Archive for August, 2013

History records Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham, leader of the famed Tennessee Division, as a solid example of a hard-drinking Confederate battle leader. Going beyond that assessment, many of Cheatham’s critics and even some neutral parties go so far as to dismiss Cheatham as little more than a belligerent drunkard.

As Cheatham is one of the main supporting characters of the Stonewall Goes West trilogy, his drinking was something I had to assess in creating his character. In my view, Cheatham was a functioning alcoholic. He liked to get his whiskey on, but I think accounts of him allowing it to interfere with his soldiering are both partisan and exaggerated, and I’ll explain why.

Evaluating the Sources: Was Cheatham Drunk at Stones River?
Primary accounts are the bedrock of history, but one thing any historian learns about using them is to always ask who it was who wrote or said that, and why they might have done so. Just because a person was there does not mean they recounted the unvarnished truth of the matter later, and as any decent lawyer will tell you, individual eyewitness accounts are sometimes unreliable.

For example, it is often said that Cheatham was so drunk at the Battle of Stones River (Second Murfreesboro) that he fell off his horse. His handling of his division that day is also widely criticized as poor, presumably because he was intoxicated.

A handful of primary sources attest to Cheatham’s drunkenness at Stones River. His behavior at the Harding House, which was being used as a Union hospital and captured by the Confederates, is mentioned in accounts from both sides. Yet some of these accounts describe Cheatham as weeping over the corpse of Brigadier General Rains or being otherwise overwrought, which certainly would not have been strange for the rollicking and emotional Tennessean, intoxicated or no.

The main source for Cheatham being so drunk he fell off his horse is Dr. Charles Todd Quintard, the chaplain and surgeon of the famed 1st Tennessee Infantry. That might seem damning, coming from a respected doctor and clergyman serving in a famed regiment, except for two things. First, Quintard was very favorable to Braxton Bragg, and Cheatham was an outspoken anti-Bragg man. Second, noted diarist Sam Watkins of “Company Aytch” fame was from the very same regiment, and a man who scorned drinking as a source of Southern woe. Yet Watkins eyewitness account of Cheatham leading the attack on the Wilkinson Pike is very far from describing a man who was falling down drunk.

As for Cheatham’s battle performance, singling Cheatham out for censure at Murfreesboro is hardly fair, and (once again) for two reasons. First, the performance of every member of the Confederate high command who fought that day, from Bragg to Polk and Hardee and on down the line is open to criticism, with the notable exception of Patrick Cleburne.

Also, Polk blundered in making an 11th-hour reshuffle of his Corps, resulting in Cheatham overseeing two brigades of another division while losing half the brigades of his own command. Whatever else might have happened, that Cheatham’s initial attacks were confused and piecemeal is not altogether unsurprising, given the circumstances.

Cheatham Later in Life
In Bright Starry Banner, Alden Carter produces a brief caricature of Cheatham following the lines of Cheatham’s detractors. He describes Cheatham as “[starting] each morning by consuming a pint of good whiskey and reinforcing the dose as necessary through the day until evening gives him the opportunity for serious drinking.”

Carter’s caricature reminds me of a line from an Agatha Christie novel, where one of her stereotypical alcoholic dilettante characters describes how his manhood had been “hors de combat” ever since he started drinking half a bottle scotch for breakfast, and that notion is relevant when you think of Old Frank’s later years. Cheatham married Anna Bell Robertson (no relation to the Tennessee Robertsons) shortly after the end of the war. This was his first and only marriage, Cheatham was in his middle 40s at the time, and he went on to father five children.

Frankly, serious boozers of the type who drink a pint of whiskey every morning don’t father five children at any age, let alone starting in middle age. Furthermore, Cheatham lived to see 65, a ripe old age for the late 19th Century, and not indicative of an out of control alcoholic. And all of this was without a major religious conversion of the kind that might have prompted him to make a point of going off the bottle. From what I’ve seen, he was still the same Old Frank at the end.

Characterizing Cheatham’s Drinking
Cheatham certainly liked to drink, and he probably liked to get good and drunk when he thought he could afford to. He was a rough and tumble Southern character who mixed being born into one of Tennessee’s top families with spending his prime years fighting in Mexico and making his way on the California frontier, so having a taste for whiskey fits in. Yet the more I’ve read about the man and the wider a view I take of him, the less I see an irresponsible drunkard. In Old Frank I see a functioning alcoholic, and that is how I choose to portray him.

I’m also a whiskey writer, and from time to time I come across a point where my whiskey- and novel-writing interests intersect. Such is the case with the fate of Charles D. Weller.

Parts of Kentucky and virtually all of Tennessee descended into a state of near lawlessness during the war, which isn’t surprising when you consider that from 1861 to 1863 broad swathes of the region were either contested, bitterly discontented against whatever government ruled them, or were in a state of open revolt. Partisans, bands of draft dodgers, and just plain out-and-out bandits operated with near impunity.

Clarksville, Tennessee figures in the sequel novel, Mother Earth, Bloody Ground, and I stumbled across a tidbit in my notes recently, something I wrote down six years ago and promptly forgot. While on a business trip to Tennessee, Kentucky bourbon-maker Charles D. Weller and an associate were robbed and murdered in Clarksville in 1862. Charles was the brother of William Larue Weller, whose name currently adorns a line of wheated bourbons made by Buffalo Trace.