(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.
Brooks-I’ve always suspected, and suspected is the operative word, that Grant drank to self-medicate, not just from migraines but from depression. I think if Grant was prone to depression, it was exogenous (triggered by outside events) and the biggest trigger seems to have been separation from his wife and children.
I don’t see it as making him a good or bad man. I think it makes him human.
“I don’t see it as making him a good or bad man. I think it makes him human.”
Very well put! I agree wholeheartedly.
That’s an excellent attempt to focus on the facts relevant to one of the longest-surviving “urban legends” of the War. Do we even know that the oft-repeated Lincoln quote is factual or does it have a murky provenance similar to “lick ’em tomorrow, though”? I’ve always found it remarkable that from a War which produced numerous actual roaring battlefield drunks, Grant emerged as the paragon of alcohol abuse. “General Rowley, you’re under arrest”.
“General Rowley, you’re under arrest.” Sorry, I don’t know what this quote refers to. Sounds like a well-known reference that I just don’t know about. Could you tell me?
Rowley was arrested and relieved of command for being drunk during the July 1st fight at Gettysburg.
During the fighting at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, Brig. Gen. Thomas Rowley (who commanded a brigade in Doubleday’s Division of the I Corps) took temporary command of the division after Doubleday took temporary command of the corps following John Reynolds’ death. All of the evidence indicates that Rowley was “shot in the neck”, to use ACW vernacular. He was placed under arrest on the field. He was later court-martialed, IIRC.
My question is? At this point the only thing we have to rely on is what others said about Grant and his drinking, so to what extent can we rely on these observations? I can fully understand a person with the stress Grant was under needing a release at times. I could see a person like Grant drinking at times more than normal. That did not in anyway make Grant a bad leader or a bad person. I credit Grant with saving the Union as a general and putting the country back together as President. What other Union general can claim the success of Grant? Would Horatio Seymour have made a better president than Grant? I don’t think so. This might be controversial but Lincoln and Lee are two CW era leaders that are above reproach with a lot of people, they did no wrong. Grant for some reason the one that lead the Union to victory and the only president that was elected office after a bloody civil war and the country in turmoil as it was is fair game to be criticize and take pot shots at. I see Grant’s leadership as an important part of our history as any. And this is coming from a Southerner that had ancestors that surrendered to both Grant and Sherman.
The issue of Grant’s drinking is important because it helps us to understand him in all his complexities, warts, weaknesses, and all. Of course, some people want to make it into a cudgel with which to beat up USG’s reputation. I’ve never understood how it enhances Lee’s stature to insist that he was forced to surrender by a lush.
Wasn’t it Brooks himself who pointed out that Grant was simply guilty, in a time where every man drank, and drank a lot, and drank straight rotgut by the glassful, of being a lightweight drinker?
His behavior doesn’t seem to fit any modern definition of alcohol abuser, and Grant himself indicated sometimes that he could drink only a couple of drinks before becoming completely wasted.
To follow up on your point about the culture of the time, I’ve seen statistic about the per capita consumption of alcohol in the mid-19th century which are staggering (pun intended). Grant actually looks like an abstemious teetotaler when compared to many of his peers.
You look at the dinner menus for the Gilded Age’s banquets and it seems a miracle that anyone was conscious by the last course.
“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.”
Am I the only one who has a problem with this particular incident being attributed to Grant’s being drunk? I’m really not convinced.
The long siege of Vicksburg is over. Grant finally has a chance to break loose a little. There may be a tendency to expand this to “break loose and drink,” but to me at least, the evidence does not seem very strong.
* * * * *
In Catton’s “Grant Takes Command” we see several examples of Grant riding (or driving) fast horses. Page 22, the fast carriage – but no mishap. Page 23, Grant riding a “large, imperfectly broken charger,” to review the troops – but again, no mishap.
Page 24-25, another fast horse:
“No horse ever threw Grant from the saddle…but any man who made a habit of riding powerful horses not yet broken to man’s control was bound to understand that someday the law of averages was likely to overtake him. The trouble today was that the horse galloped into an accident in which neither security nor elegance could be of the least use.
“As before, the pace was fast, and Grant’s big horse (as one witness remembered it) ‘grew quite unmanageable and flew like the wind,’ leaving less expert horsemen clattering desperately along in the rear.
“Trouble came at a place where the highway ran beside a railroad track, when a locomotive suddenly came round a curve and sounded a piercing whistle. Grant’s horse shied away, lost its footing and came down with a crash…knocking Grant unconscious, pinning him to the ground, inflicting crippling injury to his left side and leg…Grant would have to stay in bed for days, possibly weeks…”
* * * * *
Catton’s footnote to this passage (p. 495) is complex, citing several sources. Catton seems to vaguely imply that conflicting versions might be because the witnesses were intoxicated, but he does not state that Grant himself was intoxicated.
Grant had very successfully had two incidents with fast horses in the past several days, so there is no reason to think he had to be drunk to try it again. To me, the problem is the train whistle. Who else could be riding a very fast horse like this, and still keep it under control in such a situation? Who could have controlled it?
Perhaps it was irresponsible to ride a horse so fast, but that is a different matter.
I’m not at all convinced that Grant was drunk in this instance. And thus it does not seem reasonable to mark his disability on the way to Chatanooga as proof that his drunkeness caused him to be incapacitated in the face of military necessity.
To me, it seems like the evidence for this particular charge, just is not there.
Given that Grant was supposed to be an extremely skilled horseman, I would only be shocked if he wasn’t “airing it out” on numerous occasions. I’m barely competent on a cow pony, but found myself wanting to get “up to speed” quite a bit.
Also, it was the horse that fell, not Grant. If Grant had been drunk, he would have fallen off the horse.
Indeed. Wasn’t it known that he liked to run his carriage at high speed as president?
And known that he paid a $20 fine for doing so? Yep — well known.
And also ran a race with a butcher’s wagon and ended up buying the horse and naming him “Butcher Boy.”
My late husband, a rancher, was an expert horseman — AND a lifelong teetotaler. Unlike Grant, he took no special joy in racing at full throttle. But even such an experienced rider as my husband, who relied on horses every day in the course of doing his job, managed to get himself injured on a couple of occasions when his horse got spooked by some sudden noise or movement (similar to that locomotive whistle). Although neither accident resulted in broken bones, as Grant’s did, both incidents left him in pain that lasted for weeks afterward. NO ALCOHOL WAS INVOLVED! Anyone who’s spent a lifetime with horses knows that these things can happen.
There’s an old saying that I’ve heard that “There isn’t a horse that can’t be rode, and there isn’t a rider who can’t be throwed.”