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.