‘Grant’ on History channel: Was Ulysses S Grant an alcoholic as portrayed in Leonardo DiCaprio's docuseries?
An admirable four-star general and the 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S Grant was a man of his words who rose to unimaginable heights and saved the nation not once, but twice. But, very few people know who he really was.
Born into a humble family of abolitionists, he was called many things — from a war hero to a bloody butcher and a reluctant politician — but it is his way of looking at adversities that made him stand out from the rest. “In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten. Then he who continues the attack wins,” he once said.
Following the turmoil of Andrew Johnson's administration, Grant guided the nation through the post-Civil War era, oversaw Reconstruction of the South and enforced freedom for millions of African-American citizens. But during a brief period in his life, he was marred by melancholia after marriage. He fell in love with Julia Dent in 1844 and after the Grants were married in August 1848, Ulysses was back in the Army. Julia gave birth to sons, Frederick Dent Grant in May of 1850 and Ulysses Simpson Grant in 1852.
The husband and wife were separated for a long time and Grant couldn't handle staying away from her. To deal with the demons of his mind, he began drinking. The History docuseries reveals how he would sit in a corner and take chugs of whiskey or bourbon. If the documentary is to be believed, he was intoxicated while off-duty and was asked to choose either: either to resign or stand in lieu of a court martial.
He resigned in 1854 and was free to return East to his wife and boys. Troubled times lay ahead for the family but Grant did his best to put food on the table. As the country fell apart, Grant bounced from job to job, at one point selling firewood on the streets to buy food for his family. Southerners fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861 and at that crucial time, Grant took command of the Illinois troops and led 15,000 men into battle at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, and trapped the Confederates. President Abraham Lincoln promoted him to major general from Brigadier General. After battling those tough times, he resorted to drinking again as the monotony of the battles affected his mind.
But, could those brief times of drinking make him a raging alcoholic? Or did he really lose his consciousness after heavy drinking in those times? What is the truth behind his story?
A report published on October 30, 1863, in the New York Times said: “When someone charged Gen. Grant, in the President’s hearing, with drinking too much liquor, Mr. Lincoln, recalling Gen. Grant’s successes, said that if he could find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank, he would send a barrel of it to all the other commanders.” Later, however, Lincoln denied saying it. But, the bestselling book by Ron Chernow, 'Grant', highlights his drinking problem. “Liquor seemed a virulent poison to him, and yet he had a fierce desire for it,” one military officer said. After one glass of liquor, Grant’s speech would become slurred, “and two or three would make him stupid.” But another official said Grant never drank when it might imperil his army.
There has been a bit too much confusion around his drinking habits since the very beginning. It is said that he vowed to his top aide, John Rawlins, to not drink another drop of alcohol during the war but couldn't keep the promise. A reporter for the New York Herald alleged that Grant was drunk at Shiloh but when Lincoln was asked to fire the general, he said, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” However, in a letter to his wife, Grant penned down the truth and said he was “sober as a deacon no matter what was said to the contrary.”
After his death, several stories have been exaggerated about his drinking and humorist James Thurber once wrote a popular essay called “What If Grant Were Drunk at Appomattox?” More recently, President Donald Trump used that at a rally in Ohio. After giving a cheer to the “incredible” Civil War general, he said, “He drank a little too much.”
Grant’s meteoric rise is one of the unlikeliest stories in American history. As per the official description, "It wasn’t luck, it didn’t just happen by accident and it wasn’t easy. With gritty depictions of brutal battles, risky gambles, crushing setbacks and triumphant victories, the three-night History miniseries will take viewers inside the moments that defined Grant and forever changed our nation.
The miniseries will premiere on Memorial Day and air over three consecutive nights beginning Monday, May 25 at 9 pm ET on History Channel.