Ulysses Grant’s Intoxication on the Yazoo River—the Contemporary Evidence 7 comments

While the siege of Vicksburg progressed, on June 6, 1863, Major-General Ulysses S. Grant embarked for a boat trip up the Yazoo River to Satartia, Mississippi. Union troops from there and just inland were retreating south along the river. His chief-of-staff, John Rawlins, had written a letter to Grant early that morning. Rawlins thought that Grant had been drinking the night before, and “the lack of your usual promptness of decision and clearness in expressing yourself in writing tended to confirm my suspicions.” On the cruise upriver with Charles A. Dana, a representative of the War Department, Dana described Grant “getting as stupidly drunk as the immortal nature of man would allow.” Another of Grant’s friendly acquaintances, correspondent Sylvanus Cadwallader, was already upriver on the transport Diligent. He was heading downstream when he met Grant, who then moved over to Diligent, although Dana denied that this happened. Grant had been “drinking heavily,” Cadwallader described, and shortly became “stupid in speech and staggering in gait.”

Contemporary evidence provided by the Union naval flotilla on the Yazoo confirms the start of Cadwallader’s narrative. The log book for the gunboat U.S.S. Linden revealed that Diligent was on the Yazoo above Satartia that morning before Grant had embarked at Haynes’ Bluff forty-five miles below. The log for Lieutenant Commander John G. Walker’s gunboat, U.S.S. Rattler, indicated that it tied up next to Diligent and U.S.S. Baron de Kalb at 6:30 p.m. U.S.S. Forest Rose and then U.S.S. Linden joined them fifteen minutes later. Dana recalled meeting Walker’s gunboat flotilla two miles below Satartia, but Grant “was not in a condition to conduct an intelligent conversation,” and Dana left him in bed. Cadwallader remembered meeting Grant’s boat around 7:30 p.m. and, after Grant and his cavalry escort boarded Diligent, heading upstream to Satartia before turning back. The log for U.S.S. Linden has Diligent passing downstream at 8:30 p.m. Cadwallader’s newspaper, the Chicago Times, printed a dispatch (assuredly from him) datelined “Satartia, on the Yazoo River,” at 10 p.m. that night: “All the transports are below now, and gunboats are moving slowly down covering the retreat.” Demonstrating his knowledge, at the very least, of Grant’s whereabouts that evening, Cadwallader’s message concluded: “Gen. Grant arrived at dark, expecting to find Gen. Kimball here, and returned immediately. Affairs are culminating.” Cadwallader recalled that Diligent “tied up once for a short time till the moon rose,” which it did at 11:15 p.m. After waking up sober on the morning of June 7th, Grant went at it again, Cadwallader alleged, and got “quite as much intoxicated as the day before.” The most important piece of contemporary evidence on this subject came from one of Grant’s protégés on his staff, James H. Wilson, who entered “Genl. G. intoxicated!” in his diary for June 7th.

Another piece of contemporary evidence derived from Charles Dana, who wrote from Haynes’ Bluff on June 7th about “approaching to within two miles of Satartia last evening.” Dana seemingly implied, however, that he did not descend the river on the same boat as Grant, as the “Gunboats were also coming down and General Grant returned here with them.” If so, he would have had no way of knowing whether Grant was with Cadwallader and whether Grant continued his binge. At Haynes’ Bluff, where gunboats and transports ended up by morning, Grant had sobered up, according to both Dana and Cadwallader. Dana soon left on a patrol to find the retreating troops, so he couldn’t see what Grant did afterward. Cadwallader, after shepherding the drunken Grant back to headquarters, explained to chief-of-staff Rawlins what had happened. Cadwallader became a de facto member of Grant’s staff and Grant’s favorite—and much favored—newspaper correspondent from then through the end of the war and beyond.

Further contemporary evidence of his inebriation lay in the dearth of Grant’s communications after embarking on June 6th and all through June 7th. Other confirmation of this episode came from correspondent Franc Wilkie, who likewise reported on the campaign. Two days before the binge, from the Union lines around Vicksburg, he composed an article lionizing Grant and many of his subordinate officers. After the war, Wilkie provided an account of the Yazoo incident similar to Cadwallader’s, from whom he must have gotten at least part of it, and he concluded: “These are facts from which one can draw an inference as to why the correspondent at once took a front place.” Dr. Edward Kittoe was a physician from Galena, Illinois, who started as the surgeon for Grant’s hometown regiment and served on Sherman’s staff at the time of this episode. In 1887, when Henry Van Ness Boynton published Rawlins’ June 6th letter as one of four instances of Grant’s “yielding to his old habits,” Dr. Kittoe endorsed these statements as “founded entirely on facts.” While defending Grant, Charles Dana noted that Boynton’s article proved “beyond possibility of dispute that Gen Grant sometimes got drunk when employed in important military duties.” James Wilson later wrote Cadwallader: “I have heard the Satartia story substantially as you tell it, many a time from Charles A. Dana, who was along, and also from Wm. M. Dunn who was also with you, or got his knowledge of what took place from someone who was.”

