27 June 2009

So Which Is It?

CW blogger, Kevin Levin, recently posted some comments suggesting that Ulysses S. Grant has unfairly and inaccurately been labeled a "drunk." Many of us who study the WBTS have read the same narratives and accounts of Grant's lack of sobriety and fondness of liquor.

Kevin bases his opinion (at least in part) on a new book by Joan Waugh. KL writes: "Anyone familiar with recent Grant studies already knows that the evidence against Grant is weak or inconclusive. According to Waugh and others, Grant drank occasionally, but not 'when it counted' and rarely in excess." [Emphasis mine].

As a former indulger of strong drink myself, I'm not sure what Kevin means by "when it counted." In my former heathen life (over 30 years ago), "when it counted" to me meant whenever I was conscious. But I digress.

Not all historians would agree with Levin - no surprise there. Interestingly enough, Kevin's post title has been used before by historian Edward Longacre. In his article on HNN on 9/10/07, titled: Was Grant A Drunk? - Longacre writes that he believes Grant was a "binge drinker."

Longacre further notes:

"Grant’s drinking habits should be recognized and examined, not ignored or downplayed as they have been by overzealous defenders of his good name during his lifetime and ever since. That Grant drank occasionally while on duty is a matter of record, as is the fact that on more than a few occasions he drank until intoxicated, stuporous, and violently ill." [Emphasis mine]

And . . .

"Grant did not fit the stereotype of the falling-down drunk. He drank at irregular intervals, in varying quantities, and with differing results. At times he imbibed moderately, with little or no noticeable effect, and he was capable of refusing a drink, explaining that alcohol brought him nothing but trouble. Even so, he was, in the clinical sense of the term, an alcoholic. On more than a few occasions he drank long and hard, unable to stop short of unconsciousness or some form of intervention . . . "

Uh, forgive me for being picky, but "unable to stop short of unconsciousness" would fit my definition of "a drunk." But maybe that's just me. I suppose we will have to clarify our definitions of "drunk" in degrees: "falling down drunk" to "puking, unconscious drunk." (I would tend to think that the latter is actually worse than the former. Personally, I would prefer being intoxicated with a stumble here and there to waking up in my own vomit. But, again, that's just me.)

I've never studied Grant to any degree, so I don't consider myself an expert on his drinking habits but, assuming Longacre's description is accurate, his opinion would differ with that of Levin's and, according to KL, that of Waugh's "and others."

For those who are a bit cynical and suspicisous when it comes to "recent" historiography, one might detect a trend. Some of the recent biographies and studies of Lee have suggested he was much less the gentleman than many think. Other historians have recently suggested that murderer John Brown's life should be "celebrated" and that he was "an immensely principled activist, a revolutionary whose dedication—whose sacrifice of his life—to the cause of freeing America’s slaves has much to teach a morally relativistic, ethically relaxed age."

As part of this apparent trend and attempt to "equalize" various historical figures, are we now seeing an effort to sober General Grant? So what do you think? Has Grant been mischaracterized or was he truly a drunk?

Its enough to drive a man to drinkin'.

35 comments:

James F. Epperson said...

Well, I am fairly knowledgeable on Grant and his drinking, and I do not accept Longacre's characterization, nor McPherson's. Grant had some issues with alcohol, that is clear, but precisely what they were is difficult to discern from 150 years distance. I'd rely on someone like Brooks Simpson, who is an authority on Grant and honest where the General's failings are concerned (IMO).

There is nothing recent about efforts to refurbish USG's reputation in this area. As long ago as the mid-1950s, KP Williams had a dialogue with Benjamin Thomas about this in the pages of American Heritage. Bruce Catton's two books, Grant Moves South (1960) and Grant Takes Command (1968) do a good job of attacking the "Grant is a drunkard" legend.

There are a few data points of note. We know he did drink to excess on occasion. We also know that on occasion he drank, not to excess. One theory is that his system had a very erratic response to alcohol, perhaps due to irregularities in the distilling process in those days. (He wasn't drinking Maker's Mark, after all.) Thus, he might sit down and drink sociably with no ill effects on one occasion, and on another have one drink and be totally soused. (He once more or less said this to a brother officer.) We know his mother gave him a gift of wine; we know that Gen. JB McPherson once suggested he have a drink; we know that Sherman's medical officer suggested he have a drink once to fight off a coming illness.

