Grant’s Poisoned Chalice
Bloggers really are a shameless bunch, snatching an idea from one of their colleagues, and running off on a new tangent with it.
Keith Harris, who blogs at Cosmic America, got the ball rolling this time by posting a video clip of Grant author Joan Waugh, discussing the persistent rumors of drunkenness that swirled around Grant throughout the war and after. Waugh’s own position on the subject is not entirely clear, but she describes the sort of “default” position taken by many historians — that his drinking didn’t interfere with his abilities “when it counted,” — and follows up by explaining that she admonishes her students to be “mature about judging our presidents and other leaders,” recognizing their human foibles, and asking rhetorically whether Lincoln, after suffering through a series of failed Union generals, would “appoint a raging drunk to lead the Union army?”
Professor Brooks D. Simpson, himself a Grant biographer, takes strong exception to the notion that Grant only drank when nothing much was going on. He outlines three specific occasions when Grant had what appears to have had serious alcohol-related incidents when engaged in active military operations, one of which — a fall from his horse at New Orleans in October 1863 — put him effectively out of action for weeks. “When you are a general in command of an army,” Simpson writes, “something important is always going on, and it would be bad business for a general to assume a lull in the fighting to relax before being surprised. Think Shiloh.”
Simpson doesn’t discuss Grant’s drinking at Chattanooga, but it was attested by Ambrose Bierce, at the time a staff officer under General William Babcock Hazen. Bierce thought well of Grant, but as Simpson himself noted in a 2007 piece for the Ambrose Bierce Project, the writer chafed mightily at the fatuous accolades and near-deification of the man that followed Grant’s death in July 1885. Among the things that stirred Bierce’s ire — and it didn’t take much, truly — were the general’s eulogists who built complex rationalizations around his imbibing or, worse, averred he never touched the bottle. A few months after Grant’s passing, Bierce set out his own, utterly unapologetic perspective on the subject:
For my part, I know of nothing in great military or civic abilities incompatible with a love of strong drink, nor any reason to suppose that a true patriot may not have the misfortune to be dissipated. Alexander the Great was a drunkard, and died of it. Webster was as often drunk as sober. The instances are numberless. When the nation’s admiration of Grant, who was really an admirable soldier, shall have accomplished its fermentation and purged itself of toadyism, men of taste will not be ashamed to set it before their guests at a feast of reason. . . .
My own observation – take it for what it is worth – is that it was some time afterward. As late as the battle of Mission[ary] Ridge (November 25,1863) it was my privilege to be close to him for six or seven hours, on Orchard Knob – him and his staff and a variable group of other general and staff officers, including Thomas, Granger, Sheridan, Wood and Hazen. They looked upon the wine when it was red, these tall fellows – they bit glass. The poisoned chalice went about and about. Some of them did not kiss the dragon; my recollection is that Grant commonly did. I don’t think he took enough to comfort the enemy- not more than I did myself from another bottle but I was all the time afraid he would, which was ungenerous, for he did not appear at all afraid I would. This confidence touched me deeply.
Many times since then I have read with pleasure and approval the warmest praises of Grant’s total abstinence from some of the gentlemen then and there present.
Such virtues as we have
Our piety doth grace the gods withal.
These gentlemen were themselves total abstainers from the truth.
One wonders whether, 125 years after his death, the fermentation of Grant’s legacy in this regard is even yet accomplished. Not quite yet, for some.
Bierce excerpt from David J. Klooster and Russell Duncan, eds., Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce (University of Massachusetts, 2002). Image: Chromolithograph of a painting by Thure de Thulstrup, “Battle of Chattanooga” (depicting the Battle of Missionary Ridge) of the Chattanooga Campaign. Library of Congress.