Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.
On Sept. 2, 1863, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant arrived in New Orleans for the sort of event he usually avoided — a full-dress military review, to be staged in his honor two days hence by Gen. Nathaniel Banks. Still savoring the fall of Vicksburg in early July, Grant was also anticipating a forthcoming campaign against the Confederate general Braxton Bragg that fall in eastern Tennessee. A victory there — especially at the vital city of Chattanooga — promised to open the way to Atlanta.
The grand review took place north of the city. Astride an unfamiliar horse he characterized as “vicious and but little used,” Grant set his customary fast pace, leading one member of the party to later recall that “the brilliant cavalcade of generals and staff officers was left behind by the hero of Vicksburg.” After the review, the attending officers retired to a nearby establishment for food and drink before riding back to their hotel, again at speed. Then disaster struck.
Grant’s horse shied, probably at a locomotive whistle, and then fell on him. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, who witnessed the accident, wrote that Grant’s horse “threw him over with great violence. The General, who is a splendid rider, maintained his seat in the saddle, and the horse fell upon him.” In his “Memoirs” written 20 years later, Grant described being “rendered insensible” and regaining consciousness “in a hotel nearby with several doctors attending me.” The damage was extensive. “My leg was swollen from the knee to the thigh, and the swelling … extended … up to the arm-pit,” remembered Grant. “The pain was almost beyond endurance.” Grant remained at his New Orleans hotel for more than a week before returning to Vicksburg, where he “remained unable to move for some time afterwards.”
The rumors began almost immediately — Grant had been drunk! In a letter to his wife the next day, Banks wrote: “I am frightened when I think that he is a drunkard. His accident was caused by this, which was too manifest to all who saw him.” Other witnesses failed to support Banks’s claim, but six months after the accident, Gen. William B. Franklin, Grant’s West Point classmate and supposed friend, lent the rumor new life. In a February 1864 “Dear Mac” letter to Gen. George B. McClellan, Franklin wrote that Grant “was drunk and all over the city for forty-eight hours.” He had been lucky, Franklin suggested, for had Grant not “tumbled head over heels and … been hurt,” he would have “frolicked for a fortnight.” Grant’s reputation, Franklin suggested, would not “have outlived the frolic.”
Tales of Grant’s intemperance were nothing new in the fall of 1863. And they remain a source of lively debate among Grant’s many biographers, Civil War scholars and buffs. In his 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, William McFeely captures the tone of this controversy: “The idea that he drank prodigiously is as fixed in American history as the idea that the Pilgrims ate turkey on Thanksgiving, but the evidence for it is more elusive. All the rivers of alcohol — imagined or real — flow down from the Fort Humboldt days,” a reference to his post in California during the 1850s.
“Rivers of alcohol” aptly describes one feature of life in antebellum America. 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). Many Americans drank because they believed it was nutritious, stimulated digestion and relaxed the nerves. Copious amounts of liquor also helped wash down food that was often unpalatable.
Drinking in the military mirrored the widespread use of alcohol in the larger society. Although annual consumption dropped dramatically, to an average 1.8 gallons by the late 1840s, rumors of drunken behavior circulated throughout a close-knit professional army numbering fewer than 5,000 men — particularly because, in Grant’s day, dependence on alcohol bore the stigma of moral inferiority and sinfulness. An inebriate possessed a weak character and was widely condemned.
Although Grant undoubtedly drank, he defied the stereotype of the falling-down drunk. As one historian has noted, “He drank at irregular intervals, in varying quantities, and with differing results.” Grant was able to refuse alcohol when offered, and on occasion could drink moderately with no visible effect. But he was also prone to binge drinking, almost always when he was depressed or under pressure and apart from his family. Furthermore, Grant’s slight frame — he was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 135 pounds — undoubtedly limited his capacity for strong drink.
