The Bottle and Grant

A post from Dr. Brooks Simpson a few days back addressed the topic of General U.S. Grant and alcohol.  Simpson takes on the line that Grant controlled his drinking habits, as some would contend, by confining the liberty to times when “it didn’t matter.”

I don’t put much weight behind the “drunkenness”  arguments made over the years with regard to Grant – particularly the oft repeated line that Grant’s generalship came from the bottle.  It is easy for a person to gain a reputation, and twice as hard to overcome it.  And the notion that a top general in the Union army, or any army, was so deluded by an addiction as to impair his ability just doesn’t pass the sniff test [points for a double entendre there!].  Personally I’m inclined to leave the sordid details of Grant’s drinking to the Kitty Kelley school of biography.

But the serious point that Simpson makes is worth discussion.  General Grant DID drink while in command and he DID drink at times when that intake might have effected his performance.  Indeed, Simpson provides three examples and alludes to a fourth (which blogger Andy Hall discussed later).  But so what?

Certainly Grant is not the only great historical figure to sip from the “poisoned chalice” while on the stage.  Another “drinker” we often read about is Sir Winston Churchill.

Back in college days, I had the great honor of escorting Sir Martin Gilbert around our school for a day.*  Dr. Gilbert, many will note, is the official Churchill biographer.  At that time in my studies, I was deeply involved with a thesis paper centered on the activities of the British War Cabinet in 1940 after the fall of France.  Only a fool would not take advantage of the opportunity to ask a few questions.  And questions I did ask.

One was in regard to Churchill’s well known drinking habits.  Specifically if the consumption of strong beverages might have impacted the Prime Minster’s behavior during the late night cabinet meetings.  Dr. Gilbert remarked, “the historian should take care to avoid speculations.  He must know the circumstances and particulars before considering such path and not be quick to conclusions.”  Lesson learned.

Years later I had cause to reflect back on those words while on duty in Iraq.  I was “hitching a ride” out of a helo-pad en-route to a work site.  While I was there, a convoy including a very senior Army officer arrived and prepared to board their helicopter.  As the general stepped from his vehicle, he tripped out of the door.  Indeed he fell so hard the injury left him on crutches for a few days.  Now, the general had just returned from a meeting at a particular coalition partner’s force headquarters.  That partner nation is well known for offering wine at even the suggestion of a meeting.  (U.S. personnel are – or at least were at that time – prohibited from consuming alcoholic beverages in the war zone except under certain circumstances.  Social interaction with partner nations was among the accepted circumstances.)

Ever looking at things through the historian’s lens, I thought to myself about a “hypothetical dear diary” entry.  Imagine if I were to pull a Sylvanus Cadwallader with that situation?  The surface facts certainly fit nicely.  And what if some later day historian were to pick up my account as a first hand view of the incident?  Might make the talk show rounds…. He would that is, as I’d be long gone by that time!

Under that purely hypothetical “dear diary” scenario, any historian exercising even a small amount of professionalism SHOULD next turn to other sources.  When did the meeting take place?  Who was at the meeting?  What did they record?  Did the general show other behavior anomalies?  (And pause here and let me STRESS that I am not in anyway contending ANYONE that day was intoxicated.  I’m playing out a hypothetical here – what might have happened should someone record the event with either a jaundiced eye or less than complete understanding of the context I had.)

There is not a doubt in my mind that under my hypothetical case, the historian would soon discover some contradictory “facts.”  Such as: the general in question had a lingering, long-term ankle injury that factored into, and was aggravated by, the fall;  or that the partner nation had earlier recognized the US policy and tempered their custom with low alcohol red wine and grape juice;  or that the general proceeded from that meeting directly into another command briefing, without interruption or pause.  Because, as Simpson points out, “The fact is that when you are general-in-chief there is no lull in the fighting, because somewhere someone’s fighting.”

And speaking of that fighting, doesn’t that make the “nouns” and “verbs” of what the general said more important to the historian?  As we’ve been told a few times, “there’s nothing so much like God on earth as a general on a battlefield.”  Three sheets to the wind or otherwise, orders are orders, right?  So we’d do well to focus on the discussions in those meetings instead of musing over the potency of the nectar served at lunch.

So where does that leave us with that bottle and General Grant?  Maybe Grant did drink while in command.  But before someone convinces me Grant’s leadership was inspired (or tempered) by the bottle, I’ll ask them to grab a time machine and a breathalyzer.

My point?  Well again, for a historian to step down the path to conclude someone was drunk… or sick…. or having a heart attack (Lee … Gettysburg?)… or having a bad hair day… then the historian should consider all the evidence and angles.  And no, I am not saying Dr. Simpson did otherwise.  Rather that by offering the short version of three incidents, he has reminded us that the fixation on Grant’s bottle has taken attention away from larger discussion of Grant’s actions.

Anyone care to join me in a toast to that?

  • A plug for my alma mater here:  Westminster College, where Churchill gave the famous “iron curtain speech” hosts the Winston Churchill Memorial and Library.  Holdings there along with those managed by the college library represent the most extensive collection of Churchill papers outside of England.