Grant: Chattanooga and Drinking

By Sherman Fleek USMA Historian

March 21st, 2019 | News, News and Features
  Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, below left, at Lookout Mountain after the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863. Photo Courtesy of Sherman Fleek

The war was far from over in July 1863 after the surrender of Vicksburg. There were several Confederate field armies still operating in the Mississippi valley.
The Confederates under Gen. Braxton Bragg won an unexpected victory at Chickamauga, Georgia in September. Gen. William Rosecrans was relieved and Virginia-born George Thomas, who gained the name of “the Rock of Chickamauga,” took command of the Army of the Cumberland.
On Oct. 16, 1863, Grant assumed command of the Division of the Mississippi and three Union armies—his old Army of the Tennessee, the Ohio and the Cumberland. Grant was the senior officer and commander in the entire West.
Grant still reported to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington, but after all Grant’s success Halleck learned to respect Grant. Though Halleck remained a bureaucrat and self-promoter, he was in fact loyal to President Lincoln and the Union cause. Because of Rosecrans defeat at Chickamauga, Halleck ordered Grant to hasten to Chattanooga and take command of the area.
Grant arrived on Oct. 23 in great pain because weeks earlier, his horse had slipped and tumbled on top of him, badly injuring his left leg.
The Army of the Cumberland under Thomas had occupied Chattanooga, Tennessee after its defeat at Chickamauga. By early October, Bragg’s army had closed in on Chattanooga and besieged the city with the curling Tennessee River carving around the city and past the dominating landmark of Lookout Mountain south of the city.
The craggy, steep mountain rose 1,200 feet above the river valley. To the east was another mountainous feature, Missionary Ridge some 300 feet high where Bragg deployed most of his army threating to surround Thomas’s army and the city.
The Union forces had only one supply route open called the “Cracker Line,” named after the hard-track cracker the ubiquitous ration during the war. Grant saw that this one life-line was not enough, so he ordered that other routes be opened through local skirmishing, which eventually and essentially ended Bragg’s attempt to besiege Chattanooga.
Grant was able to reinforce Thomas with Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee by Nov. 14, 1863. Now Grant had the men and resources of supplies and field guns to attack.
Grant had some 73,000 troops against Bragg’s 50,000 present for duty. (Bragg had unwisely sent some 25,000 men to Knoxville, Tennessee to dislodge the Federals there.) However, the Confederates held the key terrain, especially the high features of Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain and most of the routes leading into Chattanooga. Below Missionary Ridge was a small hill, Orchard Knob, like an island in the valley floor, which the Yankees captured on Nov. 23.
The first battle erupted on Nov. 24 when about 10,000 Federals under Gen. Joseph Hooker attacked up the steep escarpment of Lookout Mountain, which was shrouded in a morning mist that lasted most of the day. The fighting was intense, and also dramatic, because soldiers fought above the cloud line. The fight became known famously as the “Battle above the Clouds.” At midnight, the Confederates withdrew down the slopes as the Federals occupied Lookout Mountain.
The next day, Nov. 25, Grant had planned the main effort with Sherman crossing the Tennessee River in the north and attacking the Confederate right on the northern point of Missionary Ridge.
Hooker meanwhile was to continue his advance against the southern end of Missionary Ridge: a classic, double envelopment. Sherman’s attack on the north flank on Tunnel Hill stalled. Grant then ordered Thomas to advance against the center of the ridge to take the lower defenses of rifle pits.
The Confederate defenses were formidable with rifle pits at the base and then a series of trenches and field guns rising to the military crest. Observing from Orchard Knob, Grant and Thomas watched as the Union lines advanced and captured the rifle pits with relative ease, then the soldiers swarmed upward toward the main slope toward the crest. The Army of the Cumberland was fighting like hell-cats to revenge their defeat earlier at Chickamauga.
On Orchard Knob Grant looked at George Thomas and asked with anger, “Who ordered those men to take that hill?” Thomas and his staff officers had no answer.
The Federal regiments and brigades attacked up Missionary Ridge. A young lieutenant with the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, took the colors from the fallen color bearer, and yelled out, “On Wisconsin!”
A young 19-year-old adjutant led the regiment through a storm of shots and shells, musketry and bayonets to the summit. He later received the Medal of Honor for his gallantry: his name was Arthur MacArthur, father of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Grant watched with encouragement as his troops carried the day and drove the Rebels away from Chattanooga, an amazing victory where weeks earlier the city was under siege, and now it was secured and the Confederate army under Braxton Bragg was routed.
With victories at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga, came accolades and praise that were unsettling for Grant. Always a humble man with a temperate demeanor, Grant was such because, at times, he was fighting his demons within.
After the Civil War a collection of myths and falsehoods, called the “Lost Cause,” permeated American culture and sometimes history. These myths were taught for so long, that the interpretation of the causes and outcomes of the Civil War and the relationship of slavery to the war has muddied the waters of truth. One myth taught that Grant was a hopeless butcher and a drunk most of the war especially during battles.
Grant was portrayed as a lucky leader who had no real qualities of generalship but was a butcher who needlessly wasted his men’s’ lives in frontal attacks like a mill grinder.
The Lost Cause imparted that Grant and the North won the war only because of vast numerical superiority and overwhelming resources.
Though the drunkard version of the Lost Cause is a false characterization of a great American general and man, Grant, however, did have a drinking problem.
Biographer Ron Chernow wrote, “This biography will contend that Grant was an alcoholic with an astonishingly consistent pattern of drinking, recognized by friend and foe alike.”
Grant probably was an alcoholic, yet it appears that Grant never allowed his addiction or weakness to interfere with his duties. He did not drink alcohol on campaigns or during any active operations.
His practice was to drink while away from his command, while traveling to or while at meeting or conference locations. During the long lulls of winter or when he was inactive and had time to think and reflect, he sometimes drank. There are few if any incidents of binge drinking and complete intoxication. Grant had great discipline and will power, but he was human.
For most of his life Julia, his wife offered guidance and support. During the war and campaigning he had several subordinate officers who watched him and guarded his secret. Chief among these was John Rawlins, one of Grant’s military secretaries.
Rawlins was the most constant and dedicated guardian of Grant’s personal life and thoughts, and his short-comings. Rawlins became a great friend and admirer of Grant, but he also confronted Grant personally on several occasions about his failures.
Yet, the label of a drunkard, a falling down inebriated derelict with no self-control, is not an accurate description of Ulysses S. Grant and his conduct.