Unfortunately, Grant’s choice of a military career too often placed him in temptation’s way. While posted to Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario in 1851, he was sufficiently concerned about his drinking to help found a chapter of the Sons of Temperance, a fraternal organization that relied on mutual support to curb drinking. While stationed in Detroit, Grant won a civil case against the store owner Zachariah Chandler (later a senator and influential member of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War) for his failure to clear an icy walkway on which Grant sustained an injury. But Chandler’s suggestion during the trial — that “if you soldiers would keep sober, perhaps you would not fall on people’s pavement and hurt your legs” — embarrassed Grant among his military peers.
Grant’s most damaging encounters with intemperance, however, occurred during his two years in the Pacific Northwest. As quartermaster at Fort Vancouver, he enjoyed easy access to whiskey and, according to his colleague Lt. Henry Hodges, “would perhaps go on two or three sprees a year.” Grant’s letters to his wife during this time reveal the depth of his unhappiness. “You do not know how forsaken I feel here,” he wrote on Feb. 2, 1854. “I do nothing but sit in my room and read and occasionally take a short ride on one of the public horses.”
Scarcely two months later, on April 11, 1854, Grant resigned his captain’s commission. In a conversation years later with John Eaton, who oversaw freedmen’s programs in Tennessee, Grant allowed that “the vice of intemperance had not a little to do with my decision to resign.” Hodges recalled: “One day … Captain Grant was at the pay table, slightly under the influence of liquor.” When this came to the attention of Grant’s commanding officer, Hodges continued: “He gave Grant the option of resigning or having charges preferred against him. Grant resigned at once.”
Grant’s decision kept the incident from his military record and, more important, from his wife, Julia. For the next seven years Grant lived what he later called a “hardscrabble” life, failing at farming, real estate and rent collection and finding himself working in his family’s leather trade on the eve of the Civil War. Absent from the many accounts of this time are reports of excessive drinking.
But rumors of intemperance re-emerged during Grant’s meteoric rise to wartime leadership. In February 1862 Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck sent a subordinate to keep an eye on Grant as he moved upriver to lead successful assaults on Forts Henry and Donelson, in Tennessee. Halleck wrote a March 4 letter to General McClellan asserting that “General Grant has resumed his former bad habits,” and reporting that he would accordingly be replaced as the commander for an expedition up the Tennessee River. Halleck knew from his own monitor’s reports that the rumors were false, but chose not to restore Grant to command until ordered to do so by Lincoln and Stanton. A month later Grant won a bloody victory at Shiloh.
Sensitive to rumors that he had been under the influence of alcohol at Shiloh, Grant rushed to assure Julia they were false. In a letter dated April 30, 1862, he swore that he was “sober as a deacon no matter what was said to the contrary.” But the onslaught of negative stories soon led him to issue an uncharacteristic call for support. In a May 14 letter to Elihu Washburne, Grant wrote: “To say that I have not been distressed at these attacks upon me would be false, for I have a father, mother, wife and children who … are distressed by them.” Furthermore, he continued, “All subject to my orders read these charges” that “weaken my ability to render efficient service in our present cause.” A few days later, Washburne rose in the House to offer a defense that featured more heat than light. “There is no more temperate man in the army than General Grant,” he insisted, and he “never indulges in the use of intoxicating liquors at all” and was “an example of courage, honor, fortitude, activity, temperance, and modesty.”
Washburne’s perfervid defense likely convinced no one who was not already satisfied about Grant’s sobriety at Shiloh. The rumor mongering continued, even among the government’s highest circles. Anxious to protect the Union Army’s rising star, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton dispatched a succession of agents to keep an eye on Grant. Chief among them was the former newspaperman and now assistant secretary of war Charles A. Dana, who quickly became Grant’s most devoted defender. John A. Rawlins, Grant’s chief of staff, also worked to blunt the general’s bibulous tendencies. Rawlins, known as a zealous “cold-water” man, was from Grant’s home state of Illinois and enjoyed an extraordinarily close relationship with the general. He alone among nonfamily members proved willing to challenge Grant to embrace vows of abstinence.
