How Whiskey Almost Started a War

John Allen Miller

After the formation of a newly formed country, America was in the mist of a crisis and a civil war.  In the early 1790’s wars were being fought in the western part of the country mainly in western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.  The federal government did not have the funds necessary to pay war depts.  The war dept for the protection of the country depended on federally funded taxes such as the Whiskey Tax. 

The thoughts on the minds of many Emmitsburg townsmen must have been scary as a foreseen war was going to occur.  The thoughts of Indians were probably the least on their minds.  The thought of a civil war and the aftermath of the union of this country must have been the highlights at the dinner tables of families and at local taverns especially when the violence erupted in Hagerstown, Maryland.  

In 1791, in a little community known as New Midway President George Washington stayed the night at Cookerly's Tavern on his way to York.  From there he passed through the area where he gave his farewell speech to his Maryland troops at the John Ross Key plantation called Tera Ruba. The scenery that surrounded the president must have brought back many memories of the days since the Revolutionary War.

With the situation in the west the United States Armies, under Generals Harmar and St. Clair, had suffered successive defeats to a confederation of Indian tribes.  President Washington recalled Anthony Wayne as a major general in 1792 to lead a Legion of the United States against the Indian forces in Ohio and Indiana. General Wayne's troops defeated the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Ohio in August of 1794.  During the Whiskey Rebellion President Washington came to the Emmitsburg area as he settled the crisis near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. 

The Indian Wars and the Formation of the U.S.  Army

Anthony Wayne was born at Waynesborough located in Chester County, Pennsylvania on January 1, 1745.  He was a Revolutionary War Veteran whose military record superseded his reputation. He fought in most of the major campaigns of the Revolutionary War.  In 1776, he was commissioned as a Colonel under General Benedict Arnold.   In 1782, he served under General Nathaniel Greene forcing the British out of Georgia and South Carolina.

During the 1790’s the British and Indians still raided many areas west of the mountains as the British Army illegally held military posts in American territory.  With raids continuing the United States couldn’t ignore this problem.  In retaliation the United States sent out two major military expeditions against the eastern Indians.  In 1790 General Josiah Harmer led the first campaign that was disastrous.  In 1791, General Arthur St. Clair launched the second campaign. The first and second campaigns resulted in an Indian defeat against General St. Clair’s Army.

On August 20th 1794, General Anthony Wayne and the Legion of the United States preceded northeast to the British garrison of Fort Miamis.  The British forces was comprised of elements of the Royal Regiment of Artillery supported by the 24th Regiment and 5th Regiment of Foot with a detachment of Royal Engineers.  The Canadian Army consisted of units of Queen's Rangers, Caldwell's Rangers and the British Indian Department to name a few.  

Combat lasted about one hour after native warriors ambushed the recon unit of Kentucky Mounted Militia soldiers.  Although the Indians had the initial aspect of surprise that caused confusion in the American troop formations, they had nothing to protect themselves from the Legion's artillery. Bayonets and cavalry sabers proved to be a devastating blow to the Indians.  The Legion of the United States had defeated the British at Fallen Timbers and the British were forced to withdraw from the region, giving up on any hope of claim to the areas west of the mountains.

Shortly before the battle of Fallen Timbers, settlers in Pennsylvania were pushing for secession from the union.  However, the American success in the west helped reduce these concerns and diminished the threat of secession.  Many wanted to secede because of the concerns they had of the Jay Treaty provisions, the whiskey tax and they wanted an army with the ability to protect  them from enemy raids.

In May of 1796, the Legion of the United States was abolished and disbanded and the Army of the United States was officially created.  Many of Maryland’s sons fought during the Indian Wars of the 1790’s producing several regiments that were led by her officers such as these:

The Whiskey Tax

The word whiskey comes from the (Irish) Gallic word of ichcabaha meaning water of life.  Only a few countries during the time of American Independence knew how to make whiskey; Germany, Scotland, Ireland and America. This would the first uprising in America and was put down without a single shot being fired at townsmen by President Washington and his Army.

In order to protect the settlements, towns, wars and America itself, the Federal Government needed funds.  In order to help pay war debts from military action against Indians and secure the safety of the country, the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, placed a 25% excise tax on all liquor sold in the United States. Many local farmers were opposed to the tax because they relied upon producing whiskey for their source of revenue. Transporting grain as liquor was much easier and cost efficient than transporting just grain.  This tax mainly affected the farmers south of New York. With the new tax 21 million dollars of expected income could then be used to support the military actions against the Indians.   

The Whiskey Tax was viewed by most, especially Pennsylvanias, as a right that was being imposed on by the government.  The farmers thought that this was an inherited right that was passed down from generation to generation.  Liquor from grain was mainly used for items such as bread, beer, and also whiskey.  With many farmers unable to pay the tax, they simply didn't pay.  

