Chatham Artillery Punch: The Cocktail That Toppled Savannah
This potent drink shares its name with a Georgia artillery unit that was formed in 1786.
The way Joseph Claghorn and his men worked it, back in 1859, was like this: the loader would take the cartridge—an iron ball 3.58 inches in diameter, wired to the end of a linen bag stuffed like a sausage with a couple pounds of gunpowder—and slide it bag-first into the muzzle. Then the sponge man would use the butt-end of the long, wooden swab he was holding and ram the cartridge all the way down the barrel. Once it was seated, the guy standing to the right of the breech would jab a spike through the little fuse-hole on top of the gun into the linen powder-bag, opening a way for sparks to reach the powder. Then the fellow standing across from him would plug a brass friction-primer with a lanyard hooked onto it into the fuse-hole. Now everyone would step back.
At the gunner’s yell of “fire,” the fuse-man would give the lanyard a yank, the primer would spark and—BLAMMO! The iron ball would go screaming out of the muzzle at some 1,400 feet per second, almost twice the speed of a bullet from a Colt .45 and, at just over six pounds, something like 180 times the weight. As a means of demolishing heavy fortifications, it wasn’t particularly effective, but for knocking down men standing anywhere in front of it for the next mile or so the only thing better was the punch named after the unit firing the gun, although the punch did its work at a closer range.
Chatham Artillery Punch has been state-of-the art in rapid-fire intoxication, since it was first assembled, back in 1859. The unit whose name it bears is a good deal older than the punch, although you will find many who claim that the punch must have been there since the beginning, so closely are they associated.
The Chatham Artillery’s roots go back to Savannah, Georgia, before the Revolution. In 1786, after the War, the unit—having been disbanded in 1778 after an unsuccessful attempt to defend the city from the British—was reconstituted from scratch; it dates its official founding to then (it still exists, as a part of the 118th Field Artillery; its most recent deployment was in Afghanistan). It fought well in the honorable cause of defending the nation from the British (again) in 1812 and also well in the entirely less honorable wars waged in the early nineteenth century against various indigenous peoples of the Southeast.
By 1859, once that fighting was over, the unit was a silk-stocking one, made up of young men from the leading families in Savannah, all brightly uniformed, well-equipped and drilled to a “t.” As what was classified as “light artillery,” the unit had four horse-drawn brass six-pounder guns and two twelve-pounder howitzers (heavier shell, lower velocity), along with, for ceremonial use, two antique six-pounders that George Washington presented them with in 1793, taken from the haul of British cannon he had captured at Yorktown.
In June, 1859, Captain Claghorn took his men and his battery of guns on a train trip to Nashville, where they were having a sort of Southern militia jamboree (they left the howitzers behind and brought the Yorktown six-pounders; if George Washington had given you six-pounders you would have done the same). Speeches, feasting and toasting ensued. Then they went home. When they got there, there was a shindig prepared.
That’s where Alonzo Luce stepped in. A former seminary student from upstate New York, Luce ran the Marshall House in Savannah, the town’s leading hotel, and tended bar there. It’s unclear whether he was an actual member of the Chatham Artillery or just an honorary one. In any case, he requisitioned some bottles from William Davidson (the leading wine and spirits dealer in town and a Lieutenant in the Artillery) and a “horse bucket of ordinary size” from one of the unit’s caissons.
Then the mixing: the bucket, a leather thing that held three or four gallons, “was filled with finely crushed ice” and then “a quart of good brandy, whisky and rum each was poured into the ice, and sugar and lemon added.” Then the whole thing was supercharged: “the bucket was filled to the brim with champagne, and the whole stirred into delirious deliciousness.” Done.
That account comes from an 1883 article in the Augusta, Georgia, Chronicle, which had sent a man to Savannah to see what was new down there. While poking around he bumped into “an old Chatham Artilleryman” who ran down the drink’s history and construction for him (there may originally have also been a gallon of “some light wine” added to the original, as the battery’s then current punch-man explained to another Savannah visitor in 1900). By 1883, the punch had become famous, even notorious, at least in Georgia.
The main reason for that comes from an 1870 junket that saw men from the various Georgia newspapers congregate in Savannah to try and form a state newspaper association. Their hosts took them out on a harbor cruise and sprung Luce’s punch on them. The results were, well…you can’t say the world wasn’t warned.
