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…

Ulysses S. Grant on a cover of Grant's Tobacco.

Ulysses S. Grant on a cover of Grant's Tobacco.

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.”


Grant’s Reputation

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.

Ulysses S. Grant is an often maligned president; however, a closer examination of his presidency reveals that he did a lot of good, especially around policies related to Native Americans and African Americans. Here, Rebecca Fachner argues why his presidency needs to be reexamined.


Ulysses S. Grant needs rehab. Actually, he doesn’t need anything, he’s dead; but his reputation and legacy deserve a reexamination. There is a lot to admire and like about Grant, but for some reason he has been consigned to some obscure corner of American history, not forgotten, but not properly remembered either. During his lifetime, he was almost as popular as Lincoln, but has fallen into ignominy and near obscurity since his death. Everyone agrees that he was a great general, of that there can be no doubt, but somewhere between taking the Oath of Office as President and his death, he meandered into a historical gray zone from which he has yet to emerge. 

The Peacemakers, c. 1868. William Sherman, Ulysses S Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and David Porter on the River Queen in March 1865.

The Peacemakers, c. 1868. William Sherman, Ulysses S Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and David Porter on the River Queen in March 1865.

Grant was a true American success story, rising from obscurity and failure to become commander of the largest army on the continent and later President of the United States. Grant attended West Point and served in the Mexican War, but did not make it as a peacetime soldier. Grant was working as a clerk in a tanner’s shop in Galena, Illinois when the Civil War began, having also failed in private life. The stories of Grant’s military successes in the Civil War are well known, and they propelled him to a successful bid for the White House in 1868, just three years after the end of the war.

He was not a perfect man, and certainly not a perfect president, but he was actually much better than history gives him credit for being. He was quite popular while he was in office, partly because of his moderate positions on the two most important issues of the day. Those two issues were Native American policy and African American policy, and are probably more responsible than anything else for Grant’s subsequent fall from historical favor.



Grant was President during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, and was a staunch advocate of citizenship and equality for African Americans while in the White House. He was instrumental in the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gave all men the right to vote regardless of their race.  Grant also helped to pass a series of laws that were known as the Enforcement Acts, designed to help protect African Americans and their right to vote. He even sent federal troops to restore order when white Southerners began to use violence to prevent former slaves from voting. In the end, Grant’s policies of Reconstruction were hampered not because he lacked the will, but because the voters did.  As time passed and the South was reintegrated into the Union, support for Reconstruction gradually diminished. With the onset of an economic panic in 1873, voters just lost interest in Reconstruction. 

He presided over what author and historian James Loewen has called the “Springtime of Race Relations,” a brief period of reconciliation and equality that followed the Civil War. As Reconstruction sputtered to an end, white Southerners took the opportunity to quell this nascent bloom in race relations, and gradually reinstituted a policy of segregation and discrimination. By the mid 1890s, the US had entered into what is known as the nadir of race relations, a period that saw a new low point in relations between blacks and whites. As this nadir went deeper, it began to reshape American history. Suddenly, Grant’s pursuit of equality for African Americans became a liability to his legacy, rather than an attribute. His accomplishments began to be discredited, and the sense that Grant had been a failed President comes from this period of American history, not Grant’s own.

Regarding Grant’s Native American policy, he was moderate and even compassionate in his dealings with Native Americans. He pursued what was called the Peace Policy, hoping to bring Native Americans closer to the United States, to eventually integrate them and make them into citizens. He advocated decent treatment for all Native peoples, addressed corruption in federal Native American affairs, and appointed a Seneca Indian to be the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Ely Parker, the first major non-white political appointment. Grant sought to house Native American tribes on reservations and wanted to help them become farmers. From a modern perspective Grant’s Native American policy leaves much to be desired; however during his time this represented a tolerant and liberal view.

In the end, Grant’s Native American policy was perhaps more well meaning than well executed, but there is an important caveat to this. In the summer of 1876, as Grant’s second term was drawing to a close, the Battle of Little Bighorn occurred in what is now Montana. The battle is better known now as Custer’s Last Stand, where Lakota and Cheyenne warriors wiped out George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry. News of the defeat stunned the nation, and war hawks were eager to use the opportunity to paint all Native Americans as dangerous and bloodthirsty. Calls for revenge rang out all over the country and Grant’s conciliatory policy toward Native Americans suddenly looked like weakness. His peace policy was quickly abandoned in favor of a continuation of the harsh repression and removal that had been going on for decades.



It is true that Ulysses S Grant was no politician; he disdained the political process and wanted the Presidency to be above party divisions. He did not understand, nor did he wish to learn about the business of politics, and his administration suffered for this. Although his motives were good, his actions as President were uncertain and underwhelming. As natural a leader as he was in battle, somehow this just did not translate to the political realm.

Grant’s administration is often accused of having been one of the most corrupt in American history. While it is true that his second term was plagued with scandal and several of his cabinet members were accused of corruption, there was no implication, then or now, that Grant was involved. Corruption charges were never levied against him, he was never a target for investigation, and his honesty was never impugned. The charge that can be laid at Grant’s door was that he proved to be a very bad judge of character, and remained doggedly loyal to the men he appointed to cabinet positions, even after it was clear that they were corrupt. 

His reputation suffered as a result of the scandals in his cabinet, and in 1875 he announced that he was not going to seek a third term as president. In 1880, however, the Republicans strongly considered nominating Grant to a third term at their convention that year, so he couldn’t have been too unpopular. Ultimately, the Republicans decided to go with James Garfield, and Grant died of throat cancer in 1885. 

Ulysses S. Grant is interred in New York City, and the story of his tomb provides an interesting parallel with his legacy. He was given the largest tomb in North America and a million and a half citizens turned out to watch his funeral procession. In the twentieth century, however, the tomb was largely forgotten, falling into disrepair, covered in graffiti and trash. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that a campaign was started to force the National Park Service to improve the conditions of the site and restore the tomb and surrounding area. Grant’s Presidential legacy underwent a similar downward spiral, but has yet to experience a true reexamination.


This article was provided by Rebecca Fachner. You can read Rebecca’s last article on the mystery of King Henry VIII’s ‘seventh’ wife by clicking here.


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Loewen, James. Sundown Towns; A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.

“American President; Essays on Ulysses S. Grant and His Administration,” Miller Center, accessed April 20, 2014, http://www.millercenter.org

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones