Lords of the Drinks

Ulysses S. Grant, a drunken fighting machine from American history

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The famous American general Ulysses S. Grant.

Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) is one of the most legendary figures in the history of the United States of America. As a general he basically won the American Civil War for the Union against the Confederacy. Later Grant would become the 18th president of the United States. While historians rank him as one of the worst American presidents ever, his military achievements are quite impressive. Just as impressive was his legacy as a heavy drinker. Grant was many times labeled as an alcoholic, although he usually didn’t need ‘Dutch courage’ in battle. When there were no wars to be fought, Grant had just one hobby to keephim from getting bored: drinking.

Even in the 19th century when everyone drank beer and whisky instead of water, Ulysses S. Grant gained the reputation of an alcoholic. However this was also partly gossip by rival officers. In the Mexican-American War between 1846 and 1848 Grant often hit the bottle but only in the quiet times, when both troups and officers were bored. In fact he gained a splendid military reputation in those years and he was looking forward to a bright career. However in the peace times that followed Grant got extremely bored and picked up heavy drinking as a full time hobby. It even got to the point where Grant himself got worried and joined the Sons of Temperance, a kind of elite AA group.

In his next army post Detroit Grant started the great military tradition of getting smashed again. Soon the accusations started that Grant drunk too much. Especially when he filed charges against a local storekeeper Zachariah Chandler, after Grant slipped and felt on the icy sidewalk in front of the store. Chandler’s reply: “If you soldiers would keep sober, perhaps you would not fall on people’s pavement and hurt your legs.”

Grant served the army in several other places and never tried to hide his drinking habbits. In 1854 he was basically forced to  leave the army after his superior Robert Buchanan saw Grant in the morning was still intoxicated after a night of heavy boozing. Buchanan already disliked Grant after a quarrel over a bottle of wine some years ago. When the Civil War started in 1861 Grant offered his services as an officer again, but because of his reputation as a drunk it took quite long before anyone gave him a chance.

In the end Grant was appointed colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry Regiment, a known problem unit. However Grant brought back discipline and the 21st became a decent fighting force. Grant soon got promoted to the rank of brigadier general. From that moment on more victories and promotions would follow fast. With Grant’s star rapidly rising, so did his reputation as a major drunkard, mostly thanks to other jealous officers and reporters who were hot for a juicy story.

Grant’s biographer Geoffrey Perret described the situation in these words: “The entire staff, as well as most of Grant’s division and corps commanders, was well aware of his drinking problem. Brigadier General John A. McClernand tried to make capital out of it and one or two other officers expressed their disgust at Grant’s weakness, but to the rest, it did not matter. A few were alcoholics themselves, but the main reason it was tolerated was that when Grant got drunk, it was invariably during quiet periods. His drinking was not allowed to jeopardize operations. It was a release, but a controlled one, like the ignition of a gas flare above a high-pressure oil well.”

Historian James McPherson added: “In the end his predisposition to alcoholism may have made him a better general. His struggle for self-discipline enabled him to understand and discipline others; the humiliation of prewar failures gave him a quiet humility that was conspicuously absent from so many generals with a reputation to protect; because Grant had nowhere to go but up, he could act with more boldness and decision than commanders who dared not risk failure.”

Also famous is a quote by the 16th American president Abraham Lincoln, when critics of Grant came to complain about the general’s alcohol intake. “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”

Micky Bumbar

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