Apparently my last post on Grant has caused some confusion over at Richard Williams’s blog. Williams interprets my language as an attempt to downplay or ignore those historians who have argued that Grant was an alcoholic or that his fondness for it hampered his leadership on the battlefield. First, let me be very clear that I have nothing at stake in this debate beyond my interest in Grant as an important historical figure. Second, I am not a Grant scholar. What I know is based on having read a number of journal/magazine articles along with a few recent biographies by William McFeely, Jean Edward Smith and especially, Brooks Simpson’s Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph and Adversity, 1822-1865, which has been acknowledged by the historical community as the best of the lot. [By the way, Joan Waugh also bases her short commentary on this issue on Simpson’s work.] I’ve learned something from all of these studies. Williams cites a short essay by Edward Longacre at the History News Network as evidence of Grant’s addiction. Longacre’s characterization may be right depending on how we define our terms and how we weigh the evidence. Of course, there is always the danger of presentism in applying modern definitions and accompanying judgments one way or the other. Even with those concerns the discussion/debate ought to continue since we are dealing with an important individual in American history and how we understand and evaluate Grant’s public career matters. As for where I stand on the issue right now I will leave you with a recent post by Brooks Simpson over at Civil Warriors.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if this debate is about much larger issues. Many take on a defensive posture when it comes to certain conclusions and generalizations because they are connected to much larger assumptions about the war. Both Grant and Robert E. Lee are useful in this game. Believing that Grant was an alcoholic fits neatly into that larger image of a dirty/God-less/industrial North that stands in sharp contrast with a peaceful/agrarian South. Believing that Grant was a drunk reinforces his image as a “butcher” who achieved victory simply by massing overwhelming resources against Lee, the Army of Northern Virginia and the rest of the Confederacy rather than engaging in sophisticated and complex maneuvers. Finally, it reinforces the view that the United States army was made up of barbarians whose only goal was to pillage the good people of the South who wanted nothing more than to be left in peace.
The above image of Grant is one of my favorites from the Civil War era. A number of things come to mind when I look at it, including alcohol, but that constitutes just one fraction of my overall assessment of the man.