Five myths about Ulysses S. Grant

John Reeves
10 min readFeb 2, 2020

John Reeves is the author of A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.

Ulysses S. Grant

Later, there would be false rumors of drinking and accusations of incompetence. When the Rebels attacked early that Sunday morning on April 6, 1862, they found the Union troops under Major General Ulysses S. Grant unprepared. Somehow Grant, who wasn’t on the battlefield during the initial attack, miraculously avoided what appeared to be a certain defeat. Despite winning a hard fought victory, Grant was lucky he wasn’t cashiered by his superiors after the bloody Battle of Shiloh, which one historian described as “the first great and terrible battle of the Civil War.”

Grant’s performance at Shiloh is a perfect illustration of the difficulties in assessing the man. He seemed to be unforgivably caught by surprise during the first day of the battle. Rumors circulated that drunkenness explained his absence from the battlefield that crucial morning. And yet, his calm leadership during the day and his determination later that night to carry on the next morning allowed the Union to prevail in the end.

Grant’s dear friend and loyal comrade, William Tecumseh Sherman, who was also at Shiloh, later said, “Grant’s whole character was a mystery even to himself — a combination of strength and weakness not paralleled by any of who I have read in Ancient or Modern History.” Like Robert E. Lee, many myths surround the remarkable career and legacy of Ulysses S. Grant, the general-in-chief of all Union armies and later president of the United States for two terms. Here are five of them.

1. Myth NO. 1

Grant was a butcher.

Americans were shocked and horrified by the slaughter that occurred during Grant’s Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864. The grim tally for Union casualties during the first eight days of the campaign, from May 5 through May 12, came to over 30,000 making it the costliest stretch of the entire war. From May 5 to June 15, the Union suffered almost 60,000 casualties. The carnage at Cold Harbor, where the Union lost roughly 3,500 men in an hour, was especially terrible. Referring to Grant, Mary Lincoln said, “He is a butcher and is not fit to be at the head of an army.”

Some of Grant’s commanders expressed similar concerns. After Cold Harbor, Brigadier General Emory Upton told his sister, “I am disgusted with the generalship displayed. Our men have, in many cases, been foolishly and wantonly slaughtered.” The commander of the Fifth Corps, Major General Gouverneur Warren, expressed his disgust regarding Grant’s leadership several weeks later in a letter to his wife, “If there were no limit to the number of men we could continually waste in battle I might be more hopeful. But we have been so senselessly ordered to assault intrenchments that the enemy suffer little in comparison with us and may outlast us.” Harshly criticizing Grant specifically, Warren wrote, “To sit unconcerned on a log away from the battlefield, whittling, to be a man on horseback or smoking a cigar seems to exhaust the admiration of the country, and if this is really just, then Nero fiddling over burning Rome was sublime…And then disregarding the useless slaughter of thousands of noblest soldiers, the country grows jubilant, and watches the smoke wreathes from Grant’s cigar as if they saw therefrom a way to propitiate a God.”

Grant was sensitive to such criticism. He once told a friend, “They call me a butcher, but do you know I sometimes could hardly bring myself to give an order of battle? When I contemplated the death and misery that were sure to follow, I stood appalled.” In his Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, he wrote of Cold Harbor, “I always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.” To the charge that Grant was an unimaginative commander, the esteemed historian Bruce Catton noted, “The legend of Grant as the heedless, conscienceless butcher finds nothing to feed on in the story of the Vicksburg campaign.”

The characterization of Grant as a butcher was eagerly embraced by proponents of the Lost Cause tradition. A central tenet of that view of the Civil War was that the Union only triumphed as a result of having an inexhaustible supply of men and matérial. In his memoirs, Grant challenged that interpretation. Mistakenly, he believed that Lee had similar numbers of troops in 1864. He also pointed out that Lee was on the defensive in friendly territory for the last year of the war.

