Michael B. Ballard on General Grant’s Drinking Habits and the “Yazoo Bender”

The Ulysses S. Grant Association recently announced the death of Michael B. Ballard, a well-renowned Civil War historian and archivist, at the age of 70 from a massive heart attack. Dr. Ballard wrote more than a dozen books on the Civil War, including his 2005 work U.S. Grant: The Making of a General, 1861-1863, which I found to be a critical yet fair assessment of Grant’s generalship leading up to his command of U.S. forces at Vicksburg in 1862-63. Dr. Ballard wrote the following essay about Grant’s drinking habits shortly before passing away, and it’s included in the most recent Grant Association newsletter. I think it’s a succinct treatment of the topic and am sharing it here. Again, I did not write this essay. Enjoy!

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U.S. Grant’s reputation for drinking too much liquor began with his time spent on the west coast before the Civil War.  He missed his wife and children greatly and sought solace in whiskey.  His problem was that he had a low tolerance for alcohol.  Unfortunately, his reputation for drinking followed him for the rest of his career, both in the military, his presidency, and thereafter.

Almost all, if not all, the stories about various drunken states are apocryphal.  For example, the few times he had accidental falls from his horse, stories immediately circulated that he had been drunk at the time.  A well-publicized incident on a Grant boat trip up the Yazoo River during the Vicksburg siege was particularly damning, since it included a letter from his chief aide, John Rawlins, chastising Grant for drinking, seemingly on the trip.  But the letter was written before the trip and apparently based on a wine bottle seen near Grant’s tent.  Ironically, the story would not become widespread until long after the war.

Charles Dana, a representative of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who reported to Stanton from Vicksburg, was on board Grant’s boat, and he stated that Grant got ill and spent most of the trip in the boat’s cabin.  Grant did have a problem with headaches, but when he had a severe one, many jumped to the conclusion that it was a cover for drunkenness.  The boat never reached its intended destination, Sartartia, a village on the Yazoo where Union forces had been operating. Newspaperman Sylvanus Cadwallader wrote later that Grant had been in an advanced state of drunkenness during the trip, had acted wildly at Sartartia, and had been drinking copiously at a sutler’s wagon after the return to Chickasaw Bayou, the Union supply depot on the Yazoo.  Then Grant had allegedly crawled astride his horse and ridden wildly through the camps of some of his men. It is worth noting that Union soldiers who would have witnessed such a ride wrote nothing about it in their numerous diaries and letters.

Cadwallader was not on the boat, but, if he had been, surely some Union soldiers on another boat that followed Grant’s vessel back to the supply depot, would have written about it, and the sailors on the boat would likewise have left accounts.  If any did, their letters or reports have never surfaced.  William T. Sherman, Grant’s close friend, said that on occasion Grant might drink too much, but that he encouraged Sherman to keep an eye on him and caution him.  Sherman also said that, no matter how much Grant might drink, he would sleep for an hour and wake up totally sober.  This would hardly classify Grant as an alcoholic, and Dana’s description of Grant’s conduct on the boat mirrors Sherman’s description.

Cadwallader wrote his account long after Grant’s death. He and James Harrison Wilson, who had been a Grant staffer during the Vicksburg campaign, were furious when Grant’s two-volume memoirs came out, after Grant’s death, because Grant had not praised Rawlins to their satisfaction. Rawlins acted as if he was Grant’s father, and he bullied Grant about the drinking stories, probably because Rawlins’ father was a drunk.  Grant put up with much abuse from Rawlins, mainly because they were old friends, and Rawlins was a sound advisor. Cadwallader and Wilson put Rawlins on a pedestal, so they decided to bring up every story they could find about Grant’s alleged drunkenness. It was easy to seek revenge against a man who was dead.

But when Wilson saw what Cadwallader had written in a manuscript that would not be published until 1955 (Three Years with Grant), he wrote Cadwallader that he remembered no such incidents on the boat trip. Wilson contacted Dana, and Dana responded that Cadwallader had not been on the boat.  Wilson so informed Cadwallader who responded that he had not seen Dana either.  Therefore there must have been two trips.  The record is clear; there was only one trip.  Once the story was made public due to Cadwallader’s book, it became widely accepted and endorsed by many well-known historians who did not bother checking its veracity.  Lost-cause Southerners loved it, and even though it has been proven false, it is nevertheless an ingrained part of Grant mythology.  Grant would have been furious and Cadwallader disappointed that he did not live to see it in print.  But, now that it is known that the tale was intentionally concocted, perhaps someday justice will prevail.

The bottom line is that there is no evidence that any of the things Cadwallader wrote about the trip up the Yazoo, and the wild ride after the return to the landing north of Vicksburg, ever happened.

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