Was Grant a Drunk? (Part 3)

“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.

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26 comments… add one
  • toby Jul 6, 2009 @ 6:38

    That McClellan held Grant at a discount because of the Ft. Vancouver incident is well known.

    McClellan was at Fort Vancouver from June 27th to July 25th, 1853 (from Lloyd Lewis “Captain Sam Grant”). It would be interesting to find where Anderson was at that time to see if the story of a social “circle” holds up. A Lieut. Hodges is the witness for Grant’s “little spree” that offended McClellan, but the evidence is that Little Mac’s expedition was not delayed a whit.

    A Mrs Delia Sheffield who knew Grant at Fort Vancouver left reminiscences of his time there. The pages in Lewis’ book are interesting – they portray Grant as introspective and depressed, sadly missing his wife and children, but very far from being a slave to alcohol.

    In July-August, 1853 Grant was promoted to full Captain and left Ft. Vancouver for Humboldt Bay, California to assume command of a company.

    Grant had every reason to resign the army – despite his promotion, 9 other captains outranked him in his regiment. A lot of his friends were resigning at the same time. The pay was poor and he did not know when he would be able to re-unite his family. From his point of view, the skills he had acquired at West Point were probably more gainfully employed in civilian life. There is no need to appeal to a story about him being “forced to resign over his drinking”, though Simpson thinks that the post commander at Humboldt Bay, who disliked Grant, may have applied pressure on him.

    The important point is that it was at Humboldt Bay that Grant’s spirit was at its lowest ebb. But the Anderson story clearly refers to his period at Ft. Vancouver, when he was still a Lieutenant and met McClellan. These are telling points against the veracity of the gossip passed on by Mrs Anderson.

  • Bob Pollock Jul 1, 2009 @ 6:15

    I don’t know anything about Patton Anderson but, Grant was Quartermaster at Fort Vancouver. I don’t know that it could be said that Grant was a “member of a circle that included McClellan & Anderson,” but there apparently was an incident involving Grant and McClellan. McClellan was in the Northwest as head of a surveying expedition seeking a route for a railroad through the Cascades. As quartermaster, it was Grant’s responsibility to outfit the survey party. At some point Grant was drunk and McClellan never had a very high opinion of him thereafter. Brooks mentions this incident in “Triumph Over Adversity.”

  • toby Jul 1, 2009 @ 4:08

    The Patton Anderson story is pretty thin stuff.

    Anderson died in 1872, and his wife told the story in 1889, a whopping seventeen years later. So we have to deal not only with Anderson’s memory of 1853-54, but his wife’s memory of what her husband told her.

    It is a hearsay story, and the teller wanted it to be kept private. That was hardly to protect Grant, who was dead; more likely because she did not want the story to be open to question.

    I have never read of Grant being a member of a circle that included McClellan & Anderson in the North-West.

    The paymaster part seems to be true, but Mrs Anderson could certainly have heard that from her husband in other conversations.

    Probably she just liked to gossip about famous people she had known. Without any corroboration, the story has to open to such doubts that it is not really admissable.

  • Cash Jun 30, 2009 @ 19:04

    Ever since LaSalle Pickett I’m extremely skeptical of claims made by widows concerning what their husbands did in “little known” deeds. The fact that neither Woodward nor McFeeley, who seemed to have left no stone unturned in reporting anti-Grant stories, mention this makes me think even they couldn’t substantiate it.


  • Dan Wright Jun 30, 2009 @ 10:16

    I’m interested in at least a short list of suggested reading on Grant.
    I’ve read his memoirs and Steven Woodworth’s “Nothing But Victory.”
    I guess Brooks Simpson would be on your list.
    What else would you recommend?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 30, 2009 @ 10:24


      Yes, I would say start with Simpson’s biography “Triumph and Adversity” and when you finish that go to his earlier book, _Let Us Have Peace_, which covers Reconstruction and the period before his presidency. It’s one of my favorite books and does an excellent job of challenging our tendency to draw a sharp line between the war and Reconstruction. Grant clearly continued to think of Reconstruction as an extension of the war itself. It really is a dynamite study.

  • Brooks Simpson Jun 30, 2009 @ 8:22

    Charles, it’s not the issue of judging Grant, although some people are always judging first and thinking/understanding later (if at all). As a biographer I need to know how alcohol functioned in Grant’s life, and what his relationship with it can tell us about him, as part of the never-ending (and never completely successful) attempt to fathom someone more accurately.

