Drunk and Disorderly: The Dreadful Havoc of Spirituous Liquors

Food & Lifestyle

October 27, 2016
by Joshua Shepherd Also by this Author


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Drink does not drown care, but waters it, and makes it grow faster.[1]

Valley Forge.  For most Americans, the very name of the Pennsylvania winter encampment conjures up images of destitute soldiers woefully lacking the basic necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter.  It would seem, however, that there was a good bit of liquor to go around.  Court martial summaries reveal fairly regular drinking infractions: “getting drunk and behaving in a disorderly manner;” “getting drunk and behaving in an Ungentlemanlike manner;” “getting drunk and playing cards and Beating Capt. Laird on the Sabbath Day.”[2]  Such a curious dichotomy – seemingly malnourished soldiers nearly wallowing in copious amounts of liquor – is indicative of the unique role which alcohol played in armies during the eighteenth century.  In fact, strong drink constituted a tricky double edged sword for the high command.

Troops in both armies were regularly issued alcohol rations – often a gill (or quarter pint) per man, as long as strong drink was available.  Men assigned to guard details and fatigue parties were sometimes issued more, although it was wisely specified that “rum for guards not to be issued ‘till the duty is over.”[3]  Despite such practices, Sir William Howe was compelled to curtail excessive drinking in the British army early in the war by cracking down on the alcohol-peddling sutlers who preyed on his troops.  Civilians found selling rum to the soldiers, he ordered in June of 1775, would be “severely Punish’d” and “the Soldiers found Intoxicated will have no further Allowance of Rum served out to them.”[4]  When George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army two weeks later, he quickly demanded observance of the articles of war “which forbid profane cursing, swearing & drunkenness,” vices which were quite often paired together.[5]

Temperance activists did their best to caution the public over the abuse of ardent spirits, but waged an uphill fight.  Philadelphia’s Dr. Benjamin Rush highlighted the public health threat posed by alcohol, but began his arguments by detailing the outlandish behavior that spirits entailed.  The “paroxysm of drunkenness,” he warned, would result in “singing, hallooing, roaring, imitating the noises of brute animals, jumping, tearing off clothes, dancing naked, breaking glasses and china, and dashing other articles of household furniture upon the ground.”[6]  Anthony Benezet warned against the “Dreadful Havock” of hard liquors, “which by inflaming the solids, and thickening the fluids, cause obstructions, which bring on many fatal diseases, such as hectick fevers, jaundices, dropsies, & c.”  Adding insult to injury, warned Benezet, “beer, cider, or other fermented liquors that are dead, hard, sour, or not properly fermented” would “tend to generate air in the bowels.”[7]

Despite such warnings, the contending armies would never succeed in moderating excessive consumption of alcohol, and heavy drinking often resulted in even bigger trouble.  Regimental orderly books are replete with a plethora of infractions – desertion, assault, insubordination, theft – which frequently stemmed from a soldier being inebriated in the first place.  Punishment could include demotion or dismissal from the service, but quite often took the harrowing form of the lash.

Young soldiers, away from the watchful eyes of parents and family for the first time in their lives, were prone to get into far too much mischief, the results of which were by no means harmless.  It might have been a good idea to heed the warnings of their ministers back home.  Massachusetts’ Isaac Backus, a Separate Baptist clergyman and prolific pamphleteer, expressed the pitfalls of excessive liquor in blunt terms.  “Of all transgressors,” he wrote, “the drunkard may seem to have the most reason to say, he cannot help gratifying his lust.”  But even a heavy drinker would scorn the bottle, thought Backus, if he could just realize that there was poison in the pot.  “Truth it self warns him not to look upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup; because at the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.”[8]

What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks

Assaulting a castle for true love is perhaps the noblest undertaking for a knight in shining armor; but alas, it’ll lead to big trouble if you’ve inadvertently picked the wrong house. On the evening of August 18, 1777, the Delaware Regiment’s Sgt. Dennis Cain and Pvt. Patrick Davis, who were both “somewhat intoxicated,” stole out of their camp near Hanover, Pennsylvania.  The pair showed up at the home of a hapless local civilian, one Mr. Dennison, and pretty much ruined his evening.  A belligerent Davis demanded entry, claiming that a young woman in the house was his wife and “he’d be Damn’d if he did not Sleep with her.”  A bewildered Dennison didn’t know what they were talking about; the only young woman in his house, he said, was a young lady who was nursing his sick wife, and the girl didn’t fit the description of Davis’s “wife.”  He wouldn’t allow anyone else, let alone two drunken soldiers, to sleep in the house, but he did offer the men a meal and a place to sleep in an outbuilding.

