Ulysses S. Grant wins vital Civil War battles while under the influence
Ulysses Simpson Grant was a soldier, politician and President of the United States of America. As well as being a tactical genius, both in the debating chamber and on the battlefield, he was also fond of a drink or two. The extent of his drinking is hardly up for debate. Though his enemies may well have taken every opportunity to exaggerate his love of booze, most historical records, even Grant’s own accounts, do acknowledge that he was often under the influence. What is up for debate, however, is whether his drinking actually helped him rather than hindered him. Indeed, would he have lacked the boldness to make key decisions in the American Civil War had he been completely sober?
Grant’s fondness for alcohol came despite the fact that he was born into a strict Methodist family in Ohio, 1822. After a promising start to life, graduating from West Point and then serving with distinction in the Mexican-American War, he struggled to fit into civilian life and his financial woes were the source of much discomfort. When the Civil War erupted, and he joined up again, quickly rising through the ranks, he sensed a chance to regain his prestige. Within months, Grant had made it to the rank of General, and his success at the Battle of Shiloh and then the siege of Vicksburg, which helped gain control of the Mississippi, were pivotal moments in the bloody conflict.
So what role did booze play in this? If Grant were around today, he would undoubtedly be classed as a âhigh functioning alcoholic’. More than this, alcohol, Abraham Lincoln himself noted, actually made Grant “a better field commander”. Driven on by his past failures and knowing he had nothing to lose, he was the boldest general of the whole war, taking risks others would never have dared to consider. At the same time, he was also a ruthless disciplinarian. While he hated his own lack of self-discipline, he expected more of others and so Grant’s army became extremely professional and well-drilled.
According to the historian James McPherson, all this came to a head at Vicksburg. Fired up after a bender, Grant decided to attack hard and fast. He refused to wait for more supplies of ammunition or medical necessities and, when the initial attack proved unsuccessful, he decided to lay siege to the town instead. In the end, his boldness won out, even if Grant himself skipped two days of the siege to join friends and enjoy a marathon whiskey binge down by the banks of the River Yazoo.
By all accounts, however, while Grant embraced the bottle during his time in charge of the battlefield, he reined it in upon entering the White House. Indeed, according to the great man’s biographers, he took the role of President very seriously indeed and there are no accounts of him being recklessly drunk while in office – and, given the number of enemies he had, both political and real, it’s safe to say that any indiscretion would have been gleefully seized upon at the time.