Dana’s later assertion that Cadwallader was not along on the return trip downriver is the only insoluble impediment to a general agreement of the various sources, as Dana contended that Grant did not switch boats, but stayed on the same one back to Haynes’ Bluff. Maybe Dana was asleep or in his own cabin after the boat reversed course near Satartia and didn’t notice anything else until morning. Due to Dana’s denial, various academic historians and others defending Grant’s sobriety have accused Cadwallader of fabricating this account of binge-drinking (and after impeaching Cadwallader’s account, some even turn around and use it to establish Grant’s return to headquarters at midnight, as they try to cast doubt on the date of James Wilson’s diary entry). Ida Tarbell, the ghostwriter of Charles Dana’s posthumously published Recollections, changed Grant’s drunkenness on the Yazoo to illness, allowing the defenders to question the original account Dana published while still alive. Despite the absence of witnesses vouching for Grant’s temperance during this trip, these historians have somehow concluded that Grant’s binge has been disproved. That’s just bad history.

Dr. Kittoe had also related how “Grant was addicted to the use of strong drink during the early years of the war.” Other alcoholic episodes over the four-year course of the conflict helped to corroborate this conclusion. And on the Yazoo River, the evidence from three individuals, supplemented by primary source materials dated June 6th to June 8th, clearly shows that Grant had been on a binge.

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7 thoughts on “Ulysses Grant’s Intoxication on the Yazoo River—the Contemporary Evidence

  • Mike Maxwell


    One thing I’ve come to realize when discussing U.S. Grant and his drinking, is there is a vocal element of Civil War enthusiasts who strongly subscribe to a belief that Grant never drank; therefore Grant did not have a problem with alcohol, and could not be an alcoholic. That said, my own belief: Grant had a problem; but he realized he had a problem, and took measures to rein it in. Evident in Sackett’s Harbor, where he helped found a chapter of the Sons of Temperance. And apparent during the Civil War, where John Rawlins appeared to act as Julia-in-her-absence, to keep the General on the wagon.

    With the incident described above near the Yazoo River, there is another component that occurred a few days earlier, involving Grant’s aide, LtCol William Duff, native of Scotland. Witnesses reported seeing General Grant approach Duff for a ladle of what they assumed was water, scooped from a small rainwater cask. On closer examination, the contents proved to be whisky. I believe this was just one of many occasions where Grant ‘fell off the wagon,’ but was somehow able to dry himself out again, and minimize the fallout.

  • Phil Leigh

    Thanks the analysis.

    In overall context, however, why was Grant going to Satartia and from whom were the Union troops retreating?
    I have had the impression that if Grant did get drunk during the trip it was because he had time to kill during the siege and Satartia was something of a vacation. If, however, Union troops were retreating in the vicinity the retreat implies there was a military danger. What was the military situation?

    • Joseph Rose Post author

      There certainly was a military situation in early June, not only up the Yazoo, but across the Mississippi, where Confederate forces were readying to attack Milliken’s Bend and Young’s point. The stated reason for Grant’s excursion up the Yazoo River on the morning of June 6th was certainly to check on the operations around Satartia and Mechanicsburg under Kimball. This officer on June 5th stated that, “I leave to-day for Haynes’ Bluff.” That made a trip of inspection somewhat questionable, as the evacuation should have been (and actually was) complete before Grant could have arrived at Satartia.

      The reason for Grant’s drinking can only be supposed. As Rawlins thought that Grant had been drinking the night before, this may have been the continuation of a binge. Or, Grant may have disliked Rawlins’ lecture and just decided to escape headquarters. On the other hand, Grant may well have started out with a purely military reason for the trip, but he then fell into drinking, which would have been more easily done in a relatively empty boat (while Osband’s cavalry escort and Charles Dana could have been considered friends or confidants of Grant).

      The defenders of Grant’s sobriety also don’t seem to take notice of the lack of Grant’s communications after leaving on this excursion. In the middle of a siege, while the force that he’s purportedly investigating is retreating and there are indications of an enemy advance across the river (and ignoring the day-to-day correspondence of the Department of the Tennessee and its corresponding Army).