(BTW, I am not sure I can find Longacre's instance of Grant drinking to unconsciousness.)

And, for what it is worth, I have been known to bend the elbow sociably on occasion, and sometimes more than I should.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks for your thoughts James. My personal experience would recommend you keep that elbow straight as much you can . . . just some friendly advice.

RGW

Bob Pollock said...

Richard,

I will second James' comment and add some of what is said about this controversy in the museum here at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site:

"Conflicting information about Grant's use of alcohol first appeared in 1846 during the war with Mexico...Most of the now familiar stories of drunkenness come from the Civil War era. Many allegations emanated from officers seeking advancement or superiors who felt threatened by Grant's success...Grant publicly ignored the charges...Grant suffered from fevers, chills, and migraine headaches, which made him unsteady or kept him in bed for days. These symptoms may have been interpreted as drunkenness...Physicians considered alcohol a medical drug and frequently prescribed it for a variety of illnesses. If Grant followed his doctor's orders and drank when he was sick, it may have aggravated his condition."

I believe Grant drank when he was young and stationed away from his family. There was and still is a culture of drinking in the military. I think Grant knew he could have a problem and because he was a very self disciplined and determined man,did not drink as he got older. I don't believe he could have directed the entire Union war effort to victory and been President through eight of the most difficult years in our country's history and been a falling down drunk.

Longacre is, of course, entitled to his opinion.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Bob:

Thanks for your input. You may be right. As I said, I have not studied Grant in any detail.

Longacre's piece also brings up Grant's throat cancer and the distinct possibility that it was caused, in part, by excessive drinking.

Wasn't there a letter sent to Grant by another officer who chastised Grant and who allegedly had some firsthand knowledge of Grant's drinking problem? I believe it may have involved drinking wine. If I recall correctly, Grant denied the specific charge, but did not dispute the fact he had a problem. I don't recall any other details.

I will add the subject of his drinking to my ever-growing lists of things to look into in greater detail.

Thanks again for commenting.
RGW

James F. Epperson said...

"Wasn't there a letter sent to Grant by another officer who chastised Grant and who allegedly had some firsthand knowledge of Grant's drinking problem?" --- This sounds like the so-called "Rawlins letter," written to Grant by his chief of staff, John Rawlins, during the Vicksburg campaign. The letter is a key piece of evidence in dismantling the reporter Cadwallader's account of the so-called "Yazoo bender." The full story is in Catton's Grant Moves South and Simpson's Triumph Over Adversity. The basic story is that Rawlins complained that Grant had had a glass of wine (at the suggestion of Sherman's medical director, as it happens), and said later that his admonitions to USG "were heeded." And yet, if Cadwallader's story is to be believed, a few days later, a totally stupified Grant was delivered to HQ by Cadwallader. It is impossible (IMO) to accept this letter and its endorsement and also believe Cadwallader.

Michael Bradley said...

I live in a whiskey making area, indeed, the nations oldest registered distillery is my neighbor. The ability to control "proof" in making whiskey is ancient and predates the C.W. period. When Grant got drunk we cannot blame it on the manufacturer of the drink. Neither do I think we can use illness as a cover for alcoholism. While Grant was disabled by illness on occasion this does not explain away all the records of his having taken too much of "the creature."

I think Longacre is correct. Certainly Grant's staff worried about him drinking too much and some of them guarded him against this failure.

As to Grant's presidency, I have doubts that we can say he "guided the nation" during this time. His administration is remembered as marked by corruption caused by Grant trusting dishonest men whom he appointed to places of responsibility where they enriched themselves at the public expense. Grant was personally honest but hardly had his hand firmly on the wheel of the ship of state. At the end of his two terms the nation was ready for reform---which they did not get in the election of 1876.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

James - yes, that was the letter to which I was referring.

Michael - thanks for the comment. All excellent points.

James F. Epperson said...

"The ability to control "proof" in making whiskey is ancient and predates the C.W. period." --- True, but I wasn't talking simply about controlling proof; I was talking about irregularites ("impurities" might have been a better word) in the distilling process. IOW, he wasn't always drinking Maker's Mark. Such impurities can affect one's reaction to the alcohol.

