A Blast From the Past – So, Just Who Was That Old Coot?

| July 11, 2020

If you grew up in – or spent much time in – the US South, you probably heard the phrase “drunk as Cooter Brown”. I know I have.

But just who was Cooter Brown? And why was he immortalized as the standard by which drunks are judged? Until fairly recently I didn’t know.

The story – or, more precisely, the stories – concerning one each “Brown, Cooter” are interesting, if possibly apocryphal. And they purportedly date to the US Civil War.

. . .

I say “stories” because I’ve run across at least two versions of Cooter Brown’s history. Here they are.

Version One. The first version says that Cooter Brown lived somewhere near the border between the US and the Confederacy during the Civil War. (One variant I’ve seen of this version actually says “along the Mason-Dixon Line”, but this would be impossible; Maryland didn’t secede, so what follows couldn’t have actually happened along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border.) This version says that Cooter was of prime military age, and had kin on both sides of the border – with said kinfolk’s sympathies running both ways (Union and Confederate). He thus had a helluva time choosing sides; either way he chose, he’d possibly end up fighting kinfolk.

Further, both sides imposed a military draft during the war. Cooter didn’t want to fall victim to that, either – from either side.

Cooter decided he simply didn’t want to participate in the war. He thus resolved to get drunk – and stay drunk. For the entire war.

Supposedly, he did so – at least, he was as drunk as the proverbial skunk every time any military unit or draft agent came to visit. He supposedly carried on this way throughout the war, successfully evading the draft from either side.

Second Version. The second version is set in a different location: Louisiana, specifically the Cajun Country part of Louisiana. Here, Cooter was of mixed Black and Native ancestry; for rather obvious reasons, he chose to emphasize his Native ancestry. He didn’t much associate with people at all, and lived pretty much as a hermit on a small plot of land he’d been gifted by a Cajun trapper some years before the Civil War broke out.

In this version, Cooter also had difficulty in choosing sides – but the reason was because he wasn’t sure how the war would turn out, or how either side winning would affect him. Still, he also didn’t want to be drafted – so in this version, he also resolved to get and stay drunk for the duration. As the story goes, he did; he successfully avoided being drafted thereby. Unfortunately, he also developed a drinking problem (ya think?) and ended up an alcoholic.

. . .

Is either story true? Was there actually a guy named “Cooter Brown” who sat out the Civil War by being an intentional drunkard?

The fact that there are two versions argues that the story is probably apocryphal. But both versions do share some basic similarities; this argues that there may be some grain of truth overlain by embellishments and exaggeration. Maybe there was a guy by that name who avoided being drafted by getting thoroughly drunk any time he thought authorities might be looking for bodies to draft – though I doubt seriously he stayed drunk continuously for years. Who knows? I certainly don’t.

Either way, the phrase refers to someone who got drunk and (allegedly) stayed drunk for literally years to avoid being drafted. “Drunk as Cooter Brown” is therefore drunk indeed – and (the possibly apocryphal) Cooter Brown is indeed a worthy standard against which to measure drunkenness. (smile)



Category: Historical, Pointless blather, Who knows

Comments (14)

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  1. Tally Whagger says:

    Drunker than Cooter Brown. That ain’t an easy thing to be.

    I don’t suppose that they had access to cold beer but whiskey is pretty easy to make. Can’t stand the stuff, smell or taste. Rum was around in those days but no crushed ice so daiquiris probably weren’t fashionable.

    OTOH, sugar cane was in abundance and reduces well into molasses. It will rot your teeth, even if you don’t feel the pain.

    Muskadine wine would have been in abundance. Never have tasted it, guess I’m too much of a snob!

  2. NHSparky says:

    And here I thought Foster Brooks was the amber standard of drunkenness.

  3. Jus Bill says:

    Cooter could well have lived along the Mason Dixon line. Maryland was by no means a solidly Northern state (there were draft riots in Baltimore and Lincoln sent Federals to lock up the General Assembly for the duration). Western, Southern and Eastern Shore Maryland still harbor Southern sympathy. And the Western part of the state narrowly intrudes (by only a few miles width) into what is now West Virginia. Even the state flag consists of the flags of both pro- and anti-slavery families.

    • Hondo says:

      Very doubtful, Jus Bill. Cooter Brown – if he was indeed a real person – IMO almost certainly could not have literally lived along the MD/PA border (the famous “Mason-Dixon Line”).

      While Maryland was indeed a slave state, it remained in the Union (and was heavily garrisoned by Union troops because of the fact that it surrounded the Federal capital, Washington DC). Because of the latter two items, there was to my knowledge never a Confederate draft in Maryland – particularly not along the MD/PA border (the Mason-Dixon Line).

      The first account says Cooter Brown was concerned about being drafted by both sides. There were other mixed-loyalty border regions where I suppose that could possibly have occurred – but I’m reasonably certain that the MD/PA border wasn’t one of them. It was neither border nor of terribly mixed loyalties.

      The other possibility – e.g., that living “near the Mason-Dixon line” referred to his living in Western MD but along the Virginia/MD border in an area where VA and PA were only separated by a few miles of MD – can similarly be discounted. The Confederacy didn’t start its draft until mid-1862. By mid-1862, sympathies in western MD were firmly Union; accounts of Lee’s 1862 Maryland Campaign indicate Lee’s troops were not well received (e.g., ignored and/or given the silent treatment) during that campaign by local MD residents, while Union troops passing through were cheered. Similarly, the western portions of VA that later broke away and were (somewhat questionably under the US Constitution) admitted as the “new” state of West Virginia did so for a reason: their sympathies were predominantly if not overwhelmingly Union from the beginning of the Civil War. I suspect that Confederate authorities would have had little success in drafting anyone from either area, even if they could have gotten there easily – which they couldn’t.

