At a rally in Ohio last week, President Trump gave a shout-out to native son Ulysses S. Grant as an “incredible” Civil War general. But much of his praise focused on one aspect of the general’s service: “He drank a little too much.”
President Abraham Lincoln’s advisers, Trump told his audience, were so worried about Grant’s drinking that they said to Lincoln: “ ’You can’t use him anymore, he’s an alcoholic,’ and Lincoln said, ‘I don’t care if he’s an alcoholic, frankly, get me six or seven just like him.’ ”
The story was a mangled version of a famous Lincoln quote published as early as Oct. 30, 1863, in the New York Times: “When someone charged Gen. Grant, in the President’s hearing, with drinking too much liquor, Mr. Lincoln, recalling Gen. Grant’s successes, said that if he could find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank, he would send a barrel of it to all the other commanders.”
The quote was probably fake news. Lincoln denied saying it.
The Grant accolades from Trump — who doesn’t drink alcohol — revived the general’s image as a boozer rather than a battler. So does the new best-selling book “Grant” by Ron Chernow. The book praises Grant but also documents the general’s drinking bouts.
“Liquor seemed a virulent poison to him, and yet he had a fierce desire for it,” one military officer said. After one glass of liquor, Grant’s speech would become slurred, “and two or three would make him stupid.” But another official said Grant never drank when it might imperil his army.
Chernow’s previous book, about Alexander Hamilton, inspired the megahit musical “Hamilton” by Lin-Manuel Miranda. If “Grant” becomes a musical, the references to the general’s whiskey drinking would give new meaning to the song lyrics, “I am not throwing away my shot.”
All of this raises the most common question about Grant: Was he a drunk? Most of his biographers agree on the answer: Sort of.
It’s a fact that in 1854, Grant had to resign from the Army in California because of excessive drinking. He recovered to build a military career impressive enough to rise through the ranks in the Union armies during the Civil War.
But Grant still faced concerns about his drinking. He pledged to his top aide, John Rawlins, that he wouldn’t drink a drop during the war. But he kept falling off the wagon.
Grant was probably an alcoholic but a functioning one. He went on drinking binges but then could stop drinking for long periods. He apparently wasn’t a mean drunk. Instead, according to Chernow, liquor reduced Grant to a “babbling, childlike state.”
The drinking question flared after the general led a Union victory at Shiloh, Tenn., in April 1862. In the bloody battle, Grant’s forces suffered more than 13,000 casualties, including 1,754 killed.
A reporter for the New York Herald claimed that Grant was drunk at Shiloh. Some politicians and Lincoln advisers urged Lincoln to fire the general. Pennsylvania politician Alexander McClure said he appealed to Lincoln in person to dismiss Grant, but the president responded: “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”
Grant, in a letter to his wife, Julia, swore that at Shiloh, he was “sober as a deacon no matter what was said to the contrary.” On March 9, 1864, Lincoln named Grant general-in-chief of the Union armies. Grant led an aggressive campaign, culminating in Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Va., on April 9, 1865.
The next week, Lincoln invited Grant to join him and his wife, Mary, to see the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre. Grant declined. Otherwise, he would have been at Lincoln’s side on April 14 when the president was fatally shot at the play by the actor John Wilkes Booth.
As a war hero, Grant easily won the 1868 presidential election as the Republican candidate. By most accounts, he stayed fairly clean and sober during his presidency, even though numerous scandals by appointees in his administration would have been enough to drive most people to drink. Still, he won a second term.
He died in 1885 at age 63 of throat cancer.
After Grant’s death, exaggerated stories about his drinking became ingrained in American culture. In the 1930s, humorist James Thurber wrote a popular essay called “What If Grant Were Drunk at Appomattox?”
In the story, an inebriated Grant showed up to meet Lee at the surrender ceremonies wearing one boot and with his jacket unbuttoned. The story concludes: Grant took another drink of Scotch. “All right,” he said. “Here we go.”
Slowly, sadly, he unbuckled his sword. Then he handed it to the astonished Lee. “There you are. General,” said Grant. “We dam' near licked you. If I’d been feeling better we would of licked you.”
Dozens of Grant biographers have since tried to set the record straight that while Grant was a drinker, he was great general. Chernow argues that Grant was also a better president than many people think. But his book adds to Grant’s reputation as a boozer. Now Trump has underscored that besotted image, too.
Ronald G. Shafer is a freelance writer and social drinker in Williamsburg, Va. He is the author of “The Carnival Campaign. How The Rollicking 1840 Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Changed Presidential Elections Forever.”
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