Pawn Stars and “Grant the Drunkard”

Ulysses S. Grant

I readily admit that I find the History channel’s television show Pawn Stars extremely entertaining. Most of the items brought into the shop are pretty neat and I like hearing the experts (Mark from the Clark County Museum, Rebecca from the Las Vegas Gallery of Bauman Rare Books, etc.) share their knowledge about such items. It is apparent that the staff at Gold & Silver Pawn shop–while not necessarily correct about their history at all times–appreciate it, and their show is one of only a few on History nowadays that isn’t completely devoid of historical content. That said, there are instances when the guys mess up really bad, and one recent moment in particular was quite irksome. On the episode “Santa Chum” (first aired December 17, 2012), Rick Harrison claimed that Ulysses S. Grant “drank at least a quart of whiskey a day.” Any historian of Grant will readily acknowledge that he had a relationship with alcohol and that he went over the edge at times; one preeminent Grant historian briefly described this relationship on his own blog recently. However, I have no idea where Harrison’s claim came from. In my readings of Grant I have never stumbled upon the “quart a day” claim. Even if it was true, I feel that it would be tough to completely verify.

I find the Grant drinking debate rather hackneyed, and it is unfortunate how often it came up in discussions with visitors at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. That said, I’d like to mention a few things about Grant’s drinking habits that I think all students and scholars should consider in order to create a proper context to explain these habits:

Sickness – At one point in Grant’s early years he contracted malaria, something he dealt with for the rest of his life and of which there is no curable vaccine to this day. We know that during his time in St. Louis, Grant had a particularly severe bout that prevented him from doing any farm work for a period of time due to the severe headaches and other pains that constantly plagued him. He also dealt with these severe headaches throughout the Civil War. During the war, when these headaches came about, the “medicine” frequently prescribed to Grant was whiskey.

Lightweight – The dude couldn’t handle his drinks, period. Combine that with above, and you can imagine instances when fellow soldiers perceived Grant as a drunk.

Rumors – Although Grant did drink to excess at times, some of the claims made against Grant by his contemporaries were completely unfounded. Unfortunately, such claims have become gospel to some Civil War buffs today. In early 1862, Captain William J. Kountz, determined to arrange river transportation agreements with Grant’s forces for local contractors along the Mississippi River, continually pestered Grant at his office about creating more favorable arrangements. What happened next is described by Brooks Simpson in his book Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865, page 107:

Grant, tired of Kountz’s distractions, finally took his work to [Julia Dent Grant’s] room. [John] Rawlings stepped in and ordered the captain to leave the general alone; when Kountz refused, Rawlins threw him out. Kountz retaliated by spreading stories that Grant was a drunk. The captain was picking up on rumors spread by local contractors, already upset with Grant, and by people whose trading practices had come under suspicion at Grant’s headquarters when evidence surfaced that some people were trading with the enemy.”

Another such incident took place following the battle of Fort Donelson from February 11 to 16, 1862. This battle garnered national praise for Grant, and his superior at the Department of Missouri, Henry W. Halleck, became jealous, believing he had been slighted. He called for the replacement of Grant with a general of his own choosing and demanded the powers in Washington to “give me command in the west. I ask this for Forts Henry and Donelson.” When Grant moved his forces to Nashville, Halleck wired General George McClellan that “a rumor has just reached me that since the taking of Fort Donelson General Grant has resumed his former bad habits.”

Clearly, personal jealousies and agendas dictated the views of some towards Grant.

Alcoholic Lieutenant General? – On March 2, 1864, Congress approved Grant’s promotion to Lieutenant General, making him the top commander of all United States forces. Following this promotion, Grant accompanied the Army of the Potomac (commanded by George Meade) during their Overland Campaign against Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The story from that point is well known; within a little over one year Union forces beat the Army of Northern Virginia into submission, leading to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

Those that have bought into the “quart a day” thesis have failed to realize the contradiction of their claims when seen through the context of the Overland Campaign. If Lee was really the great general that many make him out to be, one that defeated the likes of McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker (keep in mind, 20/20 hindsight), then how do you explain his losing to a drunkard? Seems that if Grant was such a bumbling fool, Lee should have made easy work of him. By uncritically subscribing to the idea of Grant as a drunkard, we unintentionally put the generalship of Lee into question as well.

I’ve had conversations with folks who essentially argue that some people who are alcoholic can still function in their jobs, relationships, etc. I’m sure that’s true for some. Yet I struggle to comprehend how an alcoholic in charge of more than one million men, arguably the largest and most powerful military in the world at that time, could successfully execute his duties. World War II General Dwight D. Eisenhower said as much in a 1945 letter to author William Brooks:

  It never seemed possible to me (and I have thought about it often during the months since December 1941) that a man who so constantly under the influence of liquor could have pursued a single course so steadfastly, could have accepted frequent failures of subordinates without losing his equilibrium, could have made numbers of close decisions which involved a nice balance between risk and advantage, and could have maintained the respect of such men as Sherman, Sheridan, Meade and, above all, President Lincoln.