The hated tax also represented a large annoyance of federal authority at the time. Thomas Jefferson resigned as Secretary Of Statel due to his protest against the whiskey tax.  He then went on to help form the Democratic-Republican Party that supported the rights of States against the federal government.  The same argument was used during the coming of the American Civil War.

Did this tax affect Emmitsburg?  Yes, Emmitsburg town residents had to pay the whiskey tax as well.  A representative of the Emmitsburg district would come to each home and collect the person’s share of tax that was owed.  This tax would not have caused much hostility towards the tax collector in town as it would have collecting it from the farmers around Emmitsburg.  It is unknown in Emmitsburg’s history if the town rallied against the Whiskey Tax.

The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794

The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 impacted the future of the United States. The relationship between the states and the Federal Government was new, hence, giving the states the right to govern themselves.  The Federalist Party was dismissed and replaced with the Democratic-Republican Party in order to keep a healthy relationship between the states and Federal Government.  One must remember that the founding of our nations’ capital in Washington D.C was formed after the post Revolutionary War period.  The federal government agreed to pay war debts of the states in exchange for moving the nation’s capital from Philadelphia south to a swamp area along the Potomac River that bordered Maryland and Virginia.  This was done to keep the southern states together so they would not secede from the new union.  The Whiskey Rebellion was also the first and only time a president of the United States would personally lead troops to disband a rebellion. The question of the federal government versus the rights of states was not fully determined until after the American Civil War in 1865.

In 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion had broken out in western Pennsylvania as tax collectors were consistently threatened and tarred and feathered.  This made collecting the tax of whiskey almost impossible.  By June of 1794, local authorities arrested resistors of the whiskey tax.  In July the breaking point came when James McFarlane, the commander of the local militia, was killed by federal troops for defending the besieged home of a tax official named John Neville.  As Neville was rushed to safety locals started burning buildings belonging to Neville.

By August 7, 1794, when negotiations between the federal commissioners and the rebels failed, George Washington began mobilizing 12,950 troops from eastern Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey under the command of General Harry Lee (General Robert E. Lee’s Father and Revolutionary War Hero).  This force was mockingly nicknamed the “Watermelon Army” by the western Pennsylvania whiskey tax rebels. 

Washington, dressed in his military uniform, personally led the army of over 12,000 troops into Western Pennsylvania. Washington’s Army easily put down the Whiskey Rebellion because the farmers, when faced with such a large force and notable commander, quickly dispersed.  The Whiskey Rebellion marked the dominance of the federal government, and it also made citizens of the states cautious of this power.

Violence erupts in the Tri-State Area

Rumors circulated that the Whiskey tax included taxing Rye, Wheat, Oats, and grain.  The tax would soon cover all agricultural products.  More taxes would increase the excise of male children to fifteen cents and female children to 10 cents.  With these rumors many townsmen had had enough.  The federal government had gone too far and townsmen of Hagerstown drew the final line.

Reports revealed in August of 1794 that Marylanders had taken up the cause of the rebellion and sought out to the obtain firearms.  In Hagerstown, reports also were more locally devised and aimed more clearly at overthrowing the established institutions of authority. Soon, riots occurred all around the Emmitsburg area near Hagerstown, Cashtown and Carlisle.  The Hagerstown riots were more hostile and ended more brutally than those in Carlisle Pennsylvania.  To secure the frontier wide independence movement rumors of men from Hagerstown had plans to raid Frederick’s Federal arson to secure arms. Baltimore and Philadelphia soon heard rumors that stated that an armed mob of several thousand was marching toward Frederick to relieve the Federal Arson of its weapons for the use of the rebellion.  In fact, only a couple of hundred men were planning these raids. Soon Hagerstown established a liberty pole, a sure sign of a war coming.  Also reports stated that if towns around the Hagerstown area would not join the rebellion the towns they would be threaten. 

The conflict was primarily between rural members of lower classes, laborers, owners of very little land and more economically successful residents of the town.  The pole-raisings were described as “invasions” and accounts noted, “Very few persons of any character or property were involved in the business.” Attempts to draft these men into militia units to help suppress the western Pennsylvania insurgency provided the occasion for the eruptions. Militiamen would beat their officers from the field on September 1st.  Liberty poles were then raised and hoisted upon it a flag that exhibited the words “Liberty or Death.”

Hagerstown had formed ranks to the amount of three to four hundred men to beat down any who refused to join them by means of threats to march, threatened town-dwellers, denounced the draft, the excise and the federal government. They also sought the enlistments for the march on the Frederick arsenal.  Middletown and Funkstown felt the hostility of the men from Hagerstown when they established two liberty poles at those places.

