Ulysses S. Grant, famous American Civil War General and the 18th president of the United States, led a very full life in many ways. But are the stories that he was an alcoholic true? Stephen Bitsoli separates the fact from the fiction…
In one of his classic phone call comedy skits, Bob Newhart imagines a conversation between President Abraham Lincoln and his press agent shortly before the Gettysburg Address. Among the many topics they discuss is General Ulysses S. Grant.
“You’re getting complaints about Grant’s drinking? Abe, I don’t see the problem. You knew he was a lush when you hired him.” Asked for a “squelch” for the press, Lincoln’s gag writers come up with: “Tell them you’re going to find out what brand he drinks, and then send a case to all your other generals.”
Supposedly Lincoln did say something like that. Even if he didn’t, he did think highly of Grant. Even after a near disaster at the Battle of Shiloh, when there were calls for Grant to be dismissed, Lincoln said, “I cannot spare this man; he fights.”
Ask most people what they “know” about Ulysses S. Grant today, and they’ll probably say three things: he was a great general, a lousy president, and a drunk.
A great general? Well, after being forced to resign his commission as captain (or else be court-martialed) in 1854, he rejoined the army in 1861 at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. There he restored discipline to a problem regiment, won battle after battle, rising through the ranks to become commander of all Union forces. He succeeded – despite political and military enemies and a sometimes hostile press – on the strength and number of his military victories. So, by most conventional measures, he seems to have been a great general.
A lousy president? Well, I guess that depends on how you define lousy. He wasn’t thought of as one at the time, and neither do most of today’s historians. He was easily elected to two terms, and almost won nomination for a third. There was a lot of corruption during his administration, but none was traced back to him. And he was a strong advocate for protecting the rights of the former slaves, especially in the South. He even broke the Ku Klux Klan, and made human rights a national concern. Just before his death he published his wartime memoirs, considered one of the finest by any former president, and it was a best-seller. So, sure, his presidency wasn’t perfect, but lousy seems to be an overly harsh judgment.
What about a drunk? Well, he did resign his commission in 1854 after allegedly being drunk on duty. And there are numerous other anecdotes about his drinking. Even one of his defenders, Civil War biographer Edward G. Longacre, wrote that while “Grant did not fit the stereotype of the falling-down drunk” – he could refuse a drink or drink moderately – “he was, in the clinical sense of the term, an alcoholic.” There are also reports that he sometimes fell down or off his horse, and at least once he was reported to have vomited in public.
But while falling over or vomiting can be indicative of excessive drinking, they can also be caused by eating crappy army rations in unsanitary battlefield conditions. He also had crippling migraines which might have been mistaken for hangovers, especially since alcohol was prescribed for them. Grant did have throat cancer, which can be a physical sign of alcohol abuse, especially when paired with tobacco (and Grant did smoke a lot), but based on the more cosmetic consequences – prominent sores, spidery red veins on the skin, especially the nose and cheeks – there is little evidence that Grant abused alcohol.
Myth and Reality
Why anyone cares that Grant drank is an interesting question in itself. As has been said, he was a successful, even brilliant soldier. If he did that while drinking, or maybe because he was drinking, then Lincoln’s alleged anecdote might even be a sound strategy.
Actually, in those days everybody drank a lot more than we do today. “In 1825, Americans over the age of 15 consumed on average seven gallons of alcohol — generally whiskey or hard cider — each year (today that figure is about two gallons, mostly of beer and wine).”
More likely, according to most sources, is that he was (at least early in his career) a binge drinker who mostly drank when separated from his family or out of boredom. According to his friend Lt. Henry Hodges, “He would perhaps go on two or three sprees a year, but was always open to reason.” Reports that he drank to inebriation during or before his Civil War battles seem entirely fanciful.
So, where did the claims that Grant routinely drank to excess come from? According to Civil War historian and archivist Michael B. Ballard, “Almost all, if not all, the stories about various drunken states are apocryphal.”
Grant's purported drinking problems are largely the result of a smear campaign against him by his rivals and political enemies – both “Lost Cause” Southerners still smarting from their defeat in the Civil War and his political opposition – that began after his two terms as Commander in Chief. In part they were upset over his attempts to enforce Reconstruction and protect the freedmen’s rights. In particular, his use of federal troops to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments and confront the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists was seen as tyrannical and imposing “black domination.”
Then there are those who find it romantic to consider Grant (as one website article dubs him) “a drunken fighting machine from American History.” Even novelist Susan Cheever, the daughter of a famous alcoholic, falls into this fallacy in Drinking in America: Our Secret History, proclaiming that Grant “was known to have a serious drinking problem,” but that this was a time “when alcohol may have had a positive effect.” As if his victories were attributable to the physical signs of alcohol abuse!
And finally there are the journalists, who in those days were far more willing to invent things than journalists in the present. Sylvanus Cadwallader, a newspaper reporter, wrote down one such story (though not printed until after his death three decades after the war), claiming that Grant had a barrel of whiskey in his tent for his exclusive use. No one else ever mentioned it.
It would be foolish to state that Grant never drank, or never drank to excess, but the myth of his being either a pathetic drunk or a hard-drinking man of action isn’t borne out by the evidence.
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Stephen Bitsoli blogs about addiction, recovery, mental health, and wellness. He has asked us to link to a rehabilitation center here.