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Ulysses Grant battled the bottle

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I saw Lieut. Grant. He has altered very much: he is a short thick man with a beard reaching halfway down his waist and I fear he drinks too much but don't you say a word on that subject.
-John Lowe, Grant's West Point classmate during the Mexico campaign.

The genetic component of alcoholism these days is now considered settled science. Ulysses S. Grant's father was a teetotaler but his grandfather, Noah, was not. His drinking caused him to squander a comfortable estate and leave the youngest children to be adopted by neighbors. Grant's son was arrested by George Custer for chronic drunkenness during the Black Hills expedition in 1874. 

It was during Grant's outstanding service in the Mexican War, a conflict punctuated by many long periods of inactivity and boredom, that Grant realized that he might have "a problem". After his marriage to Julia, in 1848, he was assigned as an officer at a post near Ontario. At that cold and isolated outpost he resorted to booze, but always self-aware he decided to quit altogether in 1851. He wrote Julia: "I have become convinced that there is no safety from ruin by liquor except by abstaining from it altogether." 

Grant joined the Sons of Temperance, a precursor of Alcoholic Anonymous. It didn't last; his next military assignment to the Pacific Coast would break his solemn vow. His roommate: "I would hear him once or twice, sometimes more, open the door quietly and walk softly over the floor, so as not to disturb him; then I would hear the clink of the glass and a gurgle." Grant was forced to resign. 

After his separation from the army, Grant returned to Missouri with Julia and their four children; they led a hardscrabble life. He sold firewood door-to-door and he was often compelled to borrow money from her slave-owning father, a humiliation, and he began again to resort to the bottle. But Grant's father came to his rescue; he proposed that he join his brothers' leather shop in Illinois. There he was able to pay off his debts to Julia's father and during that time it appears he was sober. Nevertheless, Grant felt unfulfilled and following Fort Sumter, he jumped at the chance to become a colonel in the 21st Illinois Volunteers. The rest is history.


Many historians assert that Grant’s penchant for binge drinking was kept in check by his teetotaler adjutant, Colonel John Rawlins, but rumors that he was intoxicated during and after battles swirled around him for most of the war. These rumors may be exaggerated, however, Grant did suffer occasional relapses although he would go cold turkey during very long periods. But a reporter from the Herald Tribune was stunned to find the General in a state of intoxication during the bloody battle of Shiloh in 1862. Also, there's strong evidence that during the siege of Vicksburg- a tedious, long drawn out affair- he occasionally fell off the wagon. (1) 

Grant was never a mean or obnoxious drunk but, in the words of the historian, Ron Chernow, liquor reduced him to a “babbling, childlike state", something that unnerved his lieutenants during his rare lapses while prosecuting the war. They also observed that after one glass of liquor, Grant's speech would become slurred and two or three would make him stupid. Their strong reservations about the General reached the unperturbed Lincoln who remarked  “Tell them you’re going to find out what brand he drinks, and then send a case to all your other generals." (2)  


The preponderance of evidence tells us that Grant was an alcoholic, albeit a functioning one. In the 19th century, most people drank far more than today; Americans over the age of 15 consumed on average seven gallons of alcohol — generally whiskey or hard cider — each year. (3) However, at headquarters, officers were expected to hold their liquor. Grant couldn't and he knew it, when the craving came upon him he would imbibe alone,

Today we understand that alcoholism is a disease. One of the most frustrating factors in dealing with alcoholism is it is almost always accompanied by a phenomenon known as denial—a refusal to admit the truth or reality of the condition. Grant was an exception to that rule, he was fully aware of his devil within thus his successful career may be attributed to pure will.
1- But Grant had a critical asset, his wife, Julia, who with his oldest son were often present at headquarters. With her, he stayed sober.
2- Another version: “for if it made fighting generals like Grant, I should like to get some of it for distribution.”
3- (lost link)

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He sounds llke the model for every cliche western that has a cliched drunk Cavalry CO - remember the drunken Union officer in command at the bridge assault in "The Good The Bad & The Ugly"?

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Posted (edited)

Grant joined the Sons of Temperance, a precursor of Alcoholic Anonymous.

It seems that back then it was assumed that drunkenness was a male thing. 

Re: The Civil War.

Can we agree that the Confederacy was doomed from the start and the only factors that kept it alive for four years were enthusiasm and (at first) superior commanders? And despite Lee's (or Jubal Early's) invasion of the North, interior lines.

Edited by Childress
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1 hour ago, Childress said:

Can we agree that the Confederacy was doomed from the start and the only factors that kept it alive for four years were enthusiasm and (at first) superior commanders?

They never expected a lengthy war.  Parallels with the Nazis...  Doomed if in a long term war due to economic realities and superior production and manpower of their enemies.  And also Lincoln was very worried that he could easily lose the 1864 election and an appeaser would get in and settle with the Confeds.

"The Democrats were divided between the Copperheads, who favored immediate peace with the Confederacy, and War Democrats, who supported the war. The 1864 Democratic National Convention nominated McClellan, a War Democrat, but adopted a platform advocating peace with the Confederacy..."

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  • 2 weeks later...
On 6/2/2021 at 9:00 PM, Childress said:

In the 19th century, most people drank far more than today; Americans over the age of 15 consumed on average seven gallons of alcohol — generally whiskey or hard cider — each year.

That's 31.8 litres of alcohol a year, which I thought sounded like an awful lot, but then I calculated that it actually only amounts to 15 units of alcohol a week.

Modern health recommendations in Denmark (recently lowered) recommend not drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week to stay below the low risk threshold. So it seems they didn't actually drink that much? Or am I overlooking something?

7 gallons = 31.82 litres = 3182 cl /4 = 795.5 shots of 4cl (equals one unit of alcohol) / 365 = 2.17 shots a day *7 = 15.2 units of alcohol a week.

(I'm assuming whisky back then had the same strength as today = 40 pct)

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"When Rorabaugh writes “three and a half gallons of alcohol,” he’s talking about 3.5 gallons of pure ethanol, rather than gallons of a specific spirit. To convert that into a more graspable figure, that’s 8.75 gallons of standard, 80-proof liquor per year for the average person by the time of the American revolution. A number of factors led to an explosion of alcohol consumption in the early 1800s. First, the British halted their participation in the American molasses/rum trade, objecting to its connections with slavery, while the federal government also began to tax rum in the 1790s. At the same time, the settlement of the so-called “corn belt” in the Midwest created large new supplies of corn, which was cheaper and more profitable to convert into whiskey than it was to transport great distances without spoiling. “Western farmers could make no profit shipping corn overland to eastern markets, so they distilled corn into ‘liquid assets.’ By the 1820s, whiskey sold for twenty-five cents a gallon, making it cheaper than beer, wine, coffee, tea, or milk.

In short, whiskey was extremely cheap and extremely available, and American consumption soared as a result. ...the number of distilleries in the nation increased fivefold, to 14,000 in between 1790 and 1810. He writes that “in cities it was widely understood that common workers would fail to come to work on Mondays, staying home to wrestle with the echoes and aftershocks of a weekend binge. By 1830, the tolling of a town bell at 11 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. marked ‘grog time.'"As the availability of whiskey soared, so did imbibing itself.

Even the English, no slouches in terms of consumption themselves (#25 in the world today, and 26 percent higher than the U.S.), noticed how sloppy their American cousins were getting. In English traveler Frederick Marryat’s A Diary in America, published in 1837, the writer remarks that the Americans seemingly drank for every conceivable occasion:

“I am sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink. If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink. They drink because it is hot; they drink because it is cold. If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice; if not, they drink and swear; they begin to drink early in the morning, they leave off late at night; they commence it early in life, and they continue it, until they soon drop into the grave.” – Frederick Marryat

By 1830, alcohol consumption reached its peak at a truly outlandish 7 gallons of ethanol a year per capita.  “Staggering” is the appropriate word for the consequences of this sort of drinking. In modern terms, those seven gallons are the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of a standard 80-proof liquor per person, per week—nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation, even with abstainers (and there were millions of them) factored in. Once again figuring per capita, multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you’ll have an idea of what much of the nineteenth century was like."

As if it really needs saying, 7 gallons of ethanol per year, per capita, is an insane number. Consider this: My significant other and I both drink alcohol. If we were drinking at 1830 levels, we would be plowing through roughly 3.4 standard, 750 ml bottles of Jim Beam White Label Bourbon per week, in a single household. Our livers would be sending us every conceivable manner of distress signal, assuming they didn’t immediately shut down.

So, how much do Americans drink now, in the modern world? Well, the best figure for the current American alcohol consumption rate seems to be roughly 2.42 gallons of ethanol per year, per capita—still a healthy figure, but nearly three times less per capita than in 1830."


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What a great thread! Quote Investigator looked into the alleged Lincoln quote and turned up all sorts of goodies. LOng piece, but thoroughly documented and well worth the read!


