By Richard Thomas
In his recent book Calamity at Chancellorsville: The Wounding and Death of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, Dr. Mathew Lively was able to bring his profession and his lifelong personal interests together under the same cover. A Professor of Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at West Virginia University, Lively is also a lifelong student of the Civil War and medical history, with his book bringing both into focus on the wounding and death of a fellow West Virginian, Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson.
Like many a writer and many an Appalachian, Dr. Lively enjoys a couple of fingers of bourbon from time to time. Although a strict observance of Presbyterianism sometimes obfuscated the fact, so did Stonewall Jackson, although more often from the point of denial than indulgence.
RT: As one who likes a couple of fingers of bourbon from time to time, what occasions prompt you to imbibe?
ML: The times I most often enjoy a sipping bourbon is surrounding a good meal. Either before or after a fine dinner, depending on the time and the ambiance, I often enjoy a whiskey neat.
RT: One of the stereotypes about writers is that they are all functioning alcoholics, more or less. I know that stereotype doesn’t apply in your case, but did you ever observe a connection between having a nice whiskey and your writing process?
ML: For me, I believe the connection between writing and having a fine whiskey resides in the actual drinking process. The proper enjoyment of a sipping whiskey requires one to slow down and take the time to appreciate the finer points of the drink. This more relaxed mood helps to clear the mind of distractions, providing an opportunity for the more profound thoughts and ideas to develop, which can then be expressed in the writing.
RT: What qualities do you look for in a good sipping bourbon? What are your favorites?
ML: I look for a bourbon that has a smooth taste with trace highlights of other flavors, such as vanilla or caramel. I like Jim Beam Black as a standard whiskey to drink on most occasions. Recently, however, I had a taste of a Black Maple Hills whiskey that I enjoyed very much.
RT: Do your tastes extend to other types of whiskey, such as rye or scotch?
ML: Most rye whiskeys have too bold of a taste for my palate. However, I have been known to enjoy a single malt scotch from time to time.
RT: The subject of your book, Stonewall Jackson, once said in response to partaking of a whiskey toddy that he abstained from distilled spirits because “I like the taste of them, and when I discovered that to be the case I made up my mind at once to do without them altogether.” There are some other instances where he was observed with a little whiskey or wine, however, so how hard do you think he actually stuck to his temperance line? What was about whiskey that you think might have attracted Jackson?
ML: Yes, there are a few recorded observations of Stonewall Jackson drinking whiskey during the Civil War. Most of the episodes appear to have occurred during a cold evening when the rest of staff was enjoying a drink to ward off the chill. One amusing episode was told of Jackson taking a very long and large drink of whiskey one night in the Shenandoah Valley, presumably under the mistaken impression that the bottle contained wine instead. Shortly thereafter, a staff officer recalled that Jackson continually complained of being very warm even though the night was growing colder.
After being wounded, Jackson was also given multiple drinks of whiskey as a stimulant – a common medicinal use of alcohol at the time. But for the most part, I think he successfully maintained his abstinence from alcohol. Jackson was noted to have great perseverance, and once he had made his mind up on a subject, he rarely strayed.
As to what attracted him to whiskey, I think it was the taste. On more than one occasion when it was offered to him, he did remark that he liked the taste of whiskey. So, like many of us who enjoy the flavor of a fine bourbon, I think Jackson appreciated that aspect too.