The custom of celebrating Memorial Day began in the aftermath of the bloodiest war the New World has ever seen. The holiday began as “Decoration Day,” a day to visit the graves of the nearly three quarters of a million soldiers who had perished in the Civil War and decorate them with flags and flowers; to grieve for whom they held and what might have been.
The holiday was thought up and initiated by a group calling itself the “Grand Army of the Republic,” the “G.A.R.” for short. This was a veterans’ group, dedicated to those who fought for a noble cause. When you say that now, it seems to drag Confederate flags into the frame. These days, the only ones who seem to remember the Civil War in any detail are those who wish it had turned out differently.
In 1866, when the G.A.R. was founded, things were different. It was for veterans of the victorious Union army, and, for a time, at least, its members were passionate and engaged. The organization was founded to make sure that the men—both white and black—whose courage had propelled them three times into the fire scything down on them from the Confederate-held heights at Fredericksburg and held them firm in a sea of grey at Little Round Top laid down their lives for a better America.
G.A.R. annual conventions—“Grand Encampments,” as they were called—were lively affairs. Tents were pitched, old uniforms brought forth and songs were sung. There was marching. There were campfires. And even though the organization was largely, although not exclusively, affiliated with the Prohibition-minded Republican Party, when old soldier met old soldier, the shared canteen wasn’t always full of water. Nor had it been during the dark days of the war.
But the Civil War wasn’t like World War II, where millions of untraveled young Americans were thrust into existential terror in foreign lands where the local alcohol—humanity’s most enduring palliative for that condition—was, if present at all, nothing that they were used to. That war brought us vodka and tiki drinks and an appreciation for imported beer. The Civil War, however, was fought right here at home, where everyone knew all the drinks, and did little to change American drinking habits, at least in the North.
During the war, the bars in New York and Boston and Philadelphia stocked the same French brandy and Champagne, the same Dutch gin, the same Caribbean rum and the same Pennsylvania rye as they always did, and made the same cocktails, Juleps, Sours, Punches, Fixes and Smashes with them. When the boys in blue were brought back from the front to recover from their wounds, they got Milk Punch, just as if they were getting over a cold (it was, in my opinion correctly, considered most restorative).
The South, under naval blockade, had it rougher. A couple of years in, and all that was left was corn whiskey, peach brandy and apple brandy, and often not too much of them: in Fayetteville, North Carolina, corn whiskey went from a high of $2 a gallon in 1861 to $60 a gallon in 1864; even factoring in the collapse of the Confederate dollar, that’s a hell of a bar tab.
With all that, there was not any one drink characteristic of the Civil War; one drink with which it is most appropriate to drink to the memories of the slain. In 1883, however, one Patrick H. “Patsy” McDonough, a bartender from Rochester, New York, published a lovely recipe for Grand Army Punch. Unless he served as a drummer boy, McDonough was a shade too young to have worn the blue, but he certainly knew many who did: upstate New York sent its young men to fight in staggering numbers, and staggering numbers of them failed to return.
So, for this Memorial Day, I will fix his punch and join him in saluting the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic, and all the men from the North or South who paid the ultimate price for our nation’s inability to settle our disagreements peacefully.
Grand Army Punch
8 oz (1 cup) VSOP-grade cognac
8 oz (1 cup) Oloroso sherry
8 oz (1 cup) Sauternes or white dessert wine
1 bottle Champagne or other dry sparkling wine
The peel of 3 lemons & 2 oranges
4 oz Sugar
4 oz Lemon juice
4 oz Orange juice
half a Pineapple, cored and sliced into quarter-rings
1 2-quart Block of ice
Glass: Punch cup
Garnish: Grated nutmeg
The day before the Punch is needed: Add the citrus peels and sugar to a pint jar. Seal, shake and put aside. Make your ice block by putting a 2-quart container of water in the freezer.
The day the Punch is needed: Add the citrus juices to the jar with the peel-sugar mix, reseal and shake until sugar has dissolved.
To serve: pour the contents of jar into 2-gallon bowl. Add the block of ice, wines and pineapple rings. Fill with hot water, stir well, and grate nutmeg over top.
This recipe serves eight adults.