Beer in Civil War Missouri

Federal soldiers receive a ration of whiskey and quinine, showing the need for alcohol to calm nerves and stay warm during the frigid winter months. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

While in camp at Rolla on March 9, 1865, Private Frederick A. Kullman of the 13th Missouri Cavalry sat down to write in his pocket diary about how he longed to escort prisoners to St. Louis. For him and much of his comrades, it was not to visit the city or to show their authority to the enemy, but to “try some more of that good old Lager beer.” In 1861, there were over forty independent breweries operating in St. Louis alone, with countless others along the Missouri River.

In the early nineteenth century, the most popular types of alcoholic beverages in the United States were whiskey, cider, gin, bourbon, rum, and wine. They could be manufactured without refrigeration and were drunk throughout the day by Americans. By the mid-nineteenth century, beer consumption exploded; and much of that has to do with the influx of German immigrants, particularly in Missouri.

Chart showing the amount of alcoholic beverages consumed by Americans from 1792 until 1882. You can see the jump from 1850 until 1870. Beer (“malt liquors”) doubled in consumption during that time frame. Courtesy of The Liquor Problem in All Ages by Daniel Dorchester.

Throughout this time period, over 40,000 Germans emigrated from their home country and settled in Missouri to flee persecution and monarchical government, and to live in a democratic, liberal society. 10,000 of these German immigrants arrived and stayed in St. Louis, while the remaining 30,000 mostly settled throughout the Missouri Rhineland, or along the Missouri River. With them, they brought German culture, cuisine, music, and more. Most importantly for this discussion, they brought beer.

At the time of the Civil War, large-scale Missouri breweries had not been established yet, such as Anheuser-Busch or Griesedieck, Instead, most were microbreweries. These small breweries were only able to produce limited quantities of the drink during the winter months to regulate temperature. Some brewers utilized the natural features of St. Louis to make better-tasting beer and in higher quantities.

Johann Lemp, the founder of the Lemp Brewing Company, is on the left. His son, William, turned the brewery into the largest of its kind in St. Louis. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

Johann A. Lemp, who had learned to brew beer from his father in Germany. After arriving in St. Louis in 1838, Lemp discovered that the cave system in St. Louis could regulate the temperature of the beer, allowing him to produce his own beer year round. By 1840, he created the Lemp Brewery. His son, William, took over the family business around the time of the Civil War and built it into the largest brewery in St. Louis by 1870. The issue of refrigeration, though, would transcend to the Civil War.

For Civil War armies, whiskey, rum, and bourbon were the most common alcoholic drinks. This was mainly due to easy access and no refrigeration required. Additionally, hospitals would dispense intoxicating beverages to sick and wounded soldiers on occasion to relieve symptoms. Beer, however, was beloved by many soldiers, particularly those who were stationed near German communities or knew German troops. Soldiers in Missouri did not have much difficulty obtaining beer.

On his unit’s way to Jefferson City in 1861, Sgt. Philip Smith, German immigrant and color bearer of the Eighth Missouri Infantry Regiment, recalled a German brew master giving the soldiers a keg of beer.

“Near the Boat Landing Stood a Brewery and an old German who seemed to be the boss, showed his loyalty and good will towards the boys by rolling half a barrel of beer to us which was quickly transferred on board of the Boat and quickly drank by the thirsty boys. As we backed out from the shore They Hallowed to the old Gentleman that the next time we came there they would return him this keg, but if I was the old gent I do not think that I would take any stock in that promise.”

Irish immigrant and Union soldier Capt. James Love spent the first year of the war in Missouri with his unit the Eighth Kansas Infantry. On July 4, 1861, Love’s unit was in Boonville, where “our men had too much Beer & Whisky.” A soldier in the 2nd Colorado Cavalry recalled in May 1864, that in Westport, Missouri, that “the turners have a pick nick in the bush on the road going to Westport quite a display of physical power … the participants nearly all Dutch Lager beer has to suffer.” The soldiers’ love for beer boosted the demand. Consumption of beer doubled during the Civil War.

On the left is Adolphus Busch, co-founder of Anheuser-Busch. His father-in-law was Eberhard Anheuser. Busch, along with multiple members of the Anheuser family, served in the United States Reserve Corps units of the Union Army in Missouri. Courtesy of Anheuser-Busch and the Missouri Historical Society.

St. Louis beer was also used strategically, especially by Union troops. Close to the Arsenal, a series of caves and tunnels (used originally for beer storage) were used to hide ammunition and firearms during the crisis of 1861. To move these weapons from the Arsenal, members of the United States Reserve Corps hid them in beer wagons. After the war, Anheuser-Busch would build its original brewery on top of these caverns to use as beer storage. The United States Reserve Corps also used Jaeger’s Brewery on Sidney and Tenth as an armory and training facility. Most members of the U.S.R.C. were German and many were involved in the beer industry in St. Louis.

Though beer had a stake in the culture of Missouri – and loved by soldiers – the United States government began taxing alcohol and banning the distribution of alcoholic drinks to soldiers. On August 1, 1862, a beer tax (The Revenue Act) of $1 per 31-gallon barrel on all beers was implemented to fund the Union war effort. The numbers show how the tax did not necessarily deter Americans from drinking. The federal government received $3.7 million in taxes just on beer.

The legacy of beer in St. Louis – and Missouri – is one that continues deep within the region’s roots. Today, you can travel throughout the area, finding a plethora of large breweries (Anheuser-Busch, Schlafly) and microbreweries (Urban Chestnut, 4 Hands, Brick River Cider). Next time you are in St. Louis, take a tour of these unique breweries and see for yourself just how much Germans impacted the culture of the city. When you go out of St. Louis and make your way through the Missouri River Valley, you will see many wineries and microbreweries stemming back to the nineteenth century.


Diary of Francis M. Gordon. May 15, 1864. Manuscript Collection, The State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia, MO.

Diary of Frederick A. Kullman, March 9, 1865, Manuscript Collection, The State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia, MO.

Diary of Philip Smith, Manuscript Collection, Peoria Historical Society, Peoria, IL.

Kodner, Molly. “Civil War Love Letters Blog Series.” Missouri Historical Society. Accessed January 22, 2019.

Rother, Hubert and Charlotte. Lost Caves of St. Louis: A History of the City’s Forgotten Caves. St. Louis, MO: Virginia Publishing Company, 2004.

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