flour had suddenly risen in Staunton to $50. per barrel. There certainly can be no sufficient reason for this rapid increase. Although the last wheat crop was not a large one, it was not much below the average, and there ought to be a considerable surplus in Augusta. Bad as our currency is, it would not, of itself, warrant so great a rise–other causes must have contributed to it.

In this crisis of our affairs the policy of our Government should be directed to stimulate productions, and to diminish consumption. But by some strange infatuation, our official act as if they were influenced by an opposite purpose.

The administration of the impressment law tends directly to repress production. No man knows when he sows his crop, whether he will be allowed to reap and market it. The act regulating impressment seemed to be very fair on its face. It provides, while property might be taken at schedule prices, in the hands of speculators, it could only be taken at a fair impressment value in the hands of the producer. This was fair and right, and farmers were content with it. The discrimination was formed in sound policy. But by a system of indirection, the law is practically set aside. When a farmer’s grain or cattle is taken now, and valued by disinterested parties, if the valuations be higher than the schedule, an appeal is taken by the Government agent to the Commissioners, and they cut down the price to the schedule [illegible]. The speculator thus fares better than the farmer, for he gets his pay promptly, while the producer gets the same pay after a long delay, and some [illegible] heavy expense, in trying [illegible] his rights.

[illegible] system of mal-administration dis- [illegible] the farmer, and tends directly to diminish productions.

There is another matter connected with the food question which merits attention. A great parade was made two years ago, about suppressing the distillation of grain. Crude laws were passed, by which most of the distilleries were stopped; and a monopoly given to the favored few. We doubt not that whiskey was necessary for the medical bureau, but we are not satisfied that the law was sufficiently guarded in reference to the quantity to be made, or the grain to be used. We are of the opinion that the distillation of wheat should have been prohibited altogether. Wheat is the staff of life, and should be kept for the sustenance of the people. If whiskey must be made, it should be made of the coaser [sic] grains. This is a more serious matter than may be at first supposed.–We have one distillery in our suburbs which is reported to consume 100 bushels of wheat per day. If this be true, it is equivalent to abstracting from the food of the people, 20 barrels of flour per day, and about 50 bushels of offal.–In a year this would be over 7,000 barrels. It is a fair estimate to say, that 10 barrels per year, will supply a family of seven persons, and consequently that amount distilled here would supply bread to about five thousand people.–There are other distilleries in the county, which, in the aggregate, probably use as much as the larger one here.–Thus wheat enough to supply ten thousand people, near half the population of this county, is annually consumed in the distilleries.

If corn and rye were used, the damage would be much less, for these grains are not so important for bread, and the swill serves to fatten hogs.

Should not the Legislature take this matter in hand?

But there are other measures tending to discourage production. The practice of withdrawing, every now and then, hundreds of our stoutest and most athletic negroes from farming operations, to work on the fortifications near Richmond, is a serious evil. These negroes are our best farm hands, and for every one so withdrawn, the production of grain is diminished several hundred bushels. Why cannot the deserters, and other wrong-doers, be taken from Castle Thunder, and put to work on the fortifications? Where too, are the idlers about Richmond, and the conscripts of Camp Lee? We think this system of employing negroes ought to be stopped.

Finally, the militia bill, we fear, is to be one of the most unfortunate measures yet adopted, for the agriculture of the State–every boy over 16, and every old man under 55, is liable to be called into the field. If you take all who can plow, and sow and reap, how is grain enough o be raised for consumption of the people? We have men enough, between 18 and 45, to fight our battles.–The fear is not of a deficiency of men, but of provisions.

We throw out these suggestions for the consideration of the public. But we do so with little hope of their having any good effect. When the popular fervor is up, reason is unheeded.

Not long after this, on October 31, 1863, the Virginia State Legislature did, in fact, pass legislation. As would be expected, on November 10, the Staunton Spectator discussed the same (even correcting themselves on their criticism of the legislature):

The statement we made last week that the Legislature had not passed any bill of general importance save the repeal of a law of the previous session in reference to the currency, did not do full justice to that body of Solons, for they did pass three very good bills besides the one to which reference was made, to wit: The bill against gambling; the bill for the support of the indigent families of those in the military and naval service, and the bill prohibiting the consumption of grain by distillers and other manufacturers of spirituous and malt liquors. The following is an extract from the last bill mentioned:

“It shall not be lawful for any person hereafter to make, or cause to be made, any Whiskey, or other Spirituous or Malt Liquors, out of any Corn, Wheat, Rye, or other grain, or out of dried Fruit, Potatoes, Sugar, Cane, Molasses Cane, or Sorghum; and any person so offending shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined for every offence not less than one hundred dollars, nor more than five thousand dollars, and be subject to imprisonment in the county jail, not exceeding twelve months at the discretion of the court.

No person, firm or company shall execute, in whole or in part, any contract heretofore or hereafter made with the Confederate Government, or with any agent of said Government, for making, or causing to be made, any Whiskey or ardent spirits within this State; and all such contractors who shall violate this section shall be deemed subject to all the penalties imposed by this and other acts against unlawful distillation.”

It will be observed that persons are not only prohibited hereafter to make, or cause to be made, any whiskey, or other spirituous and malt liquors, out of any corn, wheat, rye or other grain, or out of dried fruit, potatoes, sugar, molasses, sugar cane, molasses cane or sorghum, but that they are prohibited to execute, in whole or in part, any contract heretofore, or hereafter, made with the Confederate Government, or with any agent of said Government, for making, or causing to be made, any whiskey or other ardent spirits within this State; and any person so offending shall be fined, for every offence, not less than $100, nor more than $5000, and be subject to imprisonment in the county jail, not exceeding twelve months, at the discretion of the court.