Grant’s best defense, however, was his discussion, in an official memorandum, of his strategy for defeating the Rebels. He knew that America needed to end the bloody war as quickly as possible. He proposed pressing the Confederate armies on all fronts “to prevent the possibility of repose for refitting and producing the necessary supplies for carrying on resistance.” For Grant, the key to victory would be “to hammer continuously at the Armed force of the enemy, and his resources, until by mere attrition, if in no other way, there should be nothing left to him but an equal submission with the loyal section of our common country to the universal law of the land.” Grant seemed to grasp the grim arithmetic that was necessary to win the Civil War. That didn’t make him a butcher. It made him a realist.

Grant on the day after the Battle of the Wilderness

2. Myth NO. 2

Grant was a drunkard.

Rumors about Grant’s drinking were widespread throughout his life. One newspaper reporter claimed Grant was drunk at Shiloh. Another reporter wrote of a drunken spree by Grant during the Vicksburg campaign. Shortly after Grant became general-in-chief of the Union Army, the beloved Major Henry Livermore Abbott wrote his mother, “Uncle John[Sedgwick] said 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. He is to accompany us on the Spring Campaign for a while & then go to the other armies.”

The biographer Ron Chernow believes that Grant was an alcoholic. In his best-selling biography of Grant, Chernow writes that, “Grant was an alcoholic with an astonishingly consistent pattern of drinking, recognized by friend and foe alike: a solitary binge drinker who would not touch a drop of alcohol, then succumb at three- or four-month intervals, usually on the road…Grant managed to attain mastery over alcohol in the long haul, a feat as impressive as any of his wartime victories.” One critic of Chernow believes this is overstating the case, and notes, “Most Grant historians — myself included — would argue that Grant DID drink and that he may have drank to excess at times. But we would caution that describing Grant as an alcoholic or a drunkard is an exaggeration of the limited historical evidence we have to make such a conclusion.”

It’s true that the evidence is spotty. There was a lot of shame surrounding alcohol abuse back then, so many of the accounts are second or third hand. The Fort Humboldt experience in 1854, in which Captain Grant resigned his commission, is a good example. We still don’t know all the details of what happened. Grant’s close friend, Rufus Ingalls, said, “Captain Grant, finding himself in dreary surroundings, without his family, and with but little to occupy his attention, fell into dissipated habits, and was found, one day, too much under the influence of liquor to properly perform his duties. For this offense Colonel Buchanan demanded that he should resign or stand trial.” Grant resigned. Most likely, Grant was a binge drinker, who would go on the occasional spree when he had too much time on his hands. Insiders believed his Chief of Staff, John Rawlins, played a key role in keeping Grant sober.

Perhaps Grant’s close friend Sherman characterized Grant’s drinking best. After yet another rumor after Grant’s death, Sherman wrote to a fellow officer, “We all knew at the time that Genl Grant would occasionally drink too much — He always encouraged me to talk to him frankly of this & other things and I always noticed that he could with an hours sleep wake up perfectly sober & bright — and when anything was pending he was invariably abstinent of drink.” Sherman concluded by saying, “The good he did lives after him — let his small weaknesses lie buried with his bones…”

Grant and John Rawlins (seated)

3. Myth NO. 3

Grant was corrupt.

One legacy of the Grant administration is its corruption. The Whiskey Ring was a famous example of the self-dealing that seemed to surround President Grant. After his presidency, Grant also became involved with a fraudulent financial firm that went bust and wiped out all its investors. Despite Grant’s reputation for honesty, some observers wondered if he had been aware of these schemes.

During the investigation of the Whiskey Ring in 1875, 350 government officials were arrested. Whiskey distillers and distributors had been bribing tax agents in return for lax oversight. One of Grant’s close friends and lieutenants during the war, Orville Babcock, was implicated in the fraud. Grant most likely didn’t receive cash from the scheme, but he did appear to lie on behalf of Babcock.

After his presidency, Grant became a silent partner in the firm, Grant & Ward. In this case the “Grant” stood for his son, Buck. The mastermind behind the fraud was a sociopath named Ferdinand Ward. He overextended himself and the firm went bust. Humiliated, Grant lost everything. In the end the firm owed investors $16,792,647 and held only $68,174.30 in assets.