    Kevin pointed people to a post I once put up on Civil Warriors that suggests that some of the trite comments about Grant’s drinking (and its effects) are just that: trite. I’ve read the Longacre piece, and I find it flawed, unconvincing, and heavily dependent upon the work of others. But I’ve also long ago come to terms with the notion that even admitted ignorance does not bar someone from offering stupid or superficial analysis, and I’ve seen plenty of that on this issue.

    There’s a notion that if one likes Grant, one defends him from these charges, and if one dislikes him, one raises all sorts of questions. Richard Williams and Mr. Bobrick are in the latter school. I’ve never seen anyone confess to being ignorant and then to offer more than ample evidence of it as I have in a certain blog in response to Kevin’s initial post, but then so little truly astonishes me any more. 🙂

  • Charles Lovejoy Jun 30, 2009 @ 6:09

    Regardless , Grant was a successful and victorious General. I also feel he was a much better president than many give him credit for. Many powerful and famous people have fell victim to vices , it often looks like it’s part of the job deception . All anyone can do at this point is read what was written about Grants drinking by a few people and ask , what was their motivation for writing what they did. Before some of us get all self righteous about Grant’s drinking I would like to know who in this debate has never been drunk? Who can honestly say they have never been drunk. I know I sure have . I have did my share drinking and philandering, so why should I set in judgment of a historical figure who was said to have drank to much at times ?
    I still think the extent of Grant’s drinking is inconclusive and I leave it at that.

  • Brooks Simpson Jun 29, 2009 @ 23:45

    I think you have to assess Richard’s comments about Grant and alcohol in light of his admitted ignorance of the subject, and let it go at that.

    Grant left the army in 1854, so we’d have to narrow the time period about the Patton Anderson story.

  • Michaela Jun 29, 2009 @ 18:25

    The greater question here is how the portrait of certain very visible figures serves our desire to remember a war or history in general. If Grant in fact did on several occasions drink and therefore, did make horrendous mistakes that resulted in casualties then he was unfit for the job and should have been replaced. But that says nothing about the conflict itself. I do not think that military campaigns are fought with white gloves. But to mix images such as the drunk general versus the ever clean and gentle general on his white horse Traveler (yawn, sorry!) are such apparent forms of propaganda in the analysis of the most complex conflict on American soil. As a foreigner it made an amazing impression on me when I first saw these images of Lee versus Grant . After having studied a zillion European conflicts in detail with respect to economic and imperialistic motivation and the social and historic context I could not believe my eyes that anybody with half a decent school education would look at this face value. For me it is not only the question that these simplistic images exist, but how they ever survived into the late 20th century. And how they can be part of historical “analysis” and today’s school books is a tragic result of an unintellectual and uncritical approach to one’s own history (Europeans have morphed into that uncritical society, too, I agree). That is the larger question for me. A true historical analysis can only be performed when all questions can be asked and no “gentleman’s” or “winner’s” immunity is given for protection.

  • Charles Lovejoy Jun 29, 2009 @ 18:23

    Matt yes I have meet a few, its their families ( spouse and kids) that I have found the most interesting . Do I need to say any more? 🙂

  • Robert Moore Jun 29, 2009 @ 15:41


    “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.”

    Excellent point to approach Lost Cause “mythology.” Of course, I know you understand, but it seems convenient that others forget that Lee did not always employ civilized tactics. Case in point… Lee ordering Stuart to take civilians during his Oct. 1862 raid into Pa.

    Granted, it’s just one example, but is this civilized warfare? Not so white glove as others may suggest. Yet, convenient “memory”… yes.

    Robert @ Cenantua’s Blog

    • Kevin Levin Jun 29, 2009 @ 16:17


      Or how about the steps taken during the Gettysburg Campaign to round up escaped slaves? Yes, civilized indeed.


      I tend to agree with you, though I don’t want to touch the M. Sanford scandal. As I said before, it seems to me that the evidence is inconclusive beyond concluding that he drank on occasion and at times may have had a problem with alcohol. Much of what passes for interpretation beyond that tends to tell us more about the historian than anything else.

  • Matt McKeon Jun 29, 2009 @ 15:40

    “historical records aren’t infallible.”

    Neither are mental health professionals! Have you ever met some of those people? I have! Lots!