“For some time I had noticed a huge bowl,” wrote J. T. Waterman, the editor of the Tallbotton, Georgia, Standardand a survivor of the cruise. “There was a liquid in the bowl—river water, I think—and Mr. S. [E. A. Soullard, a Savannah merchant and Alderman] had a dipper in his hand, which went in and out of the bowl with great rapidity. Some of the liquid was spilled on the floor and made it slippery; some was spilled into the mouths of the gentlemen standing around and made them jolly.”
In some of the party, the punch triggered weepiness and sentimentality. In others, it released their resentment over their recent defeat in the Civil War. One nasty and unregenerate old rebel pointed to the American flag flying over Fort Pulaski in the harbor (which some of the Chatham Artillery had defended, unsuccessfully, against Union besiegers in 1862) and “declared seventy seven times in a voice husky—with emotion—that he couldn’t respect that flag, and between every two or three times saying it he drank a glass of that liquid.”
Yet others, Waterman continued, “were so deeply moved—by Col. Soullard’s arguments—that they left the merry crowd and took state rooms to meditate in silence. Some sat in arm chairs, laid their heads back, and gazed up into the azure heavens until they fell into soft and quiet slumber, regardless of the fervency with which the sun poured his rays into their blooming, upturned countenances.”
A few sang and yet others danced, including “one editor from away up the country” who “wanted to dance the Can-Can with one leg.” Yeah.
“Some told me that this powerful liquid…was known in Savannah as ‘Chatham Artillery Punch,’” Waterman concluded, “but I am sure it was nothing more than river water mixed with sea breezes.”
After that, this sort of river-water ambush became standard procedure for the city fathers. Whenever anyone of note was scheduled to visit town, the Savannans would head over to Mike Quinan’s saloon and put in an order. Quinan (1837-1895), a rough and tumble Irishman from the fist-fighting town of Troy, New York, ran his bar (first called the “European House,” and then the “Hibernian House”) from 1868 until the mid-1880s. His oft-advertised specialty was “Old Artillery Punch,” and he provided it to all comers. In fact, odds are he provided it that day in 1870 as he did so many others. Then the town dignitaries would assemble, and smile, and ladle it out.
“Of a pale straw color, and just the slightest suggestiveness in flavor of lemon and rum, it is seemingly the least pretentious of all of the beverages that claim Bacchus as godfather.” Thus wrote a man from the Baltimore American who was there in 1883 when President Chester A. Arthur, taking a break from the stresses of office, stopped in Savannah on his way to do some fishing in Florida. The Savannans, pitiless, sprung Quinan’s punch on him. A New York cocktail-drinker from way back, Arthur was not impressed, telling one of his companions that “he could take a wheelbarrow load of the beverage.” And take one he did. It did not end well.
Others who were similarly waylaid were Admiral Dewey, in the middle of his Spanish-American War victory tour, and William Howard Taft. Eventually, Prohibition put an end to the Savannans’ sly shenanigans. By then, the punch had been weakened and complicated and altogether adulterated, and that was the version that staggered back after Repeal. Made the old way, however, it is the Almighty.
The O.G. Atlanta bartender Greg Best and I once assembled a batch of the stuff for 400 people, featuring a case each of Cognac, bourbon and Jamaican rum, plus lemon juice and sugar in proportion and three cases of good American méthode champenoise, all poured into a claw-footed bathtub half-full of ice. It was gone in 40 minutes. People were sitting in the bathtub trying to extricate the last drops. It was like that day on the river, without the Confederate nostalgia.
If you’re game, or wicked, enough, here’s how you make a batch that will get 30 people rolling on the river:
- 1 750-ml bottle Mellow pot-stilled Jamaican rum, such as Plantation Xaymaca or Rum Bar Gold.
- 1 750-ml bottle Good bourbon whiskey
- 1 750-ml bottle VSOP-grade Cognac or Armagnac
- 3 750-ml bottles chilled Champagne or appropriate substitute (you need something dry, such as Gruët, from New Mexico. Do not use prosecco or cava).
- Peel of 9 lemons
- 18 oz Fresh-squeezed, strained lemon juice
- 2 ¼ cups Sugar
The day before you need the punch, put the lemon peels (preferably cut in long spirals) and the sugar into a 2-quart Mason jar. Seal, shake and let sit overnight. The next morning, add the lemon juice to the jar, shake well to dissolve sugar and refrigerate.
Half an hour before the party, fill a 3-gallon punch bowl halfway with ice. Add the shrub (the contents of the Mason jar), peels and all, the rum, the bourbon and the brandy. Stir well. Five minutes before the party, add the bubbly and stir briefly. Ladle out in 3-oz servings.