On a separate note, I feel safe in asserting that no one could top Winston Churchill when it came to incredible alcohol consumption daily coupled with equally incredible high functioning. Here's an analysis from one Scott Alexander on Quora. The analysis concludes Churchill consumed almost twice as much in a day as the NHS recommended for a week!


, former Volunteer Coordinator at Volunteer Edinburgh (2014-2017)
Updated 3 years ago · Author has 64 answers and 184.2K answer views

He was very likely a high-functioning alcoholic, judging by his daily intake.

Churchill, like most Prime Ministers, had a fairly rigid daily routine that he stuck to as closely as possible. The reason for this is fairly straightforward, as PM he had to make hundreds of decisions (most of which were quite important ones too) every day, as well as react to events pretty much as they occurred. In such a situation, it’s quite possible for you to be too busy thinking about how to respond to the latest inelligence report to decide what you want for breakfast, and if you aren’t careful you’ll be running behind schedule before the morning newspapers arrive. This is a phenomenon called decision fatigue, where the more decisions you make in quick succession, the poorer their quality gets. In a job as serious and stressful as running a country, it’s important to eliminate as many unnecessary decisions as possible from the day to day routine, so you don’t waste precious brain power on things that are irrelevant in the bigger picture.

In Churchill’s case, he rather famously took this to extremes, which often made him look quite eccentric - for example, when asked by the White House Butler what he wanted for breakfast each morning, he asked for the same thing to be served every day - a tumbler of sherry waiting for him when he woke; followed by a breakfast of fruit, orange juice, a pot of tea, “something hot” and “something cold” when he was ready. It’s rather telling that he had little concern for the food (provided the quantity was sufficient) but had very clear opinions on what drinks should be served. His drinking followed a fairly regular schedule, with specific drinks at particular intervals throughout the day:

  • 7:30am - the aforementioned glass of sherry when he woke.
  • Around 10–11am - whisky (Johnny Walker preferred) and soda, mixed very weak to begin (only about a thimbleful of whisky in the bottom of the tumbler) but topped up over the course of the morning (and likely getting progressively stronger) until shortly before lunch.
  • 1pm - Churchill would drink a pint of champagne (Pol Roger by preference) with his lunch (usually 3–4 courses) or claret, if champagne wasn’t available. He would often finish his meal with a digestif of brandy (90-year old cognac was his preference).
  • 3:30pm - 5pm - more whisky and soda, to the same method as above, in advance of his daily siesta.
  • 6:30pm - he would awaken to more whisky and soda while he got ready for dinner.
  • 8pm - dinner (nearly always with company) usually meant an aperitif of sherry, with wines paired to each course, or champagne as a default fallback, followed by a digestif of brandy or port.
  • 10pm - after dinner, he would usually enjoy drinks with his dinner guests - typically the same port or brandy enjoyed at the and of the meal.
  • 2am - one last glass of cognac as a nightcap before bed.

Looking at the above list then, in a typical day, Churchill might consume:

  • 2 glasses of sherry = 1.8 units
  • 4–5 shots of whisky = 4 units
  • 2 pints of champagne or equivalent wine = 13.5 units
  • 3 glasses of brandy = 4 units
  • 2 glasses of port = 1.8 units
  • Total = 25.1 units

That’s almost DOUBLE the recommended maximum WEEKLY intake according to the NHS (14 units). With a daily intake that high sustained for such a long period, he was almost certainly an alcoholic.

But the question wasn’t about what he drank (which is something the questioner presumably already knew) but how he continued to function in spite of such a high intake. There are a few reasons for this, and the timetable above is relevant to it - but first we need to discuss the nature of alcoholism.

Alcoholism is a physical addiction to alcohol - this is different to many other commonly cited addictions that are psychological in nature, e.g. gambling or sugar. Alcoholism results in significant, measurable changes to the body’s biochemistry, an alcoholic’s body literally becomes dependent on a regular alcohol intake to function. Withdrawal symptoms can be extremely serious, including depression, anxiety, irritability, tremors, sweating, nausea, poor coordination, hallucinations and even seizures. Meanwhile, as with most physical addictions, the body’s ability to filter out and process the drug improves over time, meaning that increasingly higher doses are needed to obtain the same positive effects from ingestion - this is what leads most alcoholics to continue drinking more and more until they either stop drinking, get hospitalised or die.