      The reason? The Potomac River (or its North Branch) formed the border between VA and MD in virtually all areas where that border could be remotely considered “close” to the Mason-Dixon Line. I’m reasonably sure that Confederate draft parties looking to induct people into the Confederate Army crossing those rivers would have been rather conspicuous – and would have been subject to interdiction had they tried. The rivers in most areas formed significant barriers, and common fords/bridges/ferries/other crossing sites were both well known and likely under observation by both sides. An armed party large enough to compel even a smallish group of 10-12 able-bodied men to come to the Confederacy for conscripted military service would have been noticed.

      The situation was the same in parts of MD near Washington DC and farther south, but for a different reason: the prevalence of Union forces. While that part of MD was more sympathetic to the Confederate cause, it was also heavily garrisoned by Union forces. Thus, there was not much chance of someone being forcibly drafted in the Confederate Army from that border area either. And FWIW: those areas of MD aren’t even remotely “close to the Mason-Dixon line”.

      I’m thus forced to conclude that if either story is true, it’s either the LA story – OR that Cooter lived in a place near the Confederate-Union border that was nowhere near Pennsylvania (and the Mason-Dixon line).

  4. 26Limabeans says:

    I wonder if the term Cooter Brown liver ever came up during an autopsy.

  5. 5th/77th FA says:

    When I FIRST saw the headline of this post, “…Who Was That Old Coot” I just knew that Hondo was writing my Autobiography…or maybe my obit. I’m sure that there are many that would read the latter with great pleasure, but, AGAIN, I digress.

    I can verify the validity of both stories, because, you see, I knew Cooter Brown. I not only got as drunk as Cooter Brown, I got drunk WITH Cooter Brown. The reason that Cooter kept showing up in different places is simple. I was the Class VI Supplies Ossifer on a Blockade Runner. I would trade Cooter premium Apple and Peach Jack for Bay Area Grillable Crab Cakes. When the heat from the Enrollment Ossifers and the Revenour Agents got so bad, we had to get Cooter out of Maryland. My undercover connections with The Beast Butler (talk about a political officer, there was one) and Antoine’s Restaurant in NOLA enabled me to get Cooter (and yes he was drunk) on the boat, sneak out of Baltimore Harbor and get him way down South. We continued to ply our trade up and down the Mississippi and even up the Red River into Texas, all the time promoting the hooch we had was so good that it kept Cooter drunk as…well…Cooter Brown. Got him hooked up with my Voodoo Queen, Marie Catherine Laveau, they stayed happily drunk together for many years.

    Proud to say that I was The Junkyard Dog of Cooter’s Grandson, Leroy Brown. Now that boy, Leroy…he was bad, bad. But he did know better than to mess with Jim.

    Thus endith the lesson.


    • Graybeard says:

      Not bad for an off the cuff tall tail, 5th/77th

      • 5th/77th FA says:

        Tall Tale? Now Graybeard, did I start that narrative with either a, “There I was….” or “This is no sh^t….”? I didn’t even give a “War Story Alert!” notification. Check my linkys and Google Foo the people I made mention of. All are listed on the Algorebull invented willywonkerweird inherwebz, being in the places I mentioned. The abuse that The Beast Butler gave to the Ladies of NOLA (plus me dropping a telegraph line to the War Department) is what got him reassigned from the Occupation of NOLA, back to the Army of the Potomac and then being bottled up on the Penisula at Bermuda Hundred. And you being a Texas Boy AND an Educator knows all about the Red River Campaign.

        Tall Tale Indeed! (tosses down a shot of red eye and stomps off in a huff) 😀

    • Hondo says:

      Based on what happened to Jim I think I’d be more worried about messing around with Slim, 5/77. (smile)

      • 5th/77th FA says:

        Makes one wonder, Hondo, if the same outfit that serviced Jim’s plane had something to do with a certain Be Nasty wanna be pileits plane. Or maybe the pileits were related.

        We prolly had 400 amps thru 1600 speakers blaring out that tune on that day in ’73.

        • Hondo says:

          Um, 5/77 . . . I was referring to characters in the song, not the artist. Unfortunately, as you mentioned above they share the same name: “Jim”. Sorry for any confusion/misunderstanding.

          Croce’s death was indeed unfortunate. He was really beginning to hit stride with his third album, and his final 3 albums (his 3rd, 4th, and 5th) were quite special.

          • 5th/77th FA says:

            ^Word^ A lot of us young troops helped get him started on being a musical and commercial success. One of my Basic Training Cadre had gone thru Basic with Jim his first time, back in ’66 IIRC. A group of us watched a very fuzzy American Bandstand broadcast on AFN in ’72 and another group saw him live in Amsterdam. We transitioned to the Lance system in July of ’73 and when the Yom Kipper unpleasantness broke out in Oct right after Jim’s pilot flew the plane into that pecan tree, most of those receivers/amps and speakers got packed up and 1/333rd FA got real mobile, real fast.

            Didn’t get custody of the original poly vinyl carbons I had. They’d prolly be worth a dollar or 50 now. He was taken from us way yonder too soon. Dumbass Aerial Jeep Driver.

  6. 11B-Mailclerk says:

    “Drunk as an owl”

    Where did that come from?

  7. Just An Old Dog says:

    “Cooter” was also a nickname that came out of the Civil War. The Cartridge box, Belt, Sling, Cap Pouch and Bayonet were collectively called Accouterments ( one of several French Military terms the US military used). Soldier’s slang to get ready to march was to ” Cooter Up” Also “Cooties” was the name given to lice, the they were considered to be so prevalent that they could be considered part of your accouterments. ” Cooter” was also slang for a friend.