Some persons erroneously suppose that this law violates that provision of the constitution which prohibits the enactment of any law “impairing the obligation of contracts.” This law does not impair the “obligation of contracts,” but merely prohibits the execution of certain contracts within this State. The validity of the contracts is not destroyed, but the execution of them, in this State, is prohibited. The contractors may execute them in another State.–This law does not relieve either of the contracting parties from any obligations imposed by their contracts. The Legislature is competent to pass such a law, or else this State has no power to protect itself. The Confederate Government might else have all the grain of the State distilled into whiskey, and the citizens of the State be left to starve.

Even after the passage of the legislation, there were still issues. On November 24, 1863, the Staunton Spectator borrowed a piece from the nearby Lexington Gazette, which posed the question… “What does the Confederate Government do with all of its whiskey?”

Rockbridge is manufacturing it at the rate of nearly 200,000 gallons per year, Augusta county about 300,000 gallons, giving a total amount for two counties of 500,000. Suppose these two counties to make one tenth of all that is made in the State, (which is probably a low estimate), and we have FIVE MILLIONS [5,000,000] OF GALLONS as Virginia’s contribution to this line of supplies. Now if all the other States together furnish as much more, we have no less than TEN MILLIONS (10,000,000) OF GALLONS. This is enough to deluge all the hospitals in the Confederacy with all the patients they contain.

Yes, even after legislation was passed, complaints and concerns continued. On January 19, 1864, the Spectator suggested that, even though distillation was now regulated, it was still shocking to think that the Confederacy was STILL producing nearly two million gallons of whiskey each year. The suggestion was made, that “If whiskey must be had”, it would be best to send its orders “where Corn is said to be very abundant… South Carolina, Georgia, Florida… where it sells at from one to two dollars per bushel. Let the whisky be made there and the tithe corn of North Carolina and Virginia sent to food our starving horses, already on short allowance of five pounds per day, and for weeks without fodder, except the dry grass they pick in the field.”

If that isn’t enough, later in January, this messy issue even evolves into a question of sovereignty.

By the recent legislation of Virginia all distillation of Whiskey, upon any pretext whatever, is forbidden in the Commonwealth. The law expressly provides that no whiskey shall be distilled, in fulfilment [sic] of any contract with the Confederate States.

It furthermore makes it the duty of the Judge of the circuit, when he shall be informed of any violation of the law, to call a special term of his court and to empannel [sic] a special grand jury to investigate the matter.

At the last form of the county court, measures were taken to inform the Judge of this circuit of a violation of the law in this county, and we learn he has called a special term of his court for the 2nd of Feb. to investigate the case.

If this be the case, it will present a very important question in regard to the relative powers of the State and Confederate authorities. It will bring up the question of State sovereignty. We will then learn whether the Commonwealth of Virginia has a right to regulate her own domestic police, or whether she is, according to Mr. Seward’s notion, a mere municipal corporation subject to the paramount authority of the Confederate Government.

The theory of our system is, that the States are the principals and the Confederate Government their agency. Is the agent subordinate to, or does it over-ride, the principals?

Finally, there is yet one more article before, it seems, before we see no more of the whiskey issue in the Staunton newspaper:


Now that the distillation of grain is prohibited by law, it has been a matter of wonder where all the whiskey comes from which is found in the market. The Enquirer furnishes the following solution of the mystery:

The Confederate Government has given contracts for the production, on its account, of proof whiskey, to numerous parties, varying in extent to from five to fifty thousand gallons per contract. In some instances these have power to impress grain for the purpose, and have been steadily engaged in the production of whiskey from the date of their contracts. And the secret is this: The contract calls for “proof” whiskey, and if the whiskey is not “proof” it is condemned and thrown back upon the distiller’s hands – that is to say, right on the Richmond whiskey market, precisely where he wants it to be. The government pays from two to three dollars per gallon for “proof”, by the contract; the market pays from twenty-five to eighty, whether proof or not. And the honest distiller pegs away at his contract occasionally furnishing a barrel or proof whiskey to keep up appearances, but for every one such, forty below proof. This vast fraud—ter it is nothing else—merits a prompt exposition, and the names of all parties who have thus practiced it upon the government and the public should be held up to the scorn of the people. It is nothing less than stealing bread from the mouths of the people and the army, and it is the duty of the government to see that it is at once stopped. To five men the authority to impress grain who abuse it in a manner so palpably mean and dishonest, is only equivalent to the folly of which the consumers of the liquor are guilty – of “putting an enemy into their mouths to steal away they brains.”


Now, I know I’ve really “stacked” a great number of quotes here, and this isn’t typically my style. I heartily congratulate the reader who actually makes it this far into the blog post, and, for those who have made it… let’s give all of this a little thought.

What does this tell us about the status of grain production in the Shenandoah Valley, at this particular time… and where it might stand by… oh, say… September and October, 1864? While all of the above doesn’t give us specific numbers as to the levels of grain production in 1864, it does clarify the sharp downtrend in levels of production, as compared to levels in 1860 (and, I gladly point out that this is important when considering the questions I posed in a previous post about grain production in the Valley, between 1860 and 64). I think it’s a no-brainer that, with so many men off to war, grain production had declined, but, let’s also give attention to things like… whiskey distillation, impressment of grain, impressment of slave labor, and even the militia bill (which, given the ages of men obligated under the bill, sounds much like the obligations laid upon the population under the third Confederate Conscription Act). Clearly, the Union army wasn’t the only thing pulling down the Confederacy… there were also internal issues such as these that were weighing on it heavily.