Churchill’s solution seems to have been quite basic - it is the same kind of approach taken by smokers who are attempting to quit. You see, the biggest problem with any kind of drug dependency is that the withdrawal symptoms are generally so severe they can incapacitate you, and leave you unable to function normally. However, for most long-term addicts, the dose required to feel the drugs effects is also high enough to severely incapacitate due to the negative physiological side-effects of the drug. When people are trying to quit, then, they need to be slowly weaned off the drug, with enough of the drug in their system to prevent the side-effects from being too bad, but without reaching a sufficiently high level to feel the high either. This is the basic idea behind nicotine patches, which help smokers to quit by releasing a steady, low-level supply of nicotine into the bloodstream. This isn’t supposed to be sufficient to deliver the “hit” that smoking a cigarette would, but instead keep just enough nicotine in the bloodstream to stave off the withdrawal symptoms. The idea is that the addict starts off with a higher level of the drug and slowly reduces it over time, allowing their body to slowly adjust to lower levels of the drug being present in their system.

Looking back to Churchill’s routine then, we can see that he mostly spaced out his drinking evenly throughout the day, with higher levels accompanying meals and before bed. This is pretty much the kind of thing you would see from a smoker using the “patch and inhaler” method for quitting. The whisky and soda is the patch - providing a constant low background level of alcohol to keep him from experiencing withdrawal symptoms, and higher levels with meals to counter the effect of food, which can delay the introduction of alcohol into the bloodstream by absorbing it in the stomach. This constant supply over the course of the day would have continuously supplied his body with alcohol at least as quickly as his liver was able to process it, thus keeping any withdrawal symptoms at bay. The only time he’d have been likely to feel the effects of alcohol withdrawal would have been immediately after waking, as his body would likely have been able to purge most of the alcohol out of bloodstream overnight. This explains his insistence on taking a sherry first thing in the morning before breakfast (i.e. on an empty stomach) to get a quick burst of alcohol and stave off any negative withdrawal symptoms.

This explains the lack of withdrawal symptoms, but what about the opposite problem - why wasn’t he drunk all of the time? Surely most people with that level of alcohol intake would be completely soused?

Actually, the only reason we might regard his intake as being particularly high is because we generally lack any frame of reference. Nowadays we’re used to the idea of consuming alcohol in single sittings, but this is a fairly modern concept. Historically, the idea of going out on a Friday or Saturday night and drinking half your bodyweight in alcoholic drinks would have seemed simply barbaric and uncivilised. Alcohol was popularised in Europe as it was generally safer to drink than most water supplies, and it was cheap and easy to produce pretty much anywhere in the continent. It was often much less concentrated than it is nowadays, and was served with almost every meal, as well as being consumed between meals too. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the importance of sanitation became fully understood, and reliable clean water supplies became widespread, that the traditional approach to alcohol consumption began to decline, and it began to be seen more as something pleasant to be enjoyed in its own right, akin to smoking, rather than a normal part of daily life. Churchill’s life straddled the boundary between these times - for him, alcohol would have been present in his life from an early age, but already by then it was no longer the necessity it once was. He would certainly have been no stranger to the idea that controlled drinking throughout the day was less likely to result in drunkenness, which would have been seen as irresponsible and foolish behaviour, if not quite as socially stigmatised as it has become nowadays. Indeed Churchill was once famously accused by Bessie Braddock of being drunk in the House of Commons, inviting his infamous reply “Bessie, you are ugly. But tomorrow I will be sober, and you will still be ugly.”

So Churchill’s drinking wasn’t always sufficient to keep him sober, but equally, it was rarely copious enough for him to be thoroughly drunk. Between the increased tolerance he no doubt had due to his high consumption, and the fact that he spread his drinking out so evenly throughout the day, it’s unlikely that he was routinely drinking enough to be impaired. In fact, in a rather amusing account, a Telegraph columnist by the name of Harry Wallop once tried to emulate his drinking[1], but surrendered by 9:30pm, concluding that “I wasn’t roaringly drunk at all, but I was feeling queasy.” So it is quite probable that after a lifetime of maintaining this routine, Churchill actually felt considerably more able to function with his daily intake than he did while sober. Certainly there are accounts that he gave up drinking at various times in his life - mainly to prove to himself and others that he could - although accounts vary as to how successful he was at this.

So yes - he was likely a high-functioning alcoholic, meaning that by all outward appearances, he functioned better with alcohol than he would have without it: although I doubt the same could be said for his liver.

