Was Grant a Drunk?

Ulysses S. GrantYesterday I received the page proofs for Joan Waugh’s new book, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (UNC Press, pub. date, 11/15).  I’ve read the first chapter and I am enjoying it very much.  It’s part biography, cultural history, and memory study.  The first chapter covers his life up to the Civil War and includes a short section on the controversy surrounding Grant’s drinking.  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.  Included in Waugh’s analysis are a few references to the image of Grant the drunk in our popular culture.  They include an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies called “The South Rises Again” (1967) and a short story published by James Thurber in 1930 called “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” in which the author imagines a hung-over Grant surrendering to Lee.  It’s pretty funny:

General Lee, dignified against the blue of the April sky, magnificent in his dress uniform, stood for a moment framed in the doorway. He walked in, followed by his staff. They bowed, and stood silent. General Grant stared at them. He only had one boot on and his jacket was unbuttoned.

“I know who you are,” said Grant.’You’re Robert Browning, the poet.” “This is General Robert E. Lee,” said one of his staff, coldly. “Oh,” said Grant. “I thought he was Robert Browning. He certainly looks like Robert Browning. There was a poet for you. Lee: Browning. Did ya ever read ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’? ‘Up Derek, to saddle, up Derek, away; up Dunder, up Blitzen, up, Prancer, up Dancer, up Bouncer, up Vixen, up -‘”.

“Shall we proceed at once to the matter in hand?” asked General Lee, his eyes disdainfully taking in the disordered room. “Some of the boys was wrassling here last night,” explained Grant. “I threw Sherman, or some general a whole lot like Sherman. It was pretty dark.” He handed a bottle of Scotch to the commanding officer of the Southern armies, who stood holding it, in amazement and discomfiture. “Get a glass, somebody,” said Grant, .looking straight at General Longstreet. “Didn’t I meet you at Cold Harbor?” he asked. General Longstreet did not answer.

“I should like to have this over with as soon as possible,” said Lee. Grant looked vaguely at Shultz, who walked up close to him , frowning. “The surrender, sir, the surrender,” said Corporal Shultz in a whisper. “Oh sure, sure,” said Grant. He took another drink. “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.”

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11 comments… add one
  • Naim Peress Jun 29, 2009 @ 7:40

    I think Grant was what we call today a binge drinker. From the primary sources, his alcoholic excesses occured when he suffered boredom or other stresses, like during the siege of Vicksburg.

  • David Woodbury Jun 27, 2009 @ 15:13

    Bob, I said tail end of his 2nd term because the marker said 1877 and “President Grant.” I assumed that must mean the very beginning of 1877, as it didn’t immediately dawn on me that — naturally — he would be called “President Grant” after he left office as well.

    I’m really intrigued by this now, and have posted a blog entry on the historical marker, along with a beautiful image of the Sarah Willis estate Grant is alleged to have visited. Please drop by to continue the conversation there. Meanwhile, I am emailing a couple local historians to see if they have anything more than the plaque itself to go on: http://tinyurl.com/kr6l84

    • Kevin Levin Jun 27, 2009 @ 15:24

      You could contact Brooks Simpson or wait to see if he comments on this post. You might even want to contact Joan Waugh who lives in California and teaches at UCLA. It will be interesting to see how this little investigation of yours unfolds. Good luck.

  • Bob Pollock Jun 27, 2009 @ 13:22

    David indicated “the tail end of his 2nd term.’ I suppose that could be 1876, but we are not aware of a trip in 1876 either. We are looking into it. I googled Sarah Wallis and there is a California State Historic marker on her house in Palo Alto that indicates Grant was a guest . We would like to know the source for this.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 27, 2009 @ 13:24

      Sorry about that, Bob. I just got up from a nap. 🙂

  • Bob Pollock Jun 27, 2009 @ 13:08


    Your question has sparked interest among the park rangers here at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. We are not aware of a trip by Grant to California in 1877 and it seems unlikely. He left office in March, and boarded a steamship at Philadelphia in May to go on his around the world trip. It seems more likely that if he met Sarah Wallis it would have been in 1879 when he and Julia conclude their travels by arriving in San Francisco. We are going to look into this some more.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 27, 2009 @ 13:13


      Glad to hear it, but I don’t think I ever suggested that he did take such a trip. He left on May 17 so it doesn’t leave much time for a trip to California.

  • David Woodbury Jun 27, 2009 @ 11:41


    Does Waugh spend any time on women’s support for Grant in 1872 (Susan B. Anthony was arrested after voting for him him that year)? I’m looking for references to President Grant’s visit to the West Coast at the tail end of his 2nd term, when he apparently met with California suffragette Sarah Wallis.


    • Kevin Levin Jun 27, 2009 @ 11:44


      Unfortunately, the page proofs do not come with an index so it’s impossible to give you a quick response. I will let you know if I come across anything.

  • Mike Kienzler Jun 27, 2009 @ 9:01

    A T-shirt sold by Prairie Archives, a (very good) antiquarian bookstore in Springfield, Ill., shows Grant with the legend: “I’d have to be drunk to live in Springfield, Illinois.” It’s part of a series featuring Abe Lincoln (“They’d have to shoot me to get me back …”); Mary (“I’d have to be crazy …”); another Custer (“Visiting Springfield was the worst mistake I ever made”); etc.

  • matt mckeon Jun 27, 2009 @ 3:52

    In Arthur Penn’s “Little Big Man” (1970), a crazy Gen. Custer shouts angrily as the Sioux and Cheyenne wipe out the 7th Cavalry, “I told Grant this would happen! Sitting in the White House! The drunkard!”

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