    • Mike Maxwell

      Well worth reading the OR Series 36 (Vicksburg, part 1) pp. 86-101 and Papers of US Grant, vol 8, pp. 155-330 [and for ANYONE who still doubts that General Grant drank during the war, read Papers vol 8 pages 322-332.]

      Worth remembering that in late May 1863, US Grant had a lot on his plate: a difficult campaign in vicinity of Jackson, Mississippi was resolved in Grant’s favor with the May 14th Battle of Jackson (after which there appears to have been a ‘celebration’); an attempt had been made against the works at Vicksburg on May 22, that did not go well; Grant held MGen McClernand accountable for the lack of success on the 22nd (due poor reports he sent IRT two CSA positions ‘taken,’ that were not) and debated WHAT to do with his ‘loose cannon’ McClernand; Grant was concerned about CSA General Joe Johnston amassing a strong force nearby, between Yazoo City and Canton, and rumored poised for attack to lift the siege at Vicksburg once 40,000 troops in ranks; Mechanicsburg and Satartia were out in vicinity of Johnston’s build-up, and Grant had difficulty getting timely reports about that activity from General J.A. Mower; Grant had attempted to get reinforcements for his Vicksburg Campaign from General Nathaniel Banks, but was unable… he relied on nearly 20,000 troops provided by General Hurlbut, based at Memphis, but now realized that Memphis could be threatened if Hurlbut did not maintain close surveillance of CSA activity nearby…

      And on June 4th, Grant received word that one of the divisions sent south by Hurlbut (commanded by General Kimball) had gotten caught up in an action against Johnston’s force near Mechanicsburg, and after initial success, had retreated. It makes sense that Grant would take a steamer up the Yazoo, and clarify the real situation. But, it also seems that Grant used the opportunity to unwind. And what Major Dana kept quiet, but confirmed years later, leaves little doubt the General ‘let loose’ for about 24 hours… then got back on the wagon.

      On June 9th, US Grant wrote to Julia, and requested she come to Vicksburg ‘as soon as possible.’ [It is a well-known fact that Grant did not drink while his wife was around.]

      • Joseph Rose Post author

        Thanks. What accounts do you have for a celebration after the Battle of Jackson (I don’t seem to have anything in particular on it)?
        Yes, my book comments that Grant wrote to Julia on June 9th, and requested she come to Vicksburg as soon as possible. I think that is highly telling or extremely coincidental. As he advanced his schedule for her arrival, that speaks to the change being related to his recent binge.

        I think that McClernand’s statements to Grant during the May 22nd assault were along the lines of, “My men are in two of the enemy’s forts.” Whatever exaggeration McClernand made concerning his progress, Grant exaggerated it even more to make McClernand look bad (although Grant also reported this, which he supposedly didn’t believe, to Washington. Grant’s replies to McClernand also reveal his tactical deficiencies. Grant told him that “McArthur advanced from Warrenton last night. He is on your left. Communicate with him, and use his forces to the best advantage.” But McArthur was much too far away to be of any use, and he had already been ordered to assault the Confederate works, as well. Then, Grant told McClernand, “McPherson is directed to send Quinby’s division to you if he cannot effect a lodgment where he is. Quinby is next to your right, and you will be aided as much by his penetrating into the enemy’s lines as by having him to support the columns you have already got.” Grant continually spread out his attacks over too long a front, and he here again thinks it better to make separate attacks, as opposed to a single stronger effort.

        • Mike Maxwell


          In Sherman’s Memoirs, on page 349, he records that he, McPherson and Grant met at the Bowman House ‘across from the State Capital building’ in the afternoon of May 14th, after taking Jackson. Numerous resources mention the ‘celebration,’ mostly in manners similar to the NPS: http://www.nps.gov/abpp/battles/ms008.htm

          In regards to Rawlin’s irritation about Grant’s involvement with alcohol near Vicksburg (letter of June 6th), Rawlin’s mentions ‘Grant accepting a glass of wine from a doctor,’ and ‘the box of wine under guard near Grant’s tent, that the General explained was for ‘celebration’ after Defeat of Vicksburg.’

          • Joseph Rose Post author

            I don’t have much material concerning the Jackson, Mississippi, celebration.

            There are many accounts of Grant’s drinking with various individuals (and their collective closeness to Grant hardly seems coincidental). Some of the potential candidates are pretty well known: Hillyer, Lagow, Riggin, Ihrie, Duff, Ingalls, Graham, et al. Apparently, William Rowley died of liver disease, and Charles Dana of cirrhosis. I wonder what other people may have joined in the fun. Dr. Kittoe seems a possibility, but I don’t know what his drinking habits were. Even Rawlins drank at times.

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