The only member of Grant's staff who obsessed over his drinking was Rawlins, his adjutant/chief of staff.

Like I said before (and I note that Mr. Pollack agreed with me) many folks who have studied Grant are of the opinion that his drinking has been over-stated.

Michael Bradley said...

There were fewer impurities in distilled liquors in the 19th Century than now because stills were copper--no moonshiners using old auto radiators as happened in the 20th Century and later. Distilling is an excellent process by which one gets rid of impurities.

McFeely's biography of Grant cites numerous instances when Rawlins tried to prevent Grant from drinking to excess or when he tried to keep Grant out of sight until the general sobered up. There were notable instances of drunken binges during the siege of Vicksburg and of Petersburg. Rawlins also wrote private letters to his family in which he lamented Grant's excessive drinking. The pertinent point is not that "only one" of Grant's staff (Rawlins) commented on Grant's drinking but why more of them did not. McFeely argues that the others did not care or did not object. Rawlins was, to cite McFeely, the "only member of the staff who could talk to Grant about this problem." Certainly other officers commented on the problem. Agreed, many of them were not friends of Grant but their observations cannot be dismissed out of hand--especially when Rawlins agreed with them that there was a problem.

MdFeely agrees with Longacre that Grant was a binge drinker. The usual cause of a binge seems to have been depression and boredom--the two may be associated. Grant's excessive drinking continued into his years as president and was a subject of comment after he left the office when he was on a European tour. The Europeans may have played up Grant's drinking because of anti-American sentiment but the evidence cannot be discounted that Grant was a man who had alcohol problems life-long.

Brboyd said...

Why prop up Grant? I would think Joshua L. Chamberlain would be a good hero for the Northerners.

Anonymous said...

I like how recent studies regarding Lost Cause interpretations are often considered without merit; however, when they are applied to the Holy Cause, it's legitimate research. Good question Richard - which is it?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael:

At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, do you think efforts to downplay Grant's drinking problems are motivated by something other seeking the truth?

I honestly don't know. As I've stated, I'm not much of a student of Grant. I do, however, have suspicions.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anon:

Can you clarify? I'm missing something in your statement.

James F. Epperson said...

"McFeely's biography of Grant..." --- Unfortunately, that's the end of your credibility on this. McFeely's book, while winning a Pulitzer, is very flawed in many ways, his view of Grant's drinking being only one of them. As I said earlier, I'd read Simpson to get a better view, or Catton.

"There were notable instances of drunken binges during the siege of Vicksburg and of Petersburg." --- Uh, no. There is the controversial (and discredited) "Yazoo bender" story during the Vicksburg siege, and Baldy Smith's suspect tales from the beginning of the Petersburg siege; that's it, really. It's a matter of taste, of course, but I would not count two *very* controversial tales as "numerous instances."

I find it interesting that so many Confederate partisans are determined to prove Grant a drunk. What does it say about Confederate military prowess that they were beaten by a drunk?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"I find it interesting that so many Confederate partisans are determined to prove Grant a drunk. What does it say about Confederate military prowess that they were beaten by a drunk?"

"Confederate partisans?"

James - please keep your comments confined to the subject matter and leave out the ad hominem attacks.

If Grant had a drinking problem, the answer to your question could be that he was willing to sacrifice thousands of more men due to the fact his judgment was impaired by alcohol.

James F. Epperson said...

"leave out the ad hominem attacks." --- I didn't think my comment would be seen as ad hominem. I was under the impression that Mr. Bradley would be proud to be considered a "Confederate partisan." I did neglect to use a smiley, which might have put what I wrote in a different light. That's my error.

Michael Bradley said...

Now, now, Mr.Epperson---I know you have publically expressed friendship with Brooks Simpson and it is a good thing to support your friends. But lets be up-front about it. You like Simpson, he is your friend. Perhaps that explains your preference for his biography of Grant.

I have just put my copy of Triumph Over Adversity back on the shelf after checking the contents on Grant's drinking. Your prefered source says that Grant had a drinking problem. Simpson also recognizes Rawlins as the person who had the role of keeping an eye on the drinking habits of the general.

