Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Whiskey Men Who Fought for the South, Part 1


Foreword:  The Civil War that raged between 1861 and 1865 was a defining event in American history.  An increase in alcoholic consumption among the public during and after the conflict has been attributed to it.  The war also has been credited with spurring the temperance movement in the country that ultimately led to National Prohibition in 1920.  Many who fought on both sides had an interest in the liquor trade.  Often their stories are compelling.  In this post and two to follow, brief profiles will be drawn of whiskey men who fought in that war, beginning with combatants for the Confederacy.

One of the last Confederates to leave the field after the defeat at Fort Walker on Hilton Head, Hermann Klatte, shown here, three years later returned to his home in Charleston following the Civil War to open a liquor business. There he was hindered at every turn by Prohibitionist forces and finally put out of business by the government of South Carolina two decades before National Prohibition. 

Despite being a German immigrant and owning no slaves,  Klatte immediately went on active duty with a Charleston artillery company on December 20, 1860, the day South Carolina voted to secede from the Federal Union.  Klatte and his unit were among those Confederate forces that physically took over Fort Sumpter.  Subsequently Hermann was sent to Hilton Head where he was in the garrison at Fort Walker for the battle of Port Royal in November 1861. In the end Yankee fire power proved too strong and a Southern retreat was ordered.  According to one account, Lt. Hermann Klatte was the last officer to leave the field, cannonading the Yankees until the last moment.


In the aftermath of the Port Royal battle Klatte’s artillery unit was employed primarily to defend South Carolina’s coastal defenses.  When those were evacuated in February1865 as Confederate resistance crumbled, Klatte, now a full lieutenant, was in command of an artillery battalion.  He tried to join remaining Confederate forces, but was deterred by General Sherman’s march into South Carolina, and surrendered at Greensboro at the close of the war.  Ending his service ranked as a captain, Klatte’s heroism subsequently was hailed by several Southern commentators.

Upon returning to Charleston, he opened “Hermann Klatte & Bro” as wholesale dealers in foreign and domestic liquors and wines.  He also advertised sales of mineral water, “segars,” tobacco and both foreign and domestic beers.  For decades Klatte’s liquor house was a success.  Just before Christmas 1892, however, the South Carolina legislature voted for a corrupt scheme that put the governor in total charge of whiskey merchandising and prohibited all other sales of alcohol. 

Virtually in a moment, almost two decades before National Prohibition, the state that Klatte had fought so hard to protect, put him out of the whiskey trade.  Directories show that he struggled on with tobacco and nonalcoholic products for several years and then, at age 61, folded his business. There may have been times when Klatte wondered if his military service on behalf of the South had been worthwhile.

The Battle of Five Forks, fought on April 1, 1965, was the last major clash of North and South in the Civil War.  Nine days later Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.  But for Elijah Betterman,  whose subsequent career as a Tennessee whiskey man brought wealth and prominence, the war was far from over.  Captured at Five Forks he would spend months after the surrender in a Yankee prison camp.  After his release and subsequent marriage, Betterman found success elusive until he opened  a wholesale liquor business in Chattanooga under the name E.R. Betterton & Co., as shown on a company letterhead.


Ultimately Betterton found it necessary in 1895 to open his own distillery, located on Signal Mountain Road near Valdeau, Tennessee.  Betterton called it “White Oak Distillery.” Unfortunately his first plant, although it prospered, had no easy transportation access.  It was a distance from the Tennessee River and five miles from the nearest railroad.  As a result, about 1899 Betterton and a partner built a second White Oak Distillery on the south bank of the river just east of Chattanooga’s Market Street bridge.  An illustration of this facility emphasizes its nearness to river and rail transport.

When Tennessee went “dry” in 1913, Betterton and a partner opened a wholesale house under the name “E. R. Betterton” in Rossville, Georgia,  just over the Tennessee state line.  Liquor still could be sent by freight from Chattanooga to Georgia. For a time, it was still legal for Betterton to ship his whiskey back from Georgia to his Tennessee customers by express freight and even parcel post.  As a result, by 1917 he had exhausted most of the stock at the distillery and in his Tennessee warehouses.  The former Johnny Reb persisted in business.  In 1914 he formed the Betterton & England Shoe Company, footwear wholesalers, in Chattanooga.  

Henry Gunst, like Hermann Klatte, was a German immigrant, without slaves, who settled in Bowling Green, Virginia, a small town between Richmond and Washington, D.C.  Although married with children when the Civil War broke out, Henry shut down his tannery, left his family, and joined the 13th Virginia Infantry Regiment. Shown here in maturity, Gunst saw fierce action throughout the war, fighting at First Manassas, in Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign, Cold Harbor and in the battles up and down the Shenandoah Valley. 

Although the 13th Virginia was present at Lee’s Surrender at Appomattox, Henry apparently had returned to Bowling Green by that time. According to a family legend, when he attempted to restart his tannery, a Yankee officer told him he first had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Union. Henry, the story goes, chased the officer out of town with a pitchfork.


Moving to Richmond after the war, Gunst founded a liquor business, claiming to be both a distiller and whiskey blender.  His partner, Straus, appears to have exited early. Nevertheless, Straus-Gunst & Co. remained the name of the business throughout its lengthy existence. Its principal brand of whiskey was “Old Henry.”  As the business grew and flourished, Henry became a rich man, recognized in Richmond for his business acumen.  He and his wife lived in a mansion and he was chauffeured around town in a fashionable buggy.

Despite being on the losing side, Gunst continued to be proud of his “Johnny Reb’” Confederate past. In 1888 he attended a Virginia exposition related to the Civil War and displayed a 10-chambered pistol he had taken from an Union officer on the battlefield. A fond grandfather, as shown below,  Old Henry died in 1907, never to see statewide prohibition imposed in Virginia in 1916.

Note:  This post deals with former Confederate soldiers who remained in the South; a subsequent post will feature three Rebel whiskey men who went North and flourished.  Longer vignettes on each of the three featured here can be found on this blog at the following dates:   Hermann Klatte, March 23, 2014;  Elijah Betterton, August 10, 2013; and Henry Guntz, August 3, 2011.














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