Was Grant a Drunk? (Part 2)

ulysses-grantApparently 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.

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“West From Appomattox” or Is That Grant?

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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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Nat Turner Lived 40 Miles From the Crater

Nat_Turner_woodcut

I‘ve been thinking quite a bit about the images of slave rebellions and miscegenation that shaped the world view of white Southerners throughout the antebellum period.  In the case of Nat Turner’s Rebellion newspapers throughout Virginia and beyond offered extensive coverage and attempted to offer an explanation that would assuage the concerns of what white Southerners believed to be docile and loyal slaves.  However, even before the bloody events that transpired in Southampton County, Virginia in August 1831 there had already been close coverage of slave insurrections in the broader “Atlantic World” that stretched back to the rebellion in Saint Domingue.  In fact, by 1831 explanations purporting to explain why their slaves might rebel had already been strongly embedded by subsequent rebellions in Demerera, Barbados, and elsewhere.  The explanation that abolitionists (Missionaries) were responsible for the violence on their plantations provided a ready-made answer for Southern slaveowners who pointed the finger at the small abolitionist community in Boston.  Such an explanation, however, makes little sense without a broader appreciation of how events throughout the Atlantic World shaped their outlook.  Indeed, as historian Edward Rugemer asserts in his excellent study, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the Civil War, explanations of Turner’s Rebellion take on a hysterical quality.  He notes that by the time of the insurrection William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator had only recently begun publication, though its circulation was quite limited, The American Anti-Slavery Society had not yet been formed, the “Declaration of Sentiments” had not been written, and the New England Anti-Slavery Society had not even published its second Annual Report.  Finally, many northern newspapers condemned the violence in Virginia.

A few months after Turner’s Rebellion a much larger insurrection in Jamaica (“Baptist War”) involving 60,000 slaves broke out.  This was followed by England’s decision to abolish slavery in the West Indies.  My point is that to understand the fears of white Southerners (slaveowner and nonslaveowners alike) we have to consider the few rebellions that took place throughout the colonial and antebellum periods in a much broader context.  Information flowed back and forth freely first through word of mouth in port cities and later via the printed word.  White Southerners did not have to have seen the above woodcut, which was published in Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which Was Witnessed in Southampton County to understand the dangers of insurrection or their role in preventing such a nightmare.  By 1831 many white Southerners had come to view their world from a defensive posture which acknowledged the threat to slavery as stemming from ruthless abolitionists and a distant government.

William L. Garrison → Nat Turner → Jamaica → England abolishes slavery in West Indies → John Brown → Election of Republican Party → Emancipation Proclamation → Crater → ?

The men who joined the regiments that constituted the Virginia brigade of Mahone’s division at the Crater did not have to have seen the above woodcut because they lived it.  All of the regiments were raised in the Richmond-Petersburg-Norfolk area and William Mahone was born and raised in Southampton County.  The woodcut beautifully frames how we as historians should unpack/analyze how Confederates at the Crater viewed the presence of USCTs as well as how they responded.

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Gilder Lehrman Videos on the Civil War Era

Check out these short videos at Gilder Lehrman’s YouTube site, which include interviews with Gary Gallagher, Ed Ayers, Allen Guelzo, Thomas Bender, and Ira Berlin.  Search the full list of videos and you can view interviews with James and Louis Horton and David Blight.  They can be used in the classroom, though they range in usefulness.

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