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There has long been a quote attributed to President Lincoln, when he was pressed about his decision to put a potential drunkard in charge of the Union Army. Is this legend true?

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Did a Whiskey Win the Civil War?

There has long been a quote attributed to President Lincoln, when he was pressed about his decision to put a potential drunkard in charge of the Union Army. Is this legend true?

We'll look at the origins of the quote, the drinking history of Ulysses S. Grant, the quandary that Lincoln found himself in, and see if we can make a connection to Old Crow whiskey. (Be 21+) 

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.

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Transcript

King George II and the Madness of General James Wolfe

The life of young James Wolfe was a whirlwind. Son of a Lieutenant-General, he would enlist as a professional soldier in the British Army at the age of 14, and by the age of 21 his service included seven campaigns on the continent, in Ireland and in Scotland. He had attained the rank of Major and commanded the 20th Regiment, stationed at Stirling. His skill was unquestioned. His thesis on the proper use of the bayonet was adopted as the standard for tactics by the British army and his tactical theories were so well respected, they would be immortalized in the book, “General Wolfe’s Instructions to Young Officers.” 

But for all of his successes and promise, at the beginning of the Seven Years War, now Colonel Wolfe had been suffering through several bouts of illness. Having lost his brother to consumption, he became fatalistic, with a fear that