McFeely did indeed win a Pulitzer and is still highly thought of among academic historians. I hardly think anyone loses credibility just because they cite that book instead that of your friend. At any rate, Simpson does not disagree with my point. Grant had a drinking problem and it sometimes got the best of him.

Anonymous said...

Do you have any evidence of the cases where Grant sacrificed made miscalculations because of alcohol abuse? Instead of insinuating vaguely that Grant "was willing to sacrifice thousands of more men due to the fact that his judment was impaired by alcohol," could you please give a concrete example of when this was the case?

Toby said...

"If Grant had a drinking problem, the answer to your question could be that he was willing to sacrifice thousands of more men due to the fact his judgment was impaired by alcohol."

Now that's way out of order. There is not a smidgen of evidence that Grant planned any attack while he was either inebriated or hung over.

If I remember my Catton correctly, nearly all the stories about Grant's drinking (e.g the Vicksburg alleged "bender", the fall from his horse in New Orleans after Vicksburg, even his resignation from the service) came during periods of enforced idleness and separation from his family.

Hard as it may seem to believe, Grant was a man of action, a "man of fire" his CO called him after Mexico.

The image of Grant as an "ordinary man" subject to "common human weakness" should be put to rest. Take his horsemanship ... in our century Grant would probably be showjumping for the US at the Olympics.

He possessed extraordinary skill with horses. He was the best horsebreaker in his home town, and at West Point he was given the worst cases to tame. When he left the Academy he held the high jump record in jumping fences. Grant was a man with a higher-than-average athleticism, intelligence and physical courage.

Yet, people still try to do the man down over alleged drinking. "Drunkard" was the common slur used to smear a rival for promotion in the Civil War armies, and Grant suffered from it more than most. The fact that he had been smeared may have been what motivated his staff to keep him apart from alcohol, not any real fact of over-indulgence.

Frankly, there is no evidence whatsoever for an addiction to alcohol, and only some on over-indulgence. I submit that any unbiased look at the evidence must lead to an agnostic position on alcoholism.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anon, Toby:

My comment was a rhetorical response to James's rhetorical question:

"What does it say about Confederate military prowess that they were beaten by a drunk?"

I think there are many who would label someone who drinks themselves unconscious a drunkard.

Again, as I said in my original post, perhaps one prefers degrees of the label.

James F. Epperson said...

Yes, Brooks is a friend, and I think he wrote a good book, better than McFeely. My reasons for not liking McFeely's book are too lengthy to go into here. As for what Brooks says, your initial comments seemed to me to be going *way* beyond saying Grant had "a drinking problem." I think the things *I* have said here would support that statement. The question is the nature and degree of the problem. And I never denied Rawlins's (self-appointed) role as Grant's alcohol conscience; I disputed your contention that "members" (note plural) of Grant's staff acted in this fashion. It was Rawlins and no one else.

I think Longacre's comments go too far and are not supportable.

Michael Lynch said...

Lee's casualty rate was consistently higher than Grant's, so I don't think it's correct to say that Grant won because he was willing to lose a higher percentage of his men.

--ML

Anonymous said...

Mr. Lynch, if both opponents had the same number of men and resources, then it would be proper to compare casualty rates; however, if one army is significantly larger or better supplied than another, then the casualty rates alone could be non-linear, that is, not very comparable. Certainly attrition was the North's strategy that could only pay off over long periods requiring many casualties.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

James:

You ask:

"What does it say about Confederate military prowess that they were beaten by a drunk?"

When an army vastly outnumbers its opponent both in soldiers and arms, being a drunk (if he was) becomes secondary.

But I would ask you, what does it say about Northern military prowess when Lincoln's first choice to lead the Union Army was General Lee?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anon:

An obvious consideration.

Tks

James F. Epperson said...

"But I would ask you, what does it say about Northern military prowess when Lincoln's first choice to lead the Union Army was General Lee?" --- Strictly speaking, he wasn't *Lincoln's* first choice, he was Scott's. As I am sure you know, Scott thought highly of Lee and made his recommendation accordingly. Lincoln was simply doing what any intelligent new man in office would do, going along with the suggestions of his advisor.

