Sunday, March 8, 2015
Long before the start of the Great War, much of the Deep South were dry States. That is, the production, transportation and selling of alcohol was banned. Totally prohibition was a goal of many morally self-righteous crusaders in Alabama or Florida but it was against the ways of life in the western States and in Cuba. In Texas, for example, only some of the eastern counties were dry by 1913. Whiskey and tequila were so culturally ingrained in Texas, Jefferson and Sonora that banning them was quite impossible. The same proved true for most of Cuba and rum, though the city of Jacksonville was nominally dry.
After the defeat of the Confederate States, temperance grew in strength. Crippled soldiers, men who lost limbs and their ability to earn a living began to slowly drink themselves to death. Even those men who came back from the front physically in tact suffered from a rising epidemic of alcoholism. The wives of these veterans grew tired of their husbands spending their rent and grocery money in the saloon on Saturday night. Even in supposedly dry States, it was not that difficult to get ones hands on bath tub gin. Or, after occupation began, purchasing it from Yankee soldiers who ignored the local laws.
As civilian government were still suspended in 1918, it was impossible for any States to ban alcohol. With city and county governments still functional, albeit under close Union supervision, the Crusade against Drunkenness decided to tackle the problem from below. In 1919, Tennessee managed to ban alcohol by making every county dry. Virginia followed suit in 1920. Even the western States saw some of their counties grow dry. The growing movement began to protest the occupational authority as well.
Still under martial law, local commanders were well within their rights to break up any protest with little or no reason. The new Hughes Administration issued the ordered that provided the protests did not turn violent and in no way impeded the Army then they should be tolerated. After all, it was better to let the Southerner vent their steam in protests than keep it bottled up like gasoline fumes, waiting for a spark to ignite it. Orders were issued from military governors, forcing soldiers to respect local laws. This did not mean they ceased drinking on base, only that they would now be punished for selling liquor to civilians.
Punishment was no deterrence for privates with salaries of thirty-five dollars a month earning two hundred on the side for selling a few bottles of whiskey. As with any extralegal activity, the foolish ones were the first to fall. Any private with a gold pocket watch was suspect. The more cunning and enterprising enlisted personnel began to organize themselves, pay off local authorities and above all keep a low key. To accommodate the extra income, unauthorized or crooked banks opened their doors to the Yankee.
Alcoholism was not confined to the South. The North had its fair share of cripples, physically and mentally. The rise in consumption was not immediate as most soldiers remained on occupation duty. As National Guard units demobilized and returned home, saloons and pubs began to see record business. Out of work veterans had little else to do with their time than drink it away.
The temperance movement took hold in the Midwest, with Kansas, Nebraska, Lakota, Iowa and Illinois passing prohibition laws in the 1920s. With the power of hindsight, modern scholars often criticize these lawmakers, saying it was they who allowed organized crime to grown from petty thugs to a multi-State enterprise. There is some truth to it but in the context of the age, alcoholism among the nation’s youth was a very serious problem. These young men, for most veterans were under the age of twenty-five, still had their lives ahead of them. Drinking their lives away was viewed as a waste.
When a dry State lived next to a wet one, it almost made the laws moot. The most infamous case was that of Cuba, where vulture capitalists seized control of the rum industry following the end of the war. Profiting off the suffering of the Southern people was one of the prime causes for making the name Kennedy hated so much in the former Confederacy. For the rum runners, it was only a short boat ride from Havana to Pensacola, Mobile or New Orleans. Each of these four cities saw a spike in violent crime as various gangs struggled for domination of the booze trade.
Alcohol was not the only product they had to offer. Among the millions of wounded in the war, some developed an addiction to pain killers. Chief among the analgesic drugs was morphine and later its replacement heroin, which was ironically developed as a non-addictive alternative. Opioid drugs proves a little harder to manufacture than rot-gut booze but its higher price made it a worthwhile investment in the black market expanding across the South.
The 1920s drug trade was conducted not only by those who sought quick riches but also by a number of terrorist organization in the South. The Sons of the Confederacy were quick to get into the business, using the profits generated to purchase weapons and turn them on the Yankees. To their dismay, these Southerners found themselves facing off against other well-armed Southern gangs. Their rivals for the booze trade ranged from former comrades to former slaves. It took only a few weeks of the trade for many Sons of the Confederacy to give up avenging themselves upon the Yankees in favor of quick wealth.