Unfortunately, those vows proved temporary. Both men figured prominently in what one historian has called the Yazoo “bender,” the most high-profile instance of Grant’s inappropriate, alcohol-driven behavior. On June 6, 1863, Grant boarded the Diligent for an inspection tour up the Yazoo River intended to uncover the location of Gen. Joseph Johnston’s Confederate units. According to a fanciful account by Sylvanus Cadwallader, a reporter from The Chicago Times attached to Grant’s headquarters, the general drank so heavily on board that Cadwallader had to help him to his bed. Grant continued drinking the next day and at one point left the steamer, climbed aboard his horse and went on a reckless ride through fields and forests. Only Cadwallader’s determined pursuit saved Grant from certain disaster. Meanwhile, an alarmed John Rawlins penned a letter (which seems never to have been delivered) mentioning “what I had hoped never again to do — the subject of your drinking” and threatening to resign unless Grant stopped drinking. Cadwallader did not record the events until 1897, and his manuscript was only published, as “Three Years With Grant,” in 1955.
A number of historians, most prominently McFeely and Shelby Foote, have swallowed this stirring account whole. The problem, however, is that it was almost certainly an invention of Cadwallader’s, who was not on the Diligent. Brooks Simpson, author of a particularly insightful treatment of Grant’s pre-presidential years, argues that the Yazoo “bender” was likely the result of Grant taking a drink to ease an upset stomach and meeting with the usual unhappy result. The historian Bruce Catton dismissed the story outright as “but one more in the dreary Grant-was-drunk garland of myths.”
While there are a few more rumors alleging Grant’s inebriation before the war’s end, including one related to the Petersburg campaign in 1864, none appear to rest on clear-cut evidence that his behavior could be linked only to alcohol. The full dimensions of Grant’s problems with alcohol are unknowable. As the pre-eminent Civil War historian James McPherson has noted, “Most of the numerous stories about Grant’s drunkenness at one time or another during the war are false.” His “Memoirs” are mute on the subject. Furthermore, they understate Rawlins’s critical role as his chief of staff in a seemingly deliberate manner, perhaps as a tacit refusal of the part he played in keeping Grant away from the bottle. To acknowledge Rawlins’s importance, in McPherson’s words again, was to make “a public confession of his own weaknesses.”
The last words on Grant’s fondness for drink, however, are best left to his commander in chief. When describing a visit by congressmen complaining about Grant’s intemperance to John Eaton, Lincoln told the sort of story he loved. “I then began to ask them if they knew … what brand of whiskey he used,” confided the president. “They conferred with each other and concluded they could not tell … I urged them to ascertain and let me know, for if it made fighting generals like Grant, I should like to get some of it for distribution.” Lincoln was even more succinct with another critic: “I cannot spare this man! He fights!”
Sources: Sylvanus Cadwallader, “Three Years With Grant”; Bruce Catton, “Grant Takes Command”; Lyle W. Dorsett, “The Problem of Ulysses S. Grant’s Drinking During the Civil War”; Shelby Foote, “The Civil War: Fredericksburg to Meridian”; Ulysses S. Grant, “Personal Memoirs”; Daniel Walker Howe, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848”; Marie Kelsey, “Ulysses S. Grant: The Myth of His Drinking”; Edward G. Longacre, “General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and the Man”; Harry J. Maihafer, “The General and the Journalists: Ulysses S. Grant, Horace Greeley, and Charles Dana”; William S. McFeely, “Grant: A Biography”; James M. McPherson, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era”; Brian J. Murphy, “Truth Behind U.S. Grant’s Yazoo River Bender,” in “America’s Civil War,” January 2005; Brooks Simpson, “Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865”; Brooks D. Simpson, “Grant and Drinking Revisited,” Blog post of March 13, 2011;
Jean Edward Smith, “Grant” and “Ulysses S. Grant’s Lifelong Struggle with Alcohol in America’s Civil War.”
Rick Beard is an independent historian and exhibition curator, and co-author of the forthcoming National Park Service publication “Slavery in the United States: A Brief Narrative History.”