“Various pubs, taverns and watering holes have featured prominently in the pages of military history.”
So, Napoleon Bonaparte and a group of his officers walk into a bar dressed as farmers…
While it sounds like the beginning to a bad joke, it’s actually part of an apocryphal story about the French emperor set during the 1812 invasion of Russia.
According to the folk tale, one evening in the early stages of the campaign, the Napoleon and some generals donned peasant garb and snuck into a village tavern packed with the Tsar’s soldiers in hopes measuring the enemy’s morale. After eavesdropping for several minutes, the infiltrators were elated to hear scores of disaffected soldiers openly talking of desertion and surrender. As Bonaparte and his entourage stood to leave, one Russian who had lived in France for a time recognized the enemy ruler. The flabbergasted infantryman desperately shouted as much to his comrades. Not surprisingly, his well-lubricated squad mates found the idea uproariously funny and kept drinking. As the soldier continued to draw attention to the strangers, a quick-witted French officer stepped forward and struck his disguised emperor in the face after complaining loudly that the little man had carelessly spilled a drink on him. Napoleon collapsed under the blow and the officer continued the beating. The Russian soldiers howled with laughter at the spectacle never believing for a moment that a cowering peasant could be the infamous Bonaparte. As the soldiers returned to their drinks, the French quietly slipped away. Later, when the quick-thinking officer begged his emperor for forgiveness for striking the royal person, Napoleon warmly congratulated him for saving all of their skins. While the story is almost certainly a myth, various other pubs, taverns and watering holes have featured prominently in the pages of military history. Let’s pour over a few of them, shall we?
The Green Dragon Tavern, Boston
Often considered the cradle of the American Revolution, Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern was a longtime a hotbed of New England Freemasonry. By the 1770s, patriots, revolutionaries and rabble rousers like Samuel Adams and Paul Revere were meeting there regularly to plan the rebellion along with the pro-independence Sons of Liberty and members of the secret Committee of Correspondence. The 1773 Boston Tea Party was planned over drinks at the Green Dragon and it was from there that Revere made his famous late night ride on the eve of the battles of Lexington and Concorde, the 1775 clashes that touched off the War of Independence.
Kelly’s Cellars, Belfast
Revolutionaries of another sort frequented Belfast’s Kelly’s Cellars, the oldest pub in the city. Established in 1720, the tavern reportedly was the long-time meeting place for the ringleaders of the United Irishmen who met there to map out the 1798 Rebellion over whiskey and stout. Following the disastrous Battle of Antrim, redcoats stormed Kelly’s Cellars looking for the rebel leader Henry Joy McCracken. The 31-year-old republican reportedly evaded capture by hiding behind the bar. McCracken was eventually arrested and hanged by British authorities.
While Adolf Hitler and the nascent Nazi party used the Hofbräuhaus beer hall in Munich to organize as early as 1920, it was the Bürgerbräukeller tavern from which the future German dictator would launch his abortive 1923 putsch. After standing at the podium of the now-infamous watering hole and declaring a Nazi revolution, Hitler ordered 3,000 brownshirt thugs and fascist sympathizers to fan out across the city to seize government buildings in advance of a planned assault on the German capital. After some initial confusion, government troops and police attacked and overwhelmed the rebels killing 16 of them. The remaining Nazis fled and within two days, Hitler himself was in handcuffs. He would eventually serve nine months in Landsberg Prison, during which time he penned Mein Kampf. After finally rising to power in 1933, the Fuhrer visited the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall on the anniversary of the putsch to speak to party faithful. The tavern suffered extensive bomb damage in 1939 when anti-Nazis attempted to assassinate Hitler during his annual address there. After the war, American troops converted the site into a USO concert hall. By 1958, it was reopened as a pub, but was closed and finally demolished in 1979.
The Royal Oak, Fishguard
It wasn’t just Hitler’s grand designs that fizzled like so many beer suds. Revolutionary France’s hopes for the ‘liberation’ of the people of Britain came to an end in a small tavern in Wales. After being soundly thrashed at the 1797 Battle of Fishguard, the leaders of a 1,500 strong French invasion force formally (and even fittingly) surrendered to British commanders over drinks at the town’s Royal Oak pub. We say “fittingly” because the two-day campaign to seize the British Isles ran out of steam when the attackers dispersed in a frenzy of looting and drunken debauchery. The failed gambit marked the last time an army of foreign troops would invade Great Britain. Incidentally, at the time of this writing, the Royal Oak pub is available to lease to anyone who wants it.
The Lord Nelson, Norfolk
Visitors to Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk can literally drink in the history as they hoist a few at Horatio Nelson’s favourite establishment. Named in honour of its most famous patron, the Lord Nelson was established in 1637 (under a different name of course) and reportedly still maintains its old world look and feel.
The Grenadier, London
Londoners can enjoy a little taste of history too when they drink at The Grenadier. Founded in 1720 as the officer’s club for the First Royal Regiment of Foot Guards, the famous tavern eventually became a preferred establishment of the Duke of Wellington, Sir Arthur Wellesley. According to local legend, The Grenadier is also haunted by the ghost of an unknown British officer who was supposedly murdered by his comrades after being accused of cheating during a game of cards.
The Angel Inn, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Canada’s Angel Inn also claims the ghost of a dead British officer. Located in historic Niagara-on-the-Lake, the tiny pub is reportedly home to the spirit of Captain Colin Swayze, an officer who was stationed nearby during the War of 1812. Following the American capture of the town, some believe the young officer lingered to safeguard a stash of booze hidden in the inn’s cellar. Others claim he couldn’t bear to leave behind his local sweetheart. Swayze was eventually captured and supposedly murdered by American soldiers in the inn’s basement. Even though the pub itself was put to the torch with the rest of the village when U.S. troops withdrew to the American side of the Niagara River in late 1813, it was rebuilt three years later on the same foundation. Swayze’s ghost reportedly still wanders the premises moving furniture, making noise and frightening staff.
The Eagle, Cambridge
Spirits of another sort inhabit The Eagle, a pub in Cambridge, England. First opened in 1667, the tavern would become a favourite drinking spot for flyers of the RAF during the Second World War, many of whom scrawled their names in black marker on the ceiling. Their graffiti remains there to this day – an eerie reminder of a bygone era. The Eagle is also noted for being the spot in 1953 where Cambridge researcher Francis Crick burst in to announce to mid-day patrons that he had discovered DNA.
The Willard Hotel, Washington, D.C.
Situated in the heart of Washington, D.C., the celebrated Willard Hotel (and its bar) became a popular gathering for the Union’s military and civilian leadership during the Civil War. Located at 1401 Pennsylvania Ave., mere blocks from the White House, the hotel played host to a failed 11th hour peace conference in 1861 aimed at staving off conflict. That same year, the abolitionist Julia Ward Howe authored the unofficial Yankee anthem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” while staying at the Willard. Even President Elect Abraham Lincoln lived and conducted business there prior to his inauguration. The hard-drinking Ulysses Grant reportedly enjoyed a whisky at the Willard too, first as the Union’s tops general and later as president.
The Tun Tavern, Philadelphia
Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern has long been cited as the birthplace of the United States Marine Corps. On Nov. 10, 1775, a Pennsylvania patriot named Samuel Nicholas used the watering hole as the recruiting headquarters for the first two battalions of marines that were ordered raised by the newly formed Continental Congress. Innkeepers reportedly rewarded the first volunteers with pints of beer. The skeleton corps raised at the Tun would first see action a few months later during the American invasion of Nassau. Although the building was lost in a fire in 1781, the official Marine Corps museum in Quantico Virginia is home to a replica of the famous pub.
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Jul 23, 2013)