Why does it matter whether Ulysses S. Grant drank too much or not? After all, he won the Civil War. That should be enough to ensure Grant an honored place in American history, whatever his personal habits.
Yet, the question of Grant’s drinking has fascinated Americans since Grant’s early days in the army before the Civil War. And Grant’s drinking continues to interest historians today.
Civil War historians and Grant biographers today agree: charges that Grant was often drunk, even on duty, are false or at least exaggerated.
But those experts are divided on whether Grant had a drinking problem or not. Ron Chernow thinks that Grant was an alcoholic, whose problem habit was kept in check by those who cared for him — both his wife Julia and his Civil War aide, John Rollins, a temperance activist.
Other experts think that Chernow has given too much credence to Rollins’s own claims about how Grant drank too much and how Rollins himself stepped in to save Grant from demon rum. Historian Brooks Simpson, among others, thinks that Grant was probably never drunk during important battles.
Perhaps we’ll never know how much Grant really drank. But we do know that he suffered from another condition whose attacks can present symptoms that make it look like someone is drunk — migraine.
Evidence for Grant’s Migraine
In her memoir, Julia Grant explains that Ulysses suffered from “dreadful headaches” once every three or four weeks. She describes how she would treat him to offer relief:
I would seat him in his armchair, darken the room, call for a hot footbath with mustard, and, after bathing his feet, I would persuade him to take one of my little pills, when he would lie down and sleep; and always in an hour or two he would wake well and ready for a cigar.
Too bad that those cigars, which served as a sign of recovery from a migraine attack, would lead to Grant’s other chronic health problem, a much more serious one: the throat cancer that would lead to his death in 1885.
In his own memoir written in the months leading up to his death, Grant describes an episode from twenty years earlier that sounds like a migraine attack. It takes place during one of the most famous episodes of the war, the time just before Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia in April 1865.
Wracked by anxiety during his effort to corner Lee after the fall of Richmond and to prevent the Confederate general from fleeing Virginia and uniting with Joseph Johnston’s army in North Carolina, Grant had developed one of his severe headaches:
On the 8th [of April] I had followed the Army of the Potomac in rear of Lee. I was suffering very severely with a sick headache, and stopped at a farmhouse on the road some distance in rear of the main body of the army. I spent the night in bathing my feet in hot water and mustard, and putting mustard plasters on my wrists and the back part of my neck, hoping to be cured by morning. During the night I received Lee’s answer to my letter of the 8th, inviting an interview between the lines on the following morning . . . when the officer reached me I was still suffering with the sick headache; but the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.
Migrainer Magazine even goes on to speculate that Grant’s mood on meeting Lee the next day in the parlor of the McLean House — and the generous surrender terms that Grant offered to his defeated foe at that meeting — may both have been connected to the phase of a migraine attack that follows a headache known as “postdrome”:
Grant’s mood was oddly muted when later on that Palm Sunday he sat opposite Lee in Wilmer McLean’s parlor, drawing up the formal terms of surrender. He wrote that “… my feelings which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter were sad and depressed. I felt like anything but rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought and for which there was the least excuse.” Such emotional depletion and “flatness” is typical of the postdrome that immediately follows the headache phase of a migraine attack.
Looks Drunk but Isn’t
One in three migraineurs are affected by a series of sensory disturbances known as “aura” that occur immediately prior to an attack. According to the American Migraine Foundation,
These disturbances range from seeing sparks, bright dots, and zig zags to tingling on one side of the body or an inability to speak clearly, and usually last 20-60 minutes. Aura is of particular interest to doctors and researchers as it doesn’t affect every person with migraine, and it generally doesn’t occur during every migraine attack.
The relative rarity of aura might explain why few people recognize it as a phase of migraine, making it much more likely that observers would have mistaken migraine aura for drunkenness. Adding to the potential confusion, aura symptoms can include the “[inability] to produce the right words, slurring or mumbling words.”
The Reason for The Rumor
Accusing a fellow officer of drunkenness was a common way for ambitious officers in the US Army before the Civil War to cast aspersions on rivals for promotion, desirable postings, or other benefits bestowed by the War Department on the recommendation of superior officers.
Since the peacetime army was so small, with fewer than 20,000 men in the 1850s, positions for officers were few and competition for advancement was fierce. Just to take Grant as an example, it took ten years for him to be promoted from Brevet Second Lieutenant when he graduated West Point in 1843 to full Captain in 1853. And that includes three quick promotions that came right before, and then during, the Mexican War.
Even when the federal army ballooned to more than two million men under arms over the four years of the Civil War, generals continued to fight hard not only against the enemy on the field of battle but also against each other on the field of reputation.
It’s no surprise that Grant’s rivals inside the Union Army would be willing to repeat rumors of Grant’s drinking during the Civil War, or that political opponents would retail the same rumors after the war and during Grant’s presidency.
With help from ex-Confederates eager to spread the Lost Cause and promote its patron saint, Robert E. Lee, at the expense of his successful antagonist Grant, after the war the myth that Grant was a drunkard spread alongside the myth that he was a battlefield butcher. Both charges were easy ways to attack the reputation of a leader whom late nineteenth-century Americans placed on par with Washington and Lincoln.
And such rumormongering may have been helped by drunk-like behavior that observers noted while Grant was suffering from migraine attacks. Migraine is a serious neurological disorder that currently affects a billion people worldwide and one in ten Americans, overwhelmingly women. But some men are sufferers as well. Migraine can be debilitating in its strongest form, going beyond a headache to affect the whole body. Attacks can last for days.
Watch the video below from the American Migraine Foundation to learn more.
Thanks to Sandra Hermely for migraine background and resources.