Saturday, August 22, 2015

Lifting their spirits: Sailors, soldiers and Cooter Brown, who stayed too drunk to serve

Soldiers enjoy whiskey, cards during Civil War (Library of Congress)

My search for Cooter Brown began last weekend at a riverside cabin in North Georgia. While thumbing through a small book set on a coffee table, I came across a list of 10 Southern expressions.

Among them was the heading: “Drunker than Cooter Brown.”

“As legend has it, Cooter Brown was a man who did not see fit to take up with either side during the Civil War, and so remained so staggeringly drunk throughout the entire conflict that he avoided conscription.” 

I’ve lived in the South most of my life but had never heard this expression. And given my Civil War interest, I tucked away this passage from Garden & Gun magazine’s “The Southerner’s Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life.”

Subsequent searches on the Internet found multiples references to the legend, with a few variations. Was Cooter a real person who lived during the Civil War? I’m guessing not, but the expression makes for a nice little chuckle.

Soldiers and sailors on both sides of the conflict certainly were fond of the bottle and beer mug. Congress imposed high whiskey taxes early in the war to help fund a long war and the price of the beverage soared.

There are stories of generals being inebriated at the front or in camp. Most kept their habits in check or abstained. Robert E. Lee is quoted as saying, “I like whiskey. I always did, and that is why I never drink it.”

The Southern general also had some advice he gave after the war: “My experience through life has convinced me that, while moderation and temperance in all things are commendable and beneficial, abstinence from spirituous liquors is the best safeguard of morals and health.”

Cooter obviously, didn’t live by such piety.

A number of bars, restaurants and musical groups in the South are named for Cooter Brown, though it’s not always clear whether the legend is the inspiration for their names. There are even songs mentioning the man.

Courtesy of Jekyll Brewing

Two-year-old Jekyll Brewing in Alpharetta, Ga., does make the connection with its American brown ale Cooter Brown. The website says the namesake was a family man who lived along the Mason-Dixon line and decided to stay inebriated rather than take up arms.

“To salute his peaceful manner, we named our brew in his honor,” the summary says. “Smoother than silk, Cooter has deep, roasty caramel notes, rich chocolate maltiness and an American hop bitterness balanced to perfection.”

Marketing director Lacey Pyle, who goes informally as “head cheerleader,” told the Picket that Cooter Brown ranks second in the company’s bottle sales in Georgia, Charleston and Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Nashville and Chattanooga in Tennessee.

“The story behind the name is part of our tours. People just ask. We have people come in and say their nickname is Cooter Brown. That’s when you realize that you have to look out for a troublemaker,” Pyle quipped.

The company contends the first brewery in the Deep South was founded on Jekyll Island, Ga., in 1738.

Pyle wanted to make clear the brand name is not about encouraging binge drinking.

“When it comes to craft beer, it is more about quality than quantity,” she said. “We are not interested in serving people until that point. It is a good Southern story.”

Courtesy of Tim Johnson

Tim and Barbara Johnson own Cooter Brown’s Rib Shack, which says from the outside it looks like a county line beer joint. Inside the Jacksonville, Ala., restaurant customers find a “cozy, relaxing atmosphere.”

The shack, which sells beer, already had its name when the Johnsons bought it in 2000.

"We actually never asked if in fact that is the Cooter Brown it was named after," said Tim Johnson. "However, we just assumed that it was because it is in the South and we had always heard the saying, 'drunker than Cooter Brown.'"

Customers do ask about the name and the staff repeats the legend, evoking laughs. "You can't say Cooter Brown's without it just putting a smile on your face," the co-owner said. 

"I once read a review by one of our customers who wrote, 'The ribs were excellent but the name sounds a little racist to me.' Ha ha! I kind of got a chuckle out of that because I have never associated that name with anything racist. But they were from California so maybe they had never heard of that famous saying we grew up hearing, being from the South."
The Civil War exacted a fairly heavy price on the whiskey business, including the destruction of distilleries. The people of the Confederacy, as the war dragged on, needed corn more to eat than to make spirits, according to “The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys.” The government declared prohibition on a state by state basis.

Union troops procured their alcohol from wherever they could. A temperance movement tried to stave off the effects of drinking, but with very limited success. Soldiers were looking for some solace during a traumatic period in their young lives.

“Whiskey had great value during the Civil War. It had the power to soothe men’s souls, to make them forget the carnage of the battlefield, and perhaps most importantly, whiskey often acted as the only anesthetic available,” the authors wrote.

Whiskey, cordials, wine and sherry were among the beverages used to treat diseases, battle wounds, depression and other problems, according to “The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine.”

“Alcoholic beverages were seen as a tonic,” according to the book. “Even soldiers in the field, who were not sick, were supposed to receive an occasional whiskey ration to keep them in good health.”

As Cooter Brown would say, “I’ll drink to that.”

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