September 4, 1863: A Close Call

On September 4, 1863, the Union almost lost the American Civil War.

On that day Ulysses S. Grant was visiting Nathaniel P. Banks’s command at New Orleans. He had hoped to work with Banks to direct an operation versus Mobile, but that idea had been shelved for the moment. On this day he went out to nearby Carrollton to review the Thirteenth Corps, which he had detached from his Army of the Tennessee to join Banks after the fall of Vicksburg, as well as the Nineteenth Corps, commanded by the man who finished first in Grant’s class at West Point, William B. Franklin. At the conclusion of the review there was a jollification, as folks called it, and alcohol circulated freely. Afterwards Grant mounted his horse–a rather spirited horse, not one of his own–and started back with a cavalcade toward New Orleans. Later the general would describe his mount as “vicious and but little used,” but the horseman in him always enjoyed such challenges.

On this day, however, it would be the horse who would emerge in better shape. As Grant approached a railroad, an oncoming locomotive sounded its whistle. The horse panicked, shied, and fell, taking Grant down with it. The general was knocked unconscious, his left leg crushed underneath the horse. “We thought he was dead,” recalled one nearby observer. Officers carried the general to a nearby inn, where he slowly regained consciousness. But the leg would pose a serious problem for weeks to come, and some would say that he never quite recovered from the accident.

For years to come some observers would try to make even more of the incident. After all, this was Ulysses S. Grant, and everyone had heard the whispers … and sometimes they were more than whispers. Banks and Franklin both claimed that Grant was intoxicated. How that would have played into the accident was not clear. After all, Grant did not simply topple off the horse. Had he veered too close to the track, causing the whistle to be blown? Maybe. Other observers made no mention of alcohol. Perhaps, one might argue, Grant’s judgment as a rider was impaired by a bit too much to drink, which may have fueled the equestrian daredevil’s willingness to take risks riding. No one knows, although one suspects that spirits and a spirited mount together was not a good idea.

Grant’s injury was so severe that it took him months to recover and affected his ability to travel to Chattanooga the following month to take charge of matters there. But the story–and the possibility that alcohol was involved–should give pause to those who make certain declarations about Grant’s drinking. True, this incident did not take place during military operations, but it had some impact on what Grant could do for weeks. Moreover, now that he was a major general in the regular army, Grant was destined to play a critical role in forthcoming operations, and this injury might have prevented him from taking the field–and, after all, a more serious accident could have killed him. So much for saying his drinking never harmed anything but his reputation. As it turned out, its effects on the course of the war were minor at best … but it need not have been that way.