Hand colored mezzotint caricature titled "British soldiers drowning care," 1794. (Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection)
Hand-colored mezzotint caricature titled “British soldiers drowning care,” 1794. (Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection)

That wasn’t exactly what they had in mind.  Barging in the front door, Davis and Cain rooted around the house, roughed up Dennison, and eventually grabbed two loaded guns.  Shouting that Dennison was a “damn’d Tory,” they stormed out of the house, fired off one of the guns, and “swore that they would Stand Sentrie.”  By that point, Maj. John Powell had led a file of soldiers out of camp to see what the ruckus was all about.  When Powell demanded to know what was going on, Davis and Cain responded that Dennison was to blame for it all; “the man of the house,” they insisted, “had used them in a verry gross manner, had given them much abusive language.”  The suspicious major, however, placed both soldiers under arrest when he noticed that they were a little tipsy.

At their court-martial the following morning, Davis and Cain were charged with being out of camp after tattoo and with “Beating and abusing an inhabitant.”  The pair pleaded guilty to the charges, but protested that they had been unfairly provoked.  According to their side of the story, Dennison had armed himself, threatened to shoot them for “Damn’d rebels,” and insinuated that he would get help from the British on Staten Island.  The officers who composed the court didn’t buy it.  Ultimately, Cain was stripped of his rank and Davis, the erstwhile Romeo, received fifty lashes on his bare back “well laid on with the Cat oNine tails.”[9]

The Humble Petition of a Desperate Frenchman

Consequent to his duties as commander-in-chief, George Washington regularly received voluminous amounts of correspondence, but one particular letter he received in August of 1782 no doubt raised a few eyebrows at headquarters.  It was the “humble petition” of Sgt. Nicholas Bourges, who had been tried by a general court-martial for desertion.  Bourges’s letter constitutes the most revealing picture of his sordid misadventures.

By trade he was a seafaring man, explained Bourges, and at the time of his enlistment in the Pennsylvania Line “was much Intoxicated with Liquor, & Void of Senses after inlisting.”  His trouble really started due to his association with “a Lewd woman with who he keep Company Several Months.”  After contracting an unmentionable “fould disorder,” Bourges became so enraged that he assaulted the offending lady, leaving his superior officers annoyed by his troublesome behavior.  A disconsolate Bourges sought solace in the company of sailors and hatched a plan to desert by sea, explaining that when he did so “he was much in Liquor.”   While heading for a ship that would take him to freedom, Bourges got sidetracked at a tavern “where he Added Feuel to the Old fire & Afterward by the Infussion of the Liquor was Compealed to go to the Sleep.”  He came to his senses a couple hours later and, he claimed, changed his mind about deserting.  While on his way to retrieve his belongings from the ship, he bumped into a suspicious Continental captain.  The game was up.

Arrested and tried for desertion, Bourges was still awaiting final word of his death sentence when he penned a frantic plea for mercy to George Washington.  In addition to explaining his mitigating predilection for “Strong Liquor & Lewd women,” he also seemed to think that a little subtle flattery wouldn’t hurt.  Complimenting Washington’s “Benevolent and Godlike Disposition,” Bourges wrote that he “most Humbly throws himself at your Excellencys feet.”[10]

Ultimately it wasn’t his letter that secured mercy, but the kindly interposition of the 6th Pennsylvania’s Col. Richard Humpton.  The colonel assured Washington that the condemned Frenchman “promises to behave well in future which induces me to sollicit your Excellency to spare his Life in hopes that his future Services will atone for his past Conduct.”[11]  The story ends happily enough.  Washington approved Bourges’s death sentence, “but in consideration of the recommendation of Colonel Humpton” the general was “pleased to pardon the said Nicholas Bourge.”[12]

Please, Sir, May I Have Some More

Liquor most definitely does not belong on a public thoroughfare, a fact that failed to dissuade a particularly clamorous set of Pennsylvania militia.  October 16, 1781 began as any other mundane Tuesday for Commissary-General William Crispin, who was tasked with dispersing foodstuffs at Camp Newtown in Bucks County.  Brig. Gen. John Lacey departed for Philadelphia later that morning, but with the commanding officer out of the way, trouble started brewing.  As Crispin quietly went about his business, he was alarmed by a bizarre show of force that suddenly appeared at his quarters: it was a fully armed company of Philadelphia County militia which was slated for discharge that day.  The men were brandishing fixed bayonets, drumming the Rogue’s March, and looking very thirsty.

