(This post first appeared on Civil Warriors on October 24, 2006)
For better and for worse, a large part of my identity as a professional historian is intertwined with my work on Ulysses S. Grant. Accepting that as a fact of life, I also accept as a fact of life that one of the most persistent themes in writing about Grant involved the question of his drinking, writ large and small. To some people, the stand one takes on this question reveals how one views Grant, period … followed by the usual division of authors and critics into pro- and anti-Grant camps. Such discussions really don’t get us anywhere.
There are a few simple factual questions that I believe can be answered with relative ease.
1. Did Grant drink? Yes. He consumed alcoholic beverages at various times.
2. Did Grant become intoxicated? Yes. There are more than enough stories (and these don’t include the controversial ones) that indicate that Grant could and did become intoxicated.
The next questions are somewhat more challenging.
3. Is it true that during the war reports of Grant’s drinking were confined to quiet periods, and thus they had no effect on military operations? No. Three reported incidents could have had a great deal to do with military operations (if the reports are indeed true). The well-known tale of Grant drinking in June 1863 before Vicksburg involved a steamboat trip up the Yazoo River toward enemy territory, as it turned out. Stories that Grant severely damaged his leg when he fell off a horse after a mad gallop in September (the details of this incident are in Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command) left him in some pain that lasted some time, to the point that he still badly limped when he was called to take over the entire Western theater in October: his physical condition hampered his attempts to reach Chattanooga. Finally, stories that Benjamin F. Butler blackmailed Grant in 1864, although easily disproved, rest upon stories that Butler had witnessed Grant intoxicated. Each of these incidents could (or did) have a significant impact on operations. Let’s set aside charges that he was drunk at Shiloh as simply unsupported gossip, because there’s no documentary record to support such a claim. These three cases are enough to set aside that whatever happened, it wasn’t at a critical period of time, and thus scholarly (or other) concern is unwarranted.
4. Was Grant an alcoholic? This depends entirely on how one wants to define the term or what studies of alcohol addiction one consults. Certainly at times Grant could turn down a drink, and at times he could drink without becoming visibly intoxicated (I’d say not intoxicated at all, but let’s err on the side of caution). Some scholars have called him a binge drinker, although the Yazoo episode is the only account that would support that, and it is highly problematic.
5. Does it matter? Yes. I think it’s safe to say that Grant did have a problematic relationship with alcohol, although it was grounded in part on his ability (or inability) to consume any amount of alcohol without becoming intoxicated. There is also evidence to suggest that Grant suffered from migrane headaches (which may give to an observer the impression that one is drunk) and that at times he used alcohol to combat the effects of ill health, with dubious consequences (this is what the evidence points to having happened outside Vicksburg). But to scholars hoping to uncover what made Grant tick, or to those interested in issues of personal emotional and psychological makeup, an understanding of Grant’s “relationship” with alcohol could be revealing indeed. Moreover, Grant’s reputation as a drunkard (and, let’s make it clear, it’s not whether he drank at all but how what he drank affected him … he could not always hold his liquor, so to speak) played a large role in shaping the course of his career advancement, for it armed his enemies and gave pause to some of his friends.
I don’t propose to offer a definitive answer, although I have some suggestive ones. However, simply to set forth these propositions offers us a point of departure from which to embark on a serious exploration of the subject. I do think issues of personality and temperament are critical to understanding someone somewhat better, and that’s why I found Grant’s smoking so interesting, because smoking tended to calm him in moments of excitement, to the point that he was going through more than a few cigars during times of great stress (and stress, after all, causes migraines, which, it seems, Grant often sought to treat by taking a drink). But I do think it worthwhile to start asking the right questions, and to try to offer answers without worrying about whether those answers make one appear as pro- or anti-Grant.