An alcoholic Ulysses S. Grant resigns his commission

Many modern authors attempt to make a case for General Grant’s sobriety. But, in a general minimization of Grant’s drinking, William C. Davis’ new book, Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee—The War They Fought, The Peace They Forged, goes so far as to deny the accounts that he abused alcohol or was forced out of the pre-war army, while serving on the Pacific coast in the early 1850s. Strangely, this is the one time in his career about which a number of Grant’s supportive modern biographers agree that he drank heavily. Davis bases his conclusion on the lack of contemporaneous evidence from that period, but he goes much further in contending that, “this is all based on a considerable array of mythology.”

To the contrary, even some of Grant’s friends admitted that: “He drank considerably there,” he “fell into dissipated habits,” he would perhaps “go on two or three sprees a year,” he “used to go on long sprees,” “Grant drank considerably,” and “Grant was drunk on pay day.” In a second-hand account, Grant himself confessed: “When I was on the coast I got in a depressed condition and got to drinking.” His friend, John Eaton, remembered: “Grant referred to the vice of intemperance” which “had not a little to do with his decision to resign.”

Seemingly, Davis makes one good point that Grant’s actual resignation letter cannot be the one mentioned as having been drawn up and held over his head by Colonel Buchanan because of a date in the text. A discarded version of the resignation with a different addressee, however, quoted in Irvine’s History of Humboldt County, California, with biographical sketches of the leading men and women, could resolve Davis’ conundrum. Perhaps Grant dated this letter, previously composed after Grant’s earlier alcoholic abuses, but then replaced it with a newer one once Buchanan reached the breaking point.

Davis also claims that a 25-year gap exists between the earliest mention of Grant’s western drinking (an obviously wrong third-hand story from 1863 which Davis advances just to shoot it down) and the next such example. Instead, John Sedgwick told an officer in March 1864 that “he was very favorably impressed with Grant, for when he last saw him . . . he was drunken & dirty to the last extreme. This was in the Mexican War, & afterwards he had to resign on account of delirium tremens, & used to beg a quarter of a friend, boring them to death.” At the same time, Charles Wainwright’s diary entry mentioned Grant’s early career in the army, when “he was only distinguished for the mediocrity of his mind, his great good nature, and his insatiable love of whiskey.” Just before writing a very sympathetic biography of Grant, Albert D. Richardson asserted in books published in 1865 and 1867 that, “Years before [Shiloh], Grant was intemperate; but he had abandoned the habit soon after the beginning of the war,” and that Oregon pioneers recalled: “His life was commonplace and unnoticeable. He was a reticent, undemonstrative, unambitious officer, habitually addicted to conviviality.”

And in numerous accounts written after Grant’s death in 1885, the most believable testimony is quite conclusive that Grant resigned his officer’s commission as a direct result of his alcoholism.

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