Grant and Drinking Revisited

Over at Cosmic America, Keith Harris draws attention to an excerpt of a lecture by Joan Waugh where she discusses the reports of Ulysses S. Grant’s drinking.

It seems to me that too many discussions of Grant’s relationship with alcohol follow a predictable pattern.  We hear Dr. Waugh proclaim that Grant was never drunk when it counted.  That’s a claim I’ve heard for a long time.  In short, whether or not Grant drank, if he did so, no one was hurt by it, and so what’s the big fuss?

I do not concur with this line of argument.

Let’s highlight three reports of Grant’s intoxication during the American Civil War where it’s clear something happened:  the Yazoo bender of June 6, 1863; Grant’s fall from a horse at New Orleans on September 4, 1863; and a report that Grant drank and fell ill while inspecting the Petersburg lines on June 29, 1864.  In each case we can debate and even disagree on what happened in detail, but’s let’s look a bit more carefully at these incidents.

As for the Yazoo bender: we know that Grant had been ailing, that Sherman’s medical director had advised him to take a drink for relief, and that there had been some drinking at Grant’s headquarters on June 5, although it’s far from clear whether Grant was drinking, drinking to excess, drinking to relieve some pain, or not drinking.  However, the journey up the Yazoo the next day was not a pleasure cruise, but an effort to assess the situation in light of reports that Joseph Johnston was mounting a relief expedition to attack Grant’s rear.  Grant appears to have been ill that day, and one could conclude that he had indeed taken a drink or two for relief.  That hypothesis receives support from a draft of an manuscript by James H. Wilson in the Wilson papers at the Library of Congress.  So, is this a story of Grant as irresponsible drunk?  Probably not.  Is this an example of the intersection of illness and alcohol?  Probably.  Was Grant engaged in doing something important to the security of his command?  Yes.  So let’s dismiss the notion that the Yazoo bender, whatever happened there, was undertaken during a lull in the campaign.  That’s simply not true.

Now let’s turn to New Orleans.  Grant was on a visit to Nathaniel P. Banks to confer about possible operations.  Banks took Grant to review two corps, including the Thirteenth Corps, which was part of Grant’s own Army of the Tennessee.  There was quite a reception afterward, complete with drinks.  We don’t have any evidence that anyone saw Grant drinking at the reception, but we do have accounts by Banks and William B. Franklin that Grant was drunk.  Other witnesses did not support that claim.  On the way back, Grant’s mount, alarmed by a train whistle, threw its rider, and Grant fell hard, losing consciousness.  His left leg was seriously injured.  He was laid up for weeks, and had not recovered when he went to Chattanooga six weeks later.  Hard to conclude what exactly happened here, but one could see Grant, feeling a buzz, being a little careless in handling an unruly horse and suffering the consequences.  Putting a general out of commission with a serious injury certainly ends his usefulness in the field for a while, and it could have been worse.

Finally, on June 29, 1864, a hot day, Grant, while inspecting his command, and complaining of a headache, reportedly downed a few drinks, became sick, and vomited.  No, he was not laid up for days, and the vomiting may have resulted from a combination of the heat and the alcohol.  But we can’t say that this was a lull in campaigning, either, as Grant was busy dealing with Lee and pondering what to do next.  The fact is that when you are general-in-chief there is no lull in the fighting, because somewhere someone’s fighting.

Note that I’m setting aside reports of Grant drinking at Chattanooga because I don’t find enough to craft a compelling enough case.  Besides, highlighting these three cases should be sufficient to challenge the notion that there’s some sort of coverup going on (although there will always be folks who insist that).  These three examples should cause us to set aside the notion that Grant drank when it didn’t matter and when nothing important was going on.  When you are a general in command of an army, something important is always going on, and it would be bad business for a general to assume a lull in the fighting to relax before being surprised.  Think Shiloh.

I’ve written before about Grant’s drinking.  Sometimes I suspect that people don’t pay careful attention to what I’ve written, because the debate seems to be carried on between admirers and antagonists.  I don’t see how that has anything to do with getting the story straight, or in trying to piece together what happened and why.

