- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2006

By the autumn of 1862, the “On to Richmond” euphoria with which the North had greeted the Civil War was gone.

Although Gen. Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North had been repulsed at Antietam, there was a growing suspicion in the North that Federal generals compared unfavorably with those of the Confederacy.

Because the bravery of Union soldiery was not in question, the explanation for Federal setbacks was perceived as being with its leadership.

It was during this period of questioning that, in Mississippi, two Union forces let an opportunity slip through their fingers. The Confederate high command was eager that no portion of Ulysses S. Grant’s army, camped along the Mississippi-Tennessee border, be allowed to reinforce Gen. Don Carlos Buell, who was confronting a Confederate army in Kentucky.

To achieve this objective, Gen. Braxton Bragg, the senior Confederate commander, ordered Gen. Sterling Price to occupy the town of Luka, Miss., which he did on Sept. 14. Learning of Price’s move, Grant ordered Gen. William S. Rosecrans to recapture the town, which he did on Sept. 19. In a small but sharp clash, the Federals inflicted double their own casualties, but the outnumbered Confederates were able to slip away to the south.

While the battle raged, a Federal force commanded by Gen. E.O.C. Ord stood nearby, but an acoustic shadow — one of several during the war — prevented him from hearing the noise of battle.

Price’s escape raised new questions about the North’s military leaders, and Grant was one target. On Sept. 28, a St. Louis lawyer named Franklin A. Dick wrote to a fellow Missourian, Attorney General Edward Bates, about Grant’s supposed drinking:

“Seeing it stated that the late attack by Rosecrans upon Price at Luka failed for want of cooperation by Genl Grant, I consider it my duty to state that General Grant was drunk in St. Louis on Friday the 26th. I did not see him myself, but Henry T. Blow met & talked with him, and stated to me that the Genl was ‘as tight as a tick.’

“Believing, as I do, that much of our ill success results from drunken officers, I intend to do my duty in reporting such crime upon their part, so that the facts may reach those who have power to apply the remedy.”

The charge against Grant was hardly a new one. His reputation as a hard drinker in the Old Army had pursued him as a wartime commander, his splendid victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson notwithstanding. After the battle at Luka, the correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial wrote, “When we contemplated that ‘drunkenness in high places’ prevented us from capturing Price … the enthusiasm of victory was cooled very much indeed.”

Rosecrans’ biographer, William Lamers, notes that hard evidence as to Grant’s condition on Sept. 19 is lacking, but that “local tradition at Luka today maintains that Grant lay drunk at the Burnsville depot while Rosecrans fought Price.”

Although Grant could go for long periods without a drink, there is little doubt that he sometimes drank to excess. Sylvanus Cadwallader, a newsman who came to know and admire Grant, has recounted an incident on a riverboat during the campaign for Vicksburg: “On the return trip … I was not long in perceiving that Grant had been drinking heavily, and that he was keeping it up. He made several trips to the bar room of the boat in a short time, and became stupid in speech and staggering in gait.”

According to Cadwallader, he tried to get one of Grant’s aides to help him get the general back to his cabin, but the unnamed aide refused. Cadwallader went on, “I then took the General in hand myself, enticed him into his stateroom … and commenced throwing bottles of whiskey … through the windows, over the guards, into the river. Grant soon ordered me out of the room but I refused to go. … As it was a very hot day and the stateroom almost suffocating, I insisted on his taking off his coat, vest, and boots, and lying down on one of the berths. After much resistance I succeeded, and soon fanned him to sleep.”

This particular incident was still in the future when Franklin Dick’s letter reached Attorney General Bates after the Battle of Luka. Bates penned a cautious endorsement, referring the letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. He noted that Dick was a lawyer of “fair standing” and was related by marriage to the influential Blair family.

Stanton probably saw the letter, although it does not bear his endorsement. Assistant Secretary of War Peter Watson referred the letter to Grant’s superior, Gen. Henry W. Halleck. In a hand that may be Halleck’s is a pencil notation, “Send copy to Genl Grant.”

Here, alas, the trail grows cold. We know that Grant penned a reply to Dick’s charge, for a footnote in the published Grant papers states that Grant replied to the charge in a letter written on Nov. 10. The records indicate that his letter reached Washington, but the letter itself has vanished.

It would be interesting to know whether Grant denied all, or whether he offered some explanation. And who removed his letter from government files?

As for the substance of Dick’s charge, the published “Papers of Ulysses S. Grant” indicate that Grant was in St. Louis on Sept. 25 but in Corinth, Miss., some 200 miles south, on the 26th. The best guess would be that Dick misstated the date of Grant’s spree — that he drank heavily on the previous day in St. Louis, but was able to travel, hangover and all, on Sept. 26.

Whatever Grant’s explanation, he would have been hard to cashier after his victories along the Mississippi. And if Grant was admonished in any way for his apparent spree in St. Louis, Cadwallader’s account of Grant’s drunkenness on the river in 1863 suggests that the general did not take any reprimand to heart.

John M. Taylor of McLean writes frequently on Civil War subjects.

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