  • Crystal Marshall Jun 29, 2009 @ 15:37

    I think another larger issue at stake here is what kind of behavior is condoned for those in positions of high authority and stature. Those examining Grant’s personal life may look at the alcohol issue and demean his record and disqualify him based on that. It’s a classic case of personal life meeting public image. Compare to the recent Mark Sanford scandal. Here is a public official whose behavior is deemed out of character for his office, not to mention for his political party (and rightly so). The question is, how should those personal acts affect our judgment of their public records? Grant may have struggled with alcohol but there is no denying his brilliant military campaigns. Mark Sanford obviously messed up but has served his state well on many occasions (depending on who you talk to :0) The bottom line is, while we should not excuse certain behavior, we need to understand that humans are humans and will mess up from time to time, but that’s what grace is for.

  • dan Jun 29, 2009 @ 13:38

    Prior to the war, later CS general Patton Anderson saved Grant’s life. Grant was drunk at the time, or suffering from DTs. I have an article on this event on my blog, linked below.

    This happened sometime between 1853-1856 when both were stationed in Washington Terroritoy. It was an unpleasant time for both, but much worse for Grant. There is no question to me that at times Grant had too much to drink. This was not an uncommon issue for many pre-CW and CW officers and soldiers. Had Anderson not saved Grant’s life the case could be made that I would now be living in the Confederacy.


    • Kevin Levin Jun 29, 2009 @ 14:04


      Thanks for the comment. I don’t think anyone is debating that at times Grant had too much too drink. Thanks for the link, though I have to admit that I have little patience for most counterfactuals.

  • Charles.lovejoy Jun 29, 2009 @ 12:38

    Matt, That was in part my point. Grant’s current state of being limits his ability for a proper mental health evaluation for alcoholism so at this point its speculation. Another point historical records are not infallible.

  • matt mckeon Jun 29, 2009 @ 11:56

    Unfortunately Charles, the mental health professionals who have gone to interview Grant have found him uncommunicative in his current state. So we are forced to fall back on the historical record if we are going to consider it at all.

  • Charles Lovejoy Jun 29, 2009 @ 9:52

    Its inconclusive , Why? because only a mental health professional in that field can make that judgment. In most cases they would only make a judgment like that after meeting with the the person in question face to face for an evaluation.

  • matt mckeon Jun 29, 2009 @ 9:37

    Of course, you realize that lining up Lee and Grant’s casuality figures is statistically meaningless. The number of casualities is a function of the circumstances of the campaign as well as the decisions of the commanding general. This is not a apology for Lee: he decided to act offensively in many situations, and his army paid the price, but to urge a more insightful use of statistics.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 29, 2009 @ 9:47


      I completely agree with you. My point was simply to head off an overly simplistic generalization with an overly simplistic breakdown of numbers.

  • matt mckeon Jun 29, 2009 @ 9:30

    Historically, there are two issues:

    In studying historical figures, what emphasis should there be on their personal habits. In Grant’s case, he had a reputation of being a boozehound, and that had an slight influence on how he was perceived by his peers and superiors. I can’t think of a military or political decision of Grant’s influenced by his drinking.

  • matt mckeon Jun 29, 2009 @ 9:24

    Very snarky.

    There is a long traditon of Gen. U. S. (“Utterly Soused”) Grant, being bombed out of his mind on whiskey, beginning in his own sodden life. This little detail is an intoxicating one for our debunking generation, who feel a need to “humanize”(cut down to size) historical figures in the past. It also tickles our resurgent puritanism around sinful activities like drinkin’ and smokin’.

    A different tradition is Grant the butcher, indifferently sending human waves of cannon fodder into a malestrom of lead, grinding down the Rebs with superior numbers. Yet we don’t think of him as blearily slurring his orders to attack. They are really two different traditions.

  • James F. Epperson Jun 29, 2009 @ 9:03

    Two brief comments: Your figure of 21K CS casualties at Gettysburg is significantly lower than other estimates I have seen. The totals (109.4K for Grant, 135.2K for Lee) should be compared to the attendent results: Lee forced the surrender of a single large Federal force of about 12K men (Harper’s Ferry); Grant had three CS forces surrender to him, for a total on the order of 67K (12K at Donelson, 30K at Vicksburg, 25K at Appomattox) men captured. And, of course, that final capture essentially ended the war.

    So the question should be: Who’s the butcher? Who got thousands of men killed to no purpose?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 29, 2009 @ 9:18


      I pulled the figures off of Wikipedia. I know it’s not the most reliable source and that casualty counts are disputed for different battles/campaigns, but it was easy to do and makes the point. Please don’t be disappointed if I steer clear of the “butcher” question. It’s a pretty useless category with which to judge the generalship of Lee, Grant or anyone else for that matter.

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