Wednesday, June 11, 2014

“Kiss My —!”

In the summer of 1863, Surgeon Carl Uterhard wrote home to his mother. In his letter, he described problems that arose from alcohol. In a shockingly frank manner, Uterhard admitted, “They [Americans] have a special way of celebrating days of significance, they drink liquor. From the generals down to the common soldiers, they all drink liquor to celebrate happy events or to suppress miserable memories. They don’t drink it out of glasses, but from the bottle, and get alarmingly intoxicated as a result.”

Uterhard’s frustration with his regiment’s alcoholism derived from the fact that drunkenness almost ruined the career of one of his friends, twenty-seven-year-old Second Lieutenant Frederick Brunner (Company E, 119th New York).  Although he was an officer, Brunner emerged from the enlisted ranks. (One year earlier, he had mustered in as corporal.) His commission arrived on June 29, 1863, just four days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, where the regiment lost 140 officers and men. Brunner fought gallantly at Gettysburg, but his officer’s commission did not last more than two months. Uterhard explained why:

Every day, dozens of officers are dishonorably discharged without pay because they drink themselves into oblivion. A few days ago our regiment lost an officer this way, a Bavarian named Brunner, who was otherwise a good and decent officer, but then he got drunk, and after he had insulted our brigadier general Chrysanowsky [Wladimir Krzyzanowski] he went to our division general Carl Schurz and said the classic words: Kiss my —. Brunner named me witness at his court-martial; he wanted me to testify that he often suffers from temporary insanity. He hoped this excuse would get him out of it. I naturally told the court that I couldn’t swear to it, but it was nevertheless possible.

On August 25, 1863, a court-martial found Brunner guilty of insulting a senior officer, and reduced him to the rank of private.  Uterhard disliked the decision. Brunner was a strong-hearted officer who had risen from the enlisted ranks, and now he had to rejoin those ranks in disgrace. Uterhard did not blame the officers for attempting to enforce  such strict decorum. Instead, he blamed America’s drinking culture. He wrote, “Many of the officers have to leave the army because they ruin their health by drinking liquor. . . . In the other regiments the situation is even worse than in ours, because the colonels usually set a bad example. . . . America is full of contradictions; it is undoubtedly the country where people drink the most, yet it also has the largest associations of people intent upon never letting a drop touch their lips.” According to Uterhard, many young German officers drank to excess because they could not adapt to America’s binging style of consumption. Lieutenant Brunner’s example fit that description.

Brunner did not remain in the enlisted ranks for long. On July 1, 1864, as his regiment battled its way to Atlanta along with the Army of the Cumberland, Brunner received a promotion to first lieutenant of Company I. (I have no idea what he did to win back the good graces of his superiors, but if anyone out there in internet-land knows it, please share.) Brunner held onto his rank permanently. He mustered out with his regiment on June 7, 1865. Truly, he was lucky to get a second chance.

I’m not sure what happened to Brunner in his later years, but in 1914, his name turned up on the roster of inmates living at the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Bath, New York. Brunner would have been seventy-eight-years-old.

I wonder if, in Brunner’s old age, he ever told the nurses at Bath to kiss his ass. Did he move on from the hot-headedness of his youth, or did he retain his foul mouth? I do wonder.
(Surgeon Carl Uterhard, 119th NYV,  had to testify on behalf of Lieutenant Brunner, a young officer who used intemperate language in front of a superior.)

(Most Civil War buffs recognize the stern visage of General Carl Schurz. Try to imagine his facial expression contorted in mortification; a junior officer had told him to kiss a certain part of his anatomy.)

(Here you can see N.Y. State's Soldiers and Sailors Home in Bath. This is where Brunner ended up.)

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