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.


20 thoughts on “September 4, 1863: A Close Call

  1. lenastorheim September 5, 2013 / 5:20 am

    LOVE the last phrase! Brooks – you write very well with a good dry sense of humor to keep the reader engaged – and to keep me engaged in Civil War history is grater than the war itself!

  2. Tony September 5, 2013 / 8:48 am

    Carrollton, now part of New Orleans, is a nice place to spend some time if you’re in the city. Some really nice restaurants (Matt and Natties, Brightsens, Jacque Imo’s) and some of the best live music the city has to offer. The neighborhood is accessible by streetcar, where the line turns inland near the ante-bellum Carrollton courthouse (now an elementary school).

  3. Ned B September 5, 2013 / 9:36 am

    Thomas Kilby Smith, who was part of Grant’s staff at the time, wrote in a letter to his wife that Grant’s horse fell and then the serious injury occurred when the horse of the officer riding next trampled on Grant. Its a slight, but interesting, variation of the story, .

  4. TF Smith September 7, 2013 / 7:25 pm

    So if Grant is dead or injured, who replaces him as the Western Theater commander in 1863 and then as geneeral-in-chief in 1864?

    If it is WT Sherman in both cases, who replaces Sherman in the West? Thomas? Canby?

    • Brooks D. Simpson September 7, 2013 / 7:33 pm

      It’s not clear that there would have been a western theater commander, since that appointment was made the next month.

      • TF Smith September 8, 2013 / 11:27 am

        Fair point – I suppose the better series of command decisions would be:

        Who replaces him as commander of the Army of Tennessee?

        If the Western Theater command is created, who replaces him there, and if it is the new commander of the AoTT, who replaces that person?

        If the g-in-c position is filled in ’64, who fills that billet, and who replaces that person wherever they were previously, etc.?

        My own preferences for the late war commands are the historical ones, but absent Grant, I’d expect WT Sherman ends up at the g-in-c position, with Meade in the east, Sheridan in Georgia, and Thomas in the center position in Tennessee. Maybe Humphreys or Hancock gets Sheridan’s historical Shenandoah command?

        I think Canby and Humphreys are both sort of overlooked; IIRC, along with Thomas, they are the only senior pre-war regulars who remained in major field commands at the end of the war (absent the Pacific Department, etc.).


        • Brooks D. Simpson September 8, 2013 / 11:46 am

          Let’s work through this:

          I believe Sherman gets to take over the command of the Army of the Tennessee.

          I believe no overall commander in the west is appointed. I don’t see that Sherman would have had enough of a reputation at the time.

          I’d wager Thomas would still replace Rosecrans at some point, although there might have been more hesitation.

          I don’t see a new general-in-chief being appointed in 1864. It’s an interesting call as to whether Meade retains his command.

          I agree about Canby and especially Humphreys.

          • John Foskett September 8, 2013 / 12:51 pm

            I think that’s an insightful point about Sherman. As of October, 1863, in all honesty, what had he done to earn theater command? He hadn’t yet acted in independent command and had a fairly mundane record as a subordinate – no stellar accomplishments, which would have been offset in any event by the fact that he was at least as “surprised” at Shiloh as was Grant (and in appearance moreso because of his cavalier dismissal of reports from his front) and by Chickasaw Bluffs. He would, however, likely have gotten the A of the T based on seniority. If an overall were appointed in the West, IMHO I see no realistic option to Thomas. And one was probably needed , assuming that both the A of the T (or elements) and A of the C were at Chattanooga, because shots had to be called.

          • Ned September 8, 2013 / 2:06 pm

            Sherman had acted in an independent capacity on a couple of occasions. First was his brief stint (October 1861) as commander of the Department of the Cumberland — not a stellar showing. Next was the Chickasaw Bayou expedition — not stellar either. He also was in charge of the Jackson campaign after the surrender of Vicksburg which was conducted ok. He was the clear choice for AotT due to seniority and friendship with Halleck but I agree with Brooks that no an overall western commander would have been appointed in October/November 1863.

          • John Foskett September 9, 2013 / 7:16 am

            I probably shouldn’t have been so loose with the statement. I meant no significant independent command in combat (and I don’t regard Chickasaw as truly independent). Compare Longstreet in East Tennessee.

          • Tony September 9, 2013 / 10:12 am

            Why don’t you regard Chickasaw Bayou as an independent operation? Sherman was operating on his own, under orders from Halleck, by way of Grant. Grant had plans to move towards Sherman along the Yazoo River, but these plans were wholly contingent upon Sherman’s success at Vicksburg. If anything, we could say that Grant’s command at Oxford in December, 1863, lacked independence. šŸ˜€

          • John Foskett September 9, 2013 / 10:59 am

            Because Sherman was acting as a subordinate to Grant and didn’t plan the operation by his lonesome. The criterion is true independence of cmmand from the gitgo. Otherwise, Jubal Early was acting “independently” at Chancellorsville. As I indicated, my definition assumes independent command in all respects – not simply the execution of an assigned mission outside the direct control of a superior. Being put in charge of all Union forces at Chattanooga would have been an “independent” command, IMHO. And I know you meant December, 1862. šŸ™‚

          • Tony September 10, 2013 / 9:31 am

            Sherman was designated as commander by Halleck. Instructions on what to achieve and what forces to take were designated by Halleck.

            This wasn’t Grant’s plan, this was Lincoln and Halleck’s (and McClernand’s) plan. Grant, meanwhile, had been ordered to hold north Mississippi and go no further south. From a campaign perspective, Grant was operating with much less independence at that point than Sherman.

          • TF Smith1 September 10, 2013 / 7:48 am

            Thanks for the response; interesting to consider Rosecrans and Meade.

        • Ned September 8, 2013 / 2:27 pm

          TF Smith wrote: “IIRC, along with Thomas, they are the only senior pre-war regulars who remained in major field commands at the end of the war (absent the Pacific Department, etc.).”

          Ord? And, depending on your definition of major field command, Pope.

          • TF Smith1 September 10, 2013 / 7:46 am

            Good point on Ord, but I think Canby and Thomas were both field grade by 1861 (colonels, although Thomas was assisted by the fact that his seniors in the 2nd Cavalry had all resigned); Humphreys was a major.

            I think Ord was still a captain and battery commander, IIRC.

          • Ned September 10, 2013 / 9:50 am

            Thomas and Canby were Majors at the start of 1861. Thomas advanced as others resigned; Canby was promoted in the expansion that also made Sherman a Colonel. The other pre-war Major who was still in the field in 1865 was Emory. Humphreys was a captain before the war , which I why I thought of Ord or Pope.

    • Ned September 8, 2013 / 8:18 am

      Trying to imagine how Thomas or Hooker might react to having Canby placed over them.

  5. John Foskett September 8, 2013 / 8:26 am

    Of course, this was not Grant’s first accident on horseback. There was that tumble a few days before Shiloh which left him (1) limping (2) using a crutch (3) partly immobile – take your pick. That incident was attributed to slick footing and was not accompanied by the usual stories of imbibing. And some six weeks after the New Orleans incident Grant had another accident on his way to Chattanooga – again, not surrounded by stories involving drink – but for a guy regarded as an excellent horseman he had more than his share of incidents. By the way, what make you of Frank Varney’s reference to Grant as an “alcoholic”? It strikes me as a very undefined term. Compare Grant’s record, for example, to legendary boozers like Ben Cheatham and Henry Sibley, who apparently got ready for battle with a good bottle or three.

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