EDIT (12/02/18): having read some of the other answers and comments, I think there’s also an important distinction to be made here between a “drunkard” and an “alcoholic”. A drunkard is a person who drinks too much, either as a one-off, or out of habit, generally to the point of inebriation (“drunkenness”). An alcoholic is a person who has a physical addiction to alcohol. Many drunkards are alcoholics - but not all of them. Similarly, many alcoholics are drunkards - but not all. In fact, I would be very surprised if there was more than a 50% overlap between these two groups. Someone who drinks solely to get drunk is certainly a drunkard, but if they only do it once a month and have no addiction to alcohol (i.e. don’t experience symptoms of withdrawal throughout the remainder of each month) then they are clearly not an alcoholic.

A high-functioning alcoholic, almost by definition, will generally have coping mechanisms in place that avoid drunkenness as much as possible, due to its negative social connotations. The stereotypical image of the red-nosed sot with a mostly empty bottle in hand just doesn’t apply to these people -it isn’t who they are, and it undermines our understanding of what’s really going on with them. Churchill was almost certainly not a habitual drunkard - like many he enjoyed being tipsy in good company now and then, but for the most part he controlled his drinking in a way that ensured it wasn’t noticeable to those who didn’t see him with a glass in his hand. There was almost certainly a degree of myth-building around him too - he knew that a rumour that he could drink like a fish wouldn’t harm his reputation provided he took care not to appear drunk in public (saving the Commons apparently, although PMQ’s does tend to have an air of last orders on a Saturday night about it). However, even a “light” day usually saw him consuming more than the current NHS recommended weekly maximums, meaning he was almost certainly an alcoholic - it’s simply incredible to think that couldn’t have developed a dependency with so high an intake.

High-functioning alcoholics aren’t actually that uncommon, as the body can adapt to the higher background levels of blood alcohol easily enough, provided the person in question doesn’t go straight from being teetotal to consuming their recommended weekly maximum every single day. The problem is the unseen damage that slowly builds up. Just because someone isn’t drinking enough to make them drunk, doesn’t mean that they are fine either. Leaving aside cancer and pulmonary risk factors which steadily increase over time, cirrhosis of the liver can take decades to reach the point where it begins having an adverse effect on the rest of the body, largely due to the liver’s amazing degree of redundancy and resilience compared to most of our organs (although considering one of its main purposes is to clean random toxins out of our blood as quickly as possible, this is probably an essential evolution). This is a double-edged sword though, as it means that by the time problems begin to emerge, the organ can be on the verge of complete failure. As a result, high-functioning alcoholics can be at greater risk, as the very coping strategies that help them to hide the severity of their problem from others can make it harder to reach them in order to provide the targeted help they desperately need.


John Kettler

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U.S. Grant may have been an alcoholic, but pretty much every man in the mid 19th century was by today's standards.

Certainly, Grant was known to drink a lot, certainly in the late 1850s when his life was not going well and he was reduced to being a clerk in a store. However, it is presumed that a lot of the stories about him being drunk during the Civil War were pushed by his rivals or politicians who wanted him replaced.

Various historians have looked into this and the consensus seems to be that Grant generally did not drink while on a campaign, except on rare occasions.

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Posted (edited)

Grant was 5'8, 2 inches above the average height of the time, and during the war, his weight was a svelte 130lbs. However, he was physically powerful; while working for his father-in-law in Galena neighbors were stunned to watch him toss 100lb burlap bags onto a wagon. Some other interesting factoids:
*He was not especially studious at West Point and read a lot of novels available to him in the library. It was said of him that he never read a lesson over more than twice and did not actually "study" it. He excelled in mathematics.
*In the heat of battle, when his staff officers were full of anxiety, Grant calmly smoked his cigar and never lost his composure. His nerves of steel were a wonder to all around him. He could write dispatches while shells burst around him and never flinch. 
*Grant was very thin during the war, weighing only one hundred and thirty-five pounds. He was a very sparse eater. He abhorred red meat of any kind, and the sight of blood made him ill.
*He had a superstition of retracing his steps.
*Grant did not believe in holding formal councils of war. He felt that they "divided a responsibility that would at times prevent a unity of action." He listened to the advice of his staff, and then, upon reflection, made the final decision himself. No one knew of his decision until it was put into effect.
*Grant was tone deaf and could not recognize any of the light airs of the time; military music was especially annoying to him.
*During his lifetime General Grant suffered intense migraine headaches which were sometimes reported as bouts of drunkenness.
*Reticence has long been associated with Ulysses Grant. Although he was an avid listener, in the relaxed company of friends, he could actually be a raconteur.

Edited by Childress
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