“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.” – Richard Williams [scroll down for comment]
Thousands of more men compared to what exactly? Compared to someone who is best remembered as the embodiment of civilized warfare?
Robert E. Lee’s Casualties (1862-1865)
- Seven Days battles – 20,204
- Second Manassas – 9,000
- Sharpsburg – 13,000
- Chancellorsville – 13,000
- Gettysburg – 21,000
- Overland Campaign – 31,000
- Petersburg Campaign – 28,000
Ulysses S. Grant’s Casualties (1861-1865)
- Battle of Belmont – 3,100
- Forts Henry and Donelson – 2,700
- Shiloh – 13,000
- Vicksburg – 4,800
- Chattanooga – 5,800
- Overland Campaign – 38,000
- Petersburg Campaign – 42,000
Yesterday I mentioned that beliefs about Grant and alcohol typically have something to do with larger issues. Williams’s comment is a case in point. If it can be shown that Grant had a serious enough problem with alcohol it might provide evidence for another long-standing belief, which is that he needlessly sacrificed his men in battle. The image of “Grant the butcher” provides the perfect foil against Robert E. Lee who embodies the martial characteristics of the Virginia cavalier. Does anyone doubt that this is exactly who Williams had in mind in his implicit comparison. As the argument goes Lee fought a traditional war of virtuous generals and civilized tactics while Grant and Sherman ushered in a new era of warfare that anticipated the blood baths of the twentieith century.
My noting Lee’s casualty statistics should not be interpreted as an attack of any kind. I tend to agree with Gary Gallagher’s analysis of Lee as a modern general who understood the importance of offensive, but costly operations as representing the best strategy given issues related to infrastructure, manpower, and the expectation of the civilian population. Still, one might conclude that Grant’s casualty figures demonstrate that he did indeed needlessly sacrifice his men in battle. Of course, you do not have to be an alcoholic to order large numbers of young men to their deaths. You could just as easily be a Virginia gentleman.
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.
Yesterday 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.”