(Although, given that Scott's next two suggestions were Halleck and McClellan, one does wonder if Scott's neurons were fully functional ;-)

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"Strictly speaking, he wasn't *Lincoln's* first choice, he was Scott's."

That could be said of just about every decision any President would make James. They all look to their advisers.

Lincoln chose a Southerner, General Lee, because he believed Lee (rightly or wrongly) would have brought the desired result in the most efficient way.

Lee chose his native State over the Union due to duty and principle and was well aware of the likely consequences of his decision. And he was sober when he did it.

James F. Epperson said...

"Lee chose his native State over the Union due to duty and principle and was well aware of the likely consequences of his decision. And he was sober when he did it." --- Indeed. Just as Grant was sober almost exactly four years later, when he accepted Lee's surrender at Appomattox ;-)

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"Just as Grant was sober almost exactly four years later, when he accepted Lee's surrender at Appomattox ;-)"

Well of course. It would be near sacrilege to meet the South's most revered General in any other state.

;o)

James F. Epperson said...

"It would be near sacrilege to meet the South's most revered General in any other state." --- Some have commented on Grant's less than elegant appearance---mud-stained boots, very informal uniform, etc. IIRC, USG offered some kind of apology for this in the McLean parlor, and Lee told him he (USG) had done right to come as quickly as he could, rather than stopping to change.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Lee, always the gracious one.

Michael Lynch said...

If we're comparing the willingness of two generals to take casualties, how is it not relevant to underscore that one of them lost a higher percentage of his men throughout the war than did the other? How else would you measure a willingness to take casualties? Remember that we're talking about percentages of men lost compared to men engaged, not absolute numbers.

If anything, Lee's smaller numbers makes his larger (proportional) casualties all the more striking, because he could not as easily afford them.

--ML

Michael Bradley said...

McFeely or Simpson? Well, we all have our favorites and we all have reasons for choosing them. McFeely is well aware of the controversial nature of some of the evidence of Grant's drinking problem and deals with the evidence in his footnotes.Longacre is in good company in following McFeely since so many others have reached the same conclusion, including Schlesinger. None of these people are "Confederate partisans." There are, of course, web sites dedicated to "rehabilitating" Grant's reputation by seeking to deny that Grant had any problem at all. That is an excellent example of being partisan.

Simpson looks at the same evidence as other historians and arrives at a conclusion more favorable to Grant. Historians differ all the time, it is part of our job security. However, it is unwise to accept unequivocally a position which is greatly at variance with what the majority of historians have found. Simpson demonstrates that some of the evidence is murky but he does not resolve the issue certainly not in Grant's favor. Simpson does not, and cannot, make the issue of binge drinking go away. Simpson does mitigate the issue in his interpretation.

I will also confess to a heresy--Bruce Catton was a great writer but not a great historian. He popularized reading about the C.W. during the Centennial years as Shely Foote did later but they do not rank in my pantheon of historians---writers on historical subjects they certainly arem but not historians.

James F. Epperson said...

"Simpson looks at the same evidence as other historians and arrives at a conclusion more favorable to Grant." --- Not entirely. Some of what Brooks says is very problematic. For example, many of the "standard" authors say that, whatever Grant's drinking problem was, he never over-indulged when it would affect operations. Brooks points out that the alleged "Yazoo bender" could well have affected operations (as well as Grant's personal security). Brooks also points out that the controversial tumble in New Orleans could have affected operations by injuring Grant. Brooks does not approach the subject with the aim of "cleansing" Grant's historical reputation. (Brooks, after all, is the author of the aphorism, "Don't fall in love with dead people.") Brooks's aim is to get to the truth of the matter, however the chips may fall. His assessment of the evidence is much less simplistic than many others. (And he can be very critical of Catton on this score; I am more accepting of Catton than he is.) My problem with McFeely centers on his treatment of the "Yazoo bender," which IMO is very poor, given the evidence that existed when he wrote his book; in fact, McFeely's handling of the story is logically inconsistent, given the evidence presented by Catton and others, more than a decade before McFeely's book appeared. (Foote deserves the same criticism.)

Anonymous said...

Mr. Lynch, I will explain it again. An inferior force will have to necessarily subject itself to more risk when defending or attacking a superior force. One could just as easily see that a moderate number of casualties represent a large rate when the total denominator is small to begin with.