During the early days of the Civil War, Union forces invaded and occupied Alexandria, adjacent to the Nation’s Capitol but part of the secessionist state of Virginia. According a history, these events “forever changed the social, cultural and economic fabric of the old seaport town.” They certainly changed the lives of John Ahern and his family. In the 1860 census Ahern, an Irish immigrant, was listed as a laborer with a net worth of $50. By 1870 he was an Alexandria grocer and liquor dealer worth $4,000.
The transformation can be laid to the changes made in the commercial life of the town shown above before the war. The city boasted 96 firms and 12,653 inhabitants. It was a center of the slave trade. During the conflict two of every three Alexandria residents, leaving behind their homes and businesses, had fled to the South, many to Richmond, one hundred miles away and the capital of the Confederacy. With a huge influx of soldiers, for a time chaos reigned in Alexandria. Murder and other crimes were rampant; drunkeness common; citizens feared to venture into the streets: “…A condition of things perhaps never in the history of this country to be found in any other city,” according to one author. Many felt the anguish.
In time, under martial law, the situation stabilized. During the war Alexandria was transformed into a huge logistical supply center for Federal troops fighting in Virginia, with thousands of Union troops stationed there. Hordes of black “contrabands” — former slaves who escaped into Union lines — helped swell the population, elated by being free from slavery and earning a day’s wage. Entrepreneurs, both legitimate and shady, descended on the city from all parts of the North. Alexandrians remaining who failed to swear obedience to the United States were not allowed to engage in business. Although many of the city’s Irish had joined the rebels, Ahern was willing to take the oath of allegiance and agree to abide by the military rules.
Ahern’s rise in the city also was a lift to his family. About 1853 when he was 35 years old, John had married another Irish immigrant named Margaret, a woman seven years younger than he. The couple had produced three children by the time of the war, a girl, Mary, born in 1843; Michael, 1847, and John P. (sometimes called Patrick), 1850.
The postwar period proved no better for Alexandria. According to a local history: “Following the end of the Civil War, Alexandria found itself in a state of physical, mental and economic depression. With the withdrawal of most of the troops, little commerce remained. Hundreds of returning Confederate soldiers, many missing limbs, faced the daunting prospect of beginning life anew after their homes and businesses had been confiscated, and their former way of life swept away by the conflict.”
Nevertheless, Ahern persisted. He advertised his store as “Wholesale and Retail Dealers in Groceries and Liquors.” His location was at a particularly advantageous intersection of three major streets — a triangular building where Prince, West and Commerce Streets come together. A Sanborn fire map shows the site, with the address of 1319 Prince Street. The building still stands at that location. In time both his sons came to work in his establishment.
During the war restrictions on sales of alcohol discouraged saloons in Alexandria but after the conflict they blossomed. Ahern found a ready market for his wholesale whiskey, received in barrels from Pennsylvania and Maryland distilleries and decanted into gallon-sized ceramic containers. Some jugs were all white in a Bristol glaze with others boasted Albany slip on the top and neck. Those included both cone tops and domes. The remnant of a paper label from the back of one of these jugs clearly identifies the contents as “whiskey.” Another portion suggests it was advertised as “pure.”
For decades John Ahern guided the fortunes of his enterprise, with his sons — both unmarried — to assist him. During the 1880s major efforts were made to ban alcohol in Alexandria. Prohibition legislation was a dominant issue of Alexandria elections. A local Temperance Society argued that if saloons were outlawed, an influx of families would migrate to Alexandria to escape the awful consequences of alcohol. Probably to Ahern’s relief, the effort was turned back in the 1881 election when anti-prohibition Democrats were elected in a landslide. The Alexandria Gazette of May 7, 1881, noted: “As soon as the polls closed...bon fires were lighted all over the city and there was great rejoicing over the victory. Men on the streets declared that Alexandria had rid herself of another ism…."
The city would stayed “wet” for another three decades, much to the benefit of the Aherns. They advertised widely that: “We hold largely in United States bonded warehouse and carry in stock various brands of the best pure rye and malt whiskies.”
The founding father lived through the most of that decade, ceding management of John Ahern & Co. gradually to sons Michael and John Patrick. John Ahern died on April 25, 1889, at the age of 80 and was buried in Alexandria’s National Cemetery. His gravestone is shown here.
Michael and John P. carried on the business into the late 1910s, selling liquor until the state of Virginia went dry in 1916 after a statewide referendum in which Alexandria voted overwhelmingly wet.
The bachelor brothers resided in a splendid home at 915 Prince Street in Alexandria’s Historic District, shown above. Living with them was a younger cousin, Katherine Ahern, who kept house for them. John Patrick died in February 1917 at the age of 65. Michael followed in 1920, age 73. The brothers were buried with a single headstone adjacent to their father’s grave in the National Cemetery.
The ascendancy of the Ahern family as Alexandria businessmen had been directly affected by the Civil War as John Ahern moved from being a laborer with a meager income to becoming a wealthy merchant selling fancy groceries and, most profitable of all, liquor. Amidst a city often in turmoil and always in flux — anguish for some, elation for others — the Aherns had not just prevailed, but prospered.
Note: The photos of the Ahern jugs are through the courtesy of two Virginia bottle collectors, Richard Lillienthal and Peter Rydquist, colleagues from the Potomac Bottle Club, now sadly defunct. The material on Alexandria during and after the Civil War is from a variety of sources.
Special Note: This is marks the 600th vignette on this site devoted to pre-Prohibition whiskey men — distillers, distributors, dealers and saloon keepers. It is particularly appropriate that this story is sited in Alexandria, my home city for the past 45 years. One recent innovation is my condensing three or four earlier posts around a central theme every fourth upload. Those topics range from whiskey men as inventors, to Civil War soldiers, friends of Presidents, and other subjects. Those topical posts will continue in the future.
Since it was inaugurated in 2011, the blog as of this writing has had 597,212 look-ins. While chiefly from the U.S., they have come from all parts of the world. The blog currently registers 160 followers, for whom I am profoundly grateful. I continue to find interesting whiskey men about whom to write and, as long as the good stories hold out, have set a goal of reaching 700 posts in the months ahead.