Is it possible that Grant could have been so naïve about the activities of Grant & Ward? A former Treasury Secretary said Grant went “into a business for which he had not fitness, and with a man of no repute.” The main culprit, Ferdinand Ward, seemed to exonerate Grant, “He knew nothing. He took my word. He had the same information the customers had — and he had the same happiness, while it lasted.”

It’s highly unlikely that Grant was personally corrupt. It does seem odd that he enjoyed the wealth from Grant & Ward without understanding the underlying business, however. And in the case of Babcock, Grant seemed willing to bend the rules, even if it was for the noble purpose of protecting a friend.

4. Myth NO. 4

Grant was a bad president.

In 2014, U.S. News found that Ulysses S. Grant was considered the seventh-worst president in American history. His administration was known for its corruption, which is mentioned above. Henry Adams, the grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of President John Adams, wrote of Grant, “That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called — and should actually and truly be — the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous…The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”

The assessment of the Grant presidency has been improving of late. Currently, U.S. News has Grant as the 22nd best out of the 43 presidents that were considered. Ron Chernow, who surely has helped Grant rise in the rankings, believes the Grant presidency has been unfairly treated by historians. For example, he points to Grant’s admirable record in defending the civil rights of the freed people. In a review of Chernow’s book in the New York Times, former President Bill Clinton noted Grant’s championing of the 15th Amendment and his fight against an early version of the Ku Klux Klan. Writing in the more conservative National Review, the historian Allen Guelzo describes Grant as “the president who suppressed the menace of the Ku Klux Klan, won reparations from Britain for damages caused by Confederate raiders built in England (setting international precedent on neutrality laws), and reduced both taxes and the national debt after the war.” Grant was obviously a much more effective leader than indicated by Henry Adams’ portrait. Yet, he also lacked the vision and communication skills of a Lincoln or an FDR. Grant’s current position in the middle of the rankings is probably just about right.

5. Myth NO. 5

Grant broke down in tears after the Battle of the Wilderness.

After two days of murderous fighting at the Wilderness, an extremely tired Ulysses S. Grant entered his tent to get some much needed sleep. Years later, General James Wilson, a friend of Grant’s who wasn’t at headquarters at the time, wrote that “both Rawlins and Bowers concurred in the statement that Grant went into his tent, and throwing himself face downward on his cot, gave way to the greatest emotion, but without uttering any word of doubt or discouragement.” Rawlins and Bowers, according to Wilson, “had never before seen him so deeply moved as upon that occasion, and that not till it became apparent that the enemy was not pressing his advantage did he entirely recover his perfect composure.” Ron Chernow, in his widely read biography of Grant, includes Wilson’s account of that evening.

Horace Porter, who was actually at headquarters at the time, saw it differently. He reported that Grant threw himself down on his cot and fell asleep right away. Chernow elegantly suggests that both accounts are true, but Wilson, in a biography of John Rawlins, clearly challenged Porter’s description.

I suspect Porter was right. From everything we know about Grant, it seems unlikely he broke down in tears after the Battle of the Wilderness. Grant would have known that Lee couldn’t do too much damage in the darkness. He would also have known that Lee had launched his main assault on Grant’s left flank in the late afternoon, so he wouldn’t have had enough troops to take advantage of the momentary breakthrough on the right. There was a scare at headquarters that evening, but General George Meade and General Andrew Humphreys were confident the matter was under control.

My sense is that Wilson was helping to create a myth about Grant as the fearless warrior who also showed great emotion after a terrible battle. Grant’s friends and colleagues knew their chief was viewed as a “butcher” and perhaps Wilson’s story was meant to counter that perception. After the second day of fighting at the Wilderness, Grant didn’t quite know the extent of his losses and felt Lee had been badly bloodied. Grant probably slept soundly that evening. In the morning, he’d begin preparations for a night march to Spotsylvania Court House.

John Reeves

Author of “A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.”