At the head of the troops were Capt. Andrew van Buskirk and Ens. Jacob Stiner, who abruptly demanded that Crispin fill the officers’ canteens with liquor in order to “carry them home.”[13]  Crispin would have none of it.  The entire battalion had already been issued a ration of spirits, and he produced a written voucher to prove that Buskirk’s men had received their fair share.  The two officers initially appeared mollified, but on further reflection lost their tempers.  Cutting lose with a storm of “indecent language,” Buskirk and Stiner “swore they would have their Canteens filld,” and threatened to seize liquor by force if necessary.  The scrappy commissary, who clearly took his job pretty seriously, stood his ground.  “I forbid them at their Peril to touch the Magizine,” explained an indignant Crispin, “and prepared my self to defend it at all risques.”

While Crispin readied himself for an epic standoff, the confrontation was diffused by a quick-thinking Col. Benjamin McVeagh.  Rather than order the mutinous rabble to disperse, McVeagh came up with the idea “of giving Money out of his Pocket to purchase Rum for them.”  It was a stroke of diplomatic genius that ensured everyone could save face.  Crispin, understandably, remained deeply offended by the ugly incident, and lodged an indignant complaint the following day in which he bemoaned the outrageous behavior of “said Buskirk & Stiner” as “unbecoming Gentlemen and officers in the Army.”[14]

Scandalous and Infamous Behavior

His is a tragic object lesson in the perils of inordinate outbursts.  On the evening of September 23, 1781, Capt. Patrick Duffy of the 4th Continental Artillery commenced an ugly spat with fellow officer Capt. Jeremiah Ballard.  The precise reason for their disagreement isn’t clear, but Duffy’s condition certainly didn’t help matters; he had apparently been drinking and obviously wasn’t thinking too clearly.  When things heated up, Duffy asked a friend, Lt. George Blewer, to help mediate his argument with Ballard. The lieutenant’s attempts at peacemaking backfired badly.  Apparently none too pleased with what Blewer had to say, an enraged Duffy snapped, drew a sword, and attempted to stab Ballard, who wasn’t armed.  Duffy then turned on Blewer and grabbed a pistol that the latter was carrying.  Shouting that “he would shoot him,” an enraged Duffy pointed the weapon at his friend and pulled the trigger; fortunately, the weapon wasn’t loaded.

Duffy, however, wouldn’t let it go.  The following morning he was at it again, accosted Ballard, and then attempted to run him through with a sword.  At some point Duffy, visibly inebriated, was seen “rioting in the street,” abusing a French soldier, and angrily threatening a French hospital guard.  His court-martial, which proceeded off and on for nine days the following month, was bound to go poorly for the disgraced captain.  The officers who composed the court were particularly soured by Duffy’s treatment of Lieutenant Blewer, which was termed “a most disgraceful breach of friendship.”  With such a ponderous amount of evidence against him, Duffy was, not surprisingly, found guilty of the charges and cashiered.[15]

A Party at the County Jail

The sore trials of Detroit Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton began soon after his February 25, 1779                      surrender to American rebels.  Perhaps worse than the fate of being captured by “an unprincipled motley Banditti” was the fact that the thirsty American backwoodsmen gulped down every beverage within reach, “not even asking us to drink a glass of our own wines,” recalled a distressed Hamilton.  The governor’s ordeal would only get worse.  When he reached his final destination in Williamsburg, Virginia, he was aghast at his fate.  The governor would be confined to a reeking jail cell furnished with a single, filthy chair – known affectionately as the “Throne” – that had been used as a makeshift toilet for decades.   The room was no bigger than ten feet square, and held a total of six men: Hamilton and two of his companions, Capt. William La Mothe and Philip Dejean; Mr. Collins, a former British drummer who had deserted to the Americans and taken up counterfeiting; Mr. Speers, an English émigré who had likewise taken up counterfeiting; and an unnamed sailor who had deserted before running afoul of Virginia authorities.

