Coffee and Whiskey: Essential Ingredients to the Union Success at Antietam

Coffee is a must for many of us to start the day. Some of us don’t even want to so much as say “hello” until sipping that first cup. For late night libations, whiskey is a staple for many, whether you are celebrating or simply bonding with friends. Many of my friends use both. For Union soldiers at Antietam, coffee and whiskey were essential ingredients to changing Union fortunes at the Battle of Antietam.

Setting the stage: September 17th, 2019 marked the 157th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one day battle on the American Continent, which resulted in 23,000 casualties.

Up until this battle, Confederate General Robert E. Lee enjoyed so much success against the Union’s Army of the Potomac that he was starting to achieve living legend status on both sides. Lee led his Army toward Sharpsburg, Maryland, near Antietam Creek. His goal was to win a battle in the north while also trying to encourage the people of Maryland, a border state, to switch sides. Lee further hoped that a victory here would encourage England and France, both of whom depended on the cotton trade, to recognize the Confederacy and perhaps even provide direct military aid.

In short, this was a battle the Union could not afford to lose. However, by early afternoon, it looked like the will of the Union Army was spent. Consider this quotation by Union Officer (and future President) Rutherford B. Hayes:

“Early in the afternoon, naturally enough, with the exertion required of the men, they were famished and thirsty, and to some extent broken in spirit.”

So how did the Union arrive at this state? After all, only two days prior, Union soldiers stumbled onto an abandoned Confederate Camp. Some lucky soldiers found what they thought was a small prize — cigars neatly wrapped and preserved. However, a closer look revealed that rolled with those cigars was Robert E. Lee’s battle plan. Furthermore, it revealed that Lee was splitting his forces, providing a unique opportunity for the Union to bring superior numbers to bear and defeat the separated Confederate units. Upon receiving this plan, General George McClellan, the Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac, declared, “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

McClellan had a solid plan. At least on paper. His caution coupled with the dysfunctional culture he created cost him dearly. Of his four key subordinate commanders — Generals Edwin Sumner, Joe Hooker, Joseph Mansfield, and Ambrose Burnside, only one, Hooker, knew the entire plan and he was wounded early in the battle and taken back for medical care. This created needless confusion and an inability to coordinate the Union effort. Rather than a coordinated assault, it was executed as three separate mini battles.

The Union attack stalls:

This lack of synchronization allowed the outnumbered Confederates to conduct an effective defense of their positions. There were three major set pieces during this battle- a cornfield, which saw 13000 casualties in four hours (which was also the main effort of the Union attack), the sunken road which quickly earned the nickname “Bloody Lane,” and Rohrbach Bridge, later renamed “Burnside Bridge.” Between Union internal disfunction and massive casualties, it appeared Lee was going to get his victory.

General Ambrose Burnside, commanding the IX Corps on the Union Left, had orders to cross Rohrbach Bridge and conduct a diversionary attack against the Confederate right flank. the Antietam Creek. However, given McClellan’s poor command climate where he punished subordinates for not following his orders to the “T,” Burnside took the orders too literally and kept sending his forces in piecemeal across the bridge without even looking for another place to cross the creek. It was only later in the battle when one of his subordinates decided to avoid the slaughter by crossing the creek south of the bridge.

Since the bridge was narrow and the Confederates occupied the high ground, the heavily outnumbered Confederates (500) under Colonel Toombs were holding off the superior Union Forces (over 10,000). The attack was failing.

With the attack stalling, Colonel Edward Ferraro turned to the 51st Pennsylvania and the 51st New York regiments and ordered them to take the bridge.

There was one small problem. Prior to the battle, Ferraro took away the 51st Pennsylvania’s whiskey rations as punishment. Ferraro believed soldiers should not drink.

After issuing his order, a Pennsylvania soldier called out, “Will you give us our whiskey, Colonel, if we make it?”

“Yes, by God!”

The two regiments charged up the road in column with fixed bayonets and quickly made it across the bridge.

Around this same time, another Union soldier saw that his Union regiment was depleted and “broken in spirit.” This man, Sergeant William McKinley, who would later become President, was working as a supply sergeant in the 23rd Ohio. Upon seeing the state of the regiment, he took it upon himself to secure hot coffee and food and under heavy fire, provided these welcome rations to the troops. His well timed delivery of the coffee and food provided the regiment that extra boost to carry on with the fight. His commanding officer, Rutherford B. Hayes, noted that “from his hands every man in the regiment was served with hot coffee and warm meats…. He passed under fire and delivered, with his own hands, these things, so essential for the men for whom he was laboring.” Letters and diaries from soldiers also confirmed the impact of this nourishment in giving them the needed energy to continue with the attack.

The 23rd Ohio and the two 51st regiments, nourished by coffee and motivated by whiskey, forced Colonel Toombs to retreat and it appeared that despite all the early setbacks, a Union victory was eminent.

Unfortunately for the Union, Confederate General AP Hill, whose unit was located 17 miles away in Harper’s Ferry when the battle started, had just arrived. His initiative and drive stalled the Union attack and the day ended in a stalemate.

Lee’s Army stayed on the Battlefield for another day, and then on the evening of the 18th, withdrew to Confederate lines. Lee would claim victory in his Maryland campaign due to his capture of Harper’s Ferry, although he abandoned the town the day after he captured it. Meanwhile, since Lee withdrew from the battlefield at Antietam, McClellan claimed victory as well. It was the first time since Lee became commander of the Army of Northern Virginia that Lee did not beat the opposing Union Commander and it was the first time he withdrew from the battlefield. President Abraham Lincoln was upset, however, because McClellan never bothered to pursue and finish off Lee’s wounded army. McClellan even had an additional 10,000 troops at his disposal that had not even seen combat during this battle. It would have been an easy victory.


While the Battle of Antietam is a case study of a lost opportunity for decisive victory, it was enough of a victory for President Lincoln to do something meaningful. Through executive order, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in all states in rebellion against the Union.

The Emancipation also changed the direction of the war for the North: prior to the Emancipation, Lincoln declared that the war was about preserving the Union. Now, the North was fighting to end slavery. With this Emancipation, Lincoln also guaranteed that neither England or France would come to the aid of the Confederacy.

Lincoln’s Emancipation had one strategically necessary flaw — he did not free the slaves in slave states still in the Union. He did not want them to switch sides, especially with the war’s outcome still in doubt. However, he would eventually address that flaw by his successful push for the 13th Amendment, which would formally abolish slavery.

The war would go on for another three years. However, Union commanders always made sure that coffee and whiskey were on hand to ensure soldiers had the proper nourishment and motivation!

People Turn Around Specialist | Leadership Instructor | Strategic Thinker | Author

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