 

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12 thoughts on “Grant and Drinking Revisited

  1. I’d always accepted the idea that Grant was a binge drinker, able to lay off the bottle until he was bored or lonely. Your point, however, is well taken. While stories of Grant’s excessive alcohol consumption are often unsubstantiated or contradictory, we cannot simply say that it doesn’t matter because he never drank during campaigns or “when it counted.” The alleged instances you sight were during campaigns and therefore did matter. Historians who are favorable to him cannot gloss over this with a pat answer that resolves nothing. It appears that all we can know for certain is that he MIGHT have imbibed at inopportune times.

  2. Grant drank. He could drink w/ minimal consequences, but there were times things didn’t go well. Brooks and I have wondered if he had a systemic issue with alcohol that led to this. Also, we need to remember he wasn’t drinking top-shelf bourbon all the time.

    Having had an experience with a friend’s son who suffered from migraines, I wonder if the Yazoo bender wasn’t a migraine. With my friend’s son, there would be an “onset period” during which he simply didn’t feel well (and knew the migraine was coming, alas), and then the headache would hit and knock him for a loop.

  3. Brooks,

    What about post-war Grant? Id the drinking rumors continue with Commanding General Grant and President Grant?

    • I believe Brooks has mentioned there was an incident during Johnson’s “Swing Around the Circle,” but that the incidents otherwise dropped off, possibly because of the less intoxicating effects of wine, which was more available to Grant now*. McFeely mentions a lurid incident from Grant’s time in Britain, but this is almost as over-the-top as the Yazoo bender.

      *This would be a curious affirmation of Jefferson’s comment that there is less drunkenness where good wine is easily available.

  4. Also, we need to remember he wasn’t drinking top-shelf bourbon all the time.

    Poorly distilled whiskey resulted in far more damage in 18/19th century than most Mericans realize. At times …that damage was intentional, as when yankees traded with natives, and….gave them bad booze (and then ambushed them a few hours later, carrying off a few squaws).

    Grant did not completely lack for Jeffersonian/Madisonian secular principles. He wanted the tax exempt status removed from ALL churchly properties, regardless of denomination.

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  7. I am a big civil war buff, and I really think Grant’s drinking problem is nearly always taken out of context. Most leaders are flawed, in fact some of the greatest leaders are greatly flawed. Can you imagine the stress this man was under? He was mostly a failure in his life and then he was propelled into a job with responsibility for human life second to only Lincoln. Ok…he failed and binged on a few occasions. He also won the war. The context that I refer to is that he had a command staff around him that supported him. I am a veteran, and I can tell yo that if my superior was obviously drunk we would deal with it and continue the mission without it hurting us. The army makes up for the weaknesses and imperfections of others and still figures out how to get the job done. This is true between privates and sergeants and true between major generals and and colonels. The issue of Grant’s drunkenness is really rather mundane given how much evidence there is for the amount of times he performed his job without any apparent influence of booze. I always ask myself “what is the point”…does anybody not know a person who occasionally drinks to much but is still highly successful? I know dozens.

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  9. There’s just too much circumstantial “could have” history here. For instance, say people had pushed a narrative that Stonewall Jackson was a drunk. Would we say then that he’d stumbled on his own men and gotten shot when drunk? We have to stick to what we DO know, and question all the sources afterwards, especially those by the historians we know hated Grant. Plus, let’s remember just how small in stature he was, and how much liquor was consumed in those days, not insignificantly because good luck getting clean water.

    I doubt Grant was different from any man his age, especially for that time. Your body changes, and you learn how much you can drink and can’t drink. If he’d lost the war, fine. We could pile on him. But he won, so there is some merit to the idea that he came out all right. Grant was a man, and a sensitive one. He wasn’t a statue chiseled out of marble. There just seems to be such a push to declare him a drunk or not a drunk, that we overlook the possibility that he was just a regular, small guy who normal amounts of liquor hit hard, and that he had to adjust.

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