The next morning, after the crowd had dis­persed, magistrates and “some of the better disposed part of the inhabitants” chopped the pole down. Enraged by this assault on their labors and principles, “the mob gave the alarm in the country adjacent to the town and were joined by a number of the country people, who assisted in putting up a second pole, and swore they would kill any person who should attempt to take it down." The Hagerstown rioters then guarded the second pole for several nights.  

A witness believed that recruitment efforts by the rural rabble “would have collected 1000 men had not the Frederick people got notice of their intentions and armed themselves to the number of 500.” For several days the mob reigned over Hagerstown, enjoying what one account described as a “complete ascendancy” that local officials were powerless to resist.”

The residents of Frederick were prepared to meet the rioters and shattered the rioters numbers to about ninety men.  Those who left the Hagerstown rebels dispersed and returned home fearing that a raid on Frederick was impossible.  Hagerstown officials were then able destroy the “poles of anarchy” and sent out a posse to arrest the leaders.  They rounded up twenty rural folks and returned to the town where the liberty poles were ceremoniously committed to flames under the pillory, the prisoners were jailed.

In the interim, Maryland Governor, Thomas Simm Lee, ordered 8oo militiamen, a company of artillery and mounted troops to put down the revolt. When the Baltimore Light Dragoons swept through Washington County during the third week of September they accumulated around twenty-two prisoners. Over the next few days they brought in over one hundred more making the total of prisoners roughly around 150. 

President Washington visits the towns of the Tri-State Area

After George Washington took command of the Water Melon Army, he traveled to various towns in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.  He listened to the various ceremonies about the government versus the state.  From Philadelphia to Cumberland, President Washington took notice of all the improvements of roads, houses, cultivation, and the towns themselves. 

In this event of a rebellion for a president and a leader of an army to notice how the land he helped give its independence and how it was taken care of.  He saw the pride of the layout of the land and towns.  He must have felt a great deal of pride himself for him to continuously write about the appearance of the land he saw.  These rebels were not the sort who hated the government for the deal of pride they had in their lands, but a misunderstanding of the government itself.  For the people of this land to see the president and his army must have felt the terror, yet relieved to see that he took time to come out and listen to the arguments that the Americans had.  For the first time many citizens seen how the president cared for the well being not only the Federal Government but also the States themselves and the people who occupied the lands.

On October 13th, President Washington wrote in his journal several entries such as this describing some of the scenery he saw along his way  “Having now passed thro' the States of Pennsylvania & Maryland, Williamsport being on the Banks of the Potomac, at the Mouth of Conogocheaque; I shall summarily notice the kind of land, & State of improvements, along the Road I have come.” 

“From the City of Philadelphia, or rather from Norris Town to Reading the road passes over a reddish, & slaty, or shelly kind of land, through a very open and hilly Country, tolerably well cultivated by the farmers. The farmhouses are good, and their Barns above mediocrity--The former chiefly of Stone. The whole Road indeed from Philadelphia to Reading goes over Hilly & broken grounds--but very pleasant notwithstanding.”


To pay for the military campaigns against the Indians and to cover the cost of supplies it was decided to put an additional tariff on the sale of whiskey at the source. This was the source that started the imminent of a rebellion. The Whiskey rebellion marked the test of the Federal Government, the rights of the state and the will of the people.

The rights of the state would not be fully resolved, but the understanding that for a federal government to work, it needed funding to operate.  The people found out that  if they would rebel against the government their rebellion cause would be disbanded with the use of military force. 

The Federal Government founded many frontier states and territories that formed the country that we know today. With the Whiskey Rebellion and the Indian Wars, the United States grew claiming much of the territory that the British and Indians still held.  General Wayne’s Treaty to the Indians opened more land to be settled by Americans and emigrants and would generate more money for the Federal Government to support its efforts of military campaigns against Indians, as well as, any other threat that may come to this land.

The history of the Whiskey Rebellion is a small footnote in American History.  Today, you can still see traces of the places President George Washington stayed during his tour of the Tri-State area.  Widespread rumors have generated into pages of history and signs announcing, “George Washington stayed here.”  One way a visitor can tell if George Washington had really stayed or visited a house or tavern is to look for a star made of brass or iron hanging at the entrance of the house or tavern.  In New Midway, Maryland the Cookery House stands as a reminder of the importance of this country’s founding.  President Washington also stayed in a tavern located near Biglerville.  In Cashtown, Pennsylvania, traces of Old Route 30 (Hill Top Road) still can remind those who travel how a president cared for his people and the well being of this country.