Hamilton found the lighthearted miscreants disarmingly pleasant, and they commiserated with the governor over his shabby treatment.  “They were all very fond of Mirth and Rum,” recalled Hamilton, “the latter greatly promoting the former.”  In no time, the inmates started drinking and dancing in the painfully cramped space, doing the best they could to cheer up the new arrivals.  Speers, who got so drunk that he couldn’t stay on his feet, finally collapsed on the Throne and serenaded the crowd with violin music.  Accompanied by such “enlivening strains,” Collins and the Sailor continued their inebriated gyrations, and Hamilton thought that they could “with propriety be said to have danced reels.”  It was certainly an awkward evening for an English gentleman, but the governor was pleased to report that such a set of drunken criminals was far more generous than his American captors.  “These good people,” he wrote, “had the charity to offer us some rum which we were not so unwise as to refuse, so laying down in our wet cloathes on the boards we passed the night as well as we could.”[16]

Hit Me, I’m Irish

Between old friends, there’s just nothing that inspires nostalgia quite like beating the stuffing out of each other.  That was apparently the thinking of two long lost friends who bumped into each other at Bedford, New York in December of 1778.  Connecticut soldier Joseph Plumb Martin rather uncharitably referred to them as “low bred Europeans” – Irishmen – who were “exceeding glad to see each other.”  To catch up on old times, the pair retired to a sutler’s establishment and proceeded to get plastered.

Martin was flummoxed when one of the Irishmen – “a stout athletic fellow” – blurted out “faith, Jammy, will you take a box?”  “Aye,” replied his much smaller friend, “and thank ye too.”  While the two stripped off their shirts in preparation for a friendly fight, curious onlookers formed a ring in a ploughed farm field that had frozen rock hard.  “The first pass they made at each other,” explained Martin, “their arms drawing their bodies forward, they passed without even touching.”  When they stumbled and fell, they both crashed into the frozen and jagged ridges of the field.  Round two went little better; as the woozy pugilists lunged at each other for another go-round, “they made the same pass-by as at the first,” and were left “as bloody as butchers.”  Finally admitting the futility of it all, the smaller of the fighters stammered out “I am too drunk to fight.”

The entire affair ended in a poignant testament to enduring brotherhood; the two shirtless, bloodied, and inebriated soldiers staggered off for more liquor, “to drink friends again, where no friendship had been lost.”[17]


[1] Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack (Waterloo, Iowa: U.S.C. Publishing Company, 1914), 20.

[2] George Weedon, Valley Forge Orderly Book of General George Weedon (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1902), 183, 253, 236.

[3] “General Orders, 11 June 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-10-02-0001.

[4] Benjamin Franklin Stevens, ed., General Sir William Howe’s Orderly Book at Charlestown, Boston, and Halifax (London: Benjamin Franklin Stevens, 1890), 11.

[5] “General Orders, 4 July 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0027.

[6] Benjamin Rush, An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind (Exeter, New Hampshire: 1812), 6.

[7] Anthony Benezet, The Mighty Destroyer Displayed, In Some Account of the Dreadful Havock made by the Mistaken Use as Well as Abuse of Distilled Spiritous Liquors (Philadelphia: Joesph Crukshank, 1774), 4, 28.

[8] Isaac Backus, True Faith Will Produce Good Works (Boston: D. Kneeland, 1767), 46. Backus referenced Proverbs 23:31-32.

[9] Joseph Brown Turner, ed., The Journal and Order Book of Captain Robert Kirkwood of the Delaware Regiment of the Continental Line (Wilmington: The Historical Society of Delaware, 1910), 149-152.

[10] Nicholas Bourges to George Washington August 3, 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-09000.

[11] Richard Humpton to Washington August 21, 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-09198.

[12] “General Orders, 29 August, 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-09301.

[13] For the identities of the officers involved, see A Return of the Officers of the First, Second, & Sixth Battalions of Philadelphia County Militia, in Thomas Lynch Montgomery, ed., Pennsylvania Archives (Harrisburg: Harrisburg Publishing Company, 1906), 6th series, 1:945.

[14] William Crispin to Gen. John Lacey, October 17, 1781, in Samuel Hazard, ed., Pennsylvania Archives (Philadelphia: Joseph Severns & Company, 1854), 1st Series, 9:437-438.

[15] William Feltman, The Journal of Lieut. William Feltman of the First Pennsylvania Regiment, 1781-82 (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1853), 19.

[16] John D. Barnhart, ed., Henry Hamilton and George Rogers Clark in the American Revolution with the Unpublished Journal of Lieut. Gov. Henry Hamilton (Crawfordsville, Indiana: R.E. Banta, 1951), 185, 191, 204-205.

[17] Joseph Plumb Martin, A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier (New York: Signet, 2001), 125-126.

One thought on “Drunk and Disorderly: The Dreadful Havoc of Spirituous Liquors

  • Somewhere I read a first person account that at Sir Henry Clinton’s headquarters, the party never ends. . .

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