Trivializing death for fun and profit
That a Frederick, Md., brewery recently bottled its first batch of beer from a Civil War-era recipe and is now distributing is testament to the creativity of American business. What better time to recreate an alcoholic beverage from the 1860s than the sesquicentennial of the War Between the States, right?
What’s troubling is the apparent lack of respect the Moncacy Brewing Co. is showing for the event to which it’s tying its product.
The first of nine ales to be released by Monocacy in commemoration of the 1861-65 conflict is called “Antietam Ale” and marks the Sept. 17, 1862, battle near Sharpsburg, Md., that resulted in 23,000 casualties.
“The Battle of Antietam changed the course of the Civil War, helped free over 4 million Americans and still ranks as the bloodiest single day in American history.”
In reality, only that last of those three statements is true. While Antietam is still the bloodiest single day in US history, it didn’t change the course of the war nor did it help free more than 4 million enslaved blacks.
Marketing folks have been known to exaggerate at times, and this is a good example. But the bigger issue is the idea of using a brutal battle in which 3,600 men were killed outright to peddle a beer.
That doesn’t even take into account the tens of thousands wounded – many maimed for life – or psychologically scarred. To slap the name “Antietam Ale” on a brew to try to exploit the 150th anniversary of a day that inexorably altered the lives of tens of thousands of families across the nation seems, at best, incredibly disrespectful.
Maybe for added effect Monocacy can take an Alexander Gardner image of bloated Confederate corpses and slap it on bottles.
The sad fact is many Americans today have no idea of the real cost incurred during the War Between the States.
Of course, all we have today are books and other second-hand sources to tell of the war’s impact. It’s far easier to romanticize events when one-legged veterans, gaunt war widows struggling to rear children or bereaved parents are no longer a feature of daily life.
That’s why, 150 years after the battles at Antietam, Shiloh, Gettysburg, Petersburg and scores of other locales, the war is celebrated in antiseptic fashion, where noble warriors are portrayed as having met bravely in battle, chivalry abounded and there’s little real recollection of the suffering, pain and anguish that was part and parcel of the Civil War experience for so many soldiers.
Visit any older graveyard in the South or North, though, and you can still see the impact of the conflict.
This past weekend I happened to be in the small South Carolina town of Winnsboro, in Fairfield County, about 45 miles north of Columbia. Fairfield County had a population of a little more than 22,000 people in 1860, according to the US census taken that year. That’s not much less than the approximately 23,500 that was counted for the county in the year 2000.
Winnsboro today has a population of less than 4,000, which is likely more than it had 150 years ago, when the US had a much larger concentration of population outside urban areas.
Strolling through the town’s picturesque Sion Presbyterian Church Cemetery, I noted a number of Confederate dead.
I counted no fewer than seven soldiers killed between 1862-65. Given that this was a cemetery dating back before the war and that there were sizable open spaces within the graveyard, it’s possible that additional soldiers died during the conflict and were buried in Sion, as well, but their grave markers no longer exist.
Among those that died in the war were:
- Private William Adger Ellison, 21, Co. G. 6th South Carolina Infantry, killed May 31, 1862, at the Battle of Pines, Va.;
- Private Andrew Crawford Fraser, 18, Co. G. 6th South Carolina Infantry, killed May 31, 1862, at the Battle of Pines, Va.;
- Col. John J. Woodward, 33, 10th Alabama Infantry, killed June 27, 1862, at Gaines’s Mill, Va.;
- Private Thomas Alexander Boggs, 19, Co. G, 6th South Carolina Infantry, killed June 30, 1862, at Frazier’s Farm, Va.;
- Lt. James O. Owens, 25, Co. K, 9th Florida Infantry, killed June 3, 1864, at Cold Harbor, Va.;
- Private David William Campbell, 21, Co. G, 6th South Carolina Infantry, mortally wounded Oct. 4, 1864, in the charge of Fort Harrison, Va.; and
- Col. Hugh Kerr Aiken, 32, 6th South Carolina Cavalry, killed in the war’s waning weeks on Feb. 27, 1865, near Darlington, S.C.
There are a couple of things to consider whenever one comes across Civil War-era graveyards.
First, many soldiers who died in action or shortly thereafter were buried on or near the field of battle because their families didn’t have the resources to cover costs associated with shipping bodies home, and neither the Union nor Confederate governments were able or willing to pay the expense.
In addition, many bodies weren’t able to be identified, so returning them home wasn’t an option.
Second, many of the soldiers who died during the war and whose families were able to retrieve their remains were, not surprisingly, of wealthier means. They may have been plantation owners, merchants or at least had some property. As such, many had family cemeteries in which to inter loved ones.
Throughout the South today, small, often-dilapidated family cemeteries dot pine thickets and cotton fields across the countryside, with many including the graves of one or more young men killed during the war.
Given that the majority of Southern dead – and likely Northern dead, as well – never made it back home, and a number of those that did were buried in what are now small, isolated graveyards, the true suffering and loss of the war has been muted, if not almost completely lost over the decades.
What we’re left with are largely well-intentioned re-enactors who, at the end of a weekend, get in their air-conditioned vehicles and return to their creature comforts; zealots on both sides interested only in stirring up controversy for their own gain; and crass consumerism from operations like Monocacy.
Make no mistake: Monocacy deserves plaudits for being creative enough to try to capitalize on the war’s sesquicentennial by brewing beer using a recipe from the era.
But the company trivializes the suffering of those that lived and those that died during the Civil War by slapping a name like Antietam Ale on its product, treating a site of unimaginable carnage as though it were the hometown of a Cy Young-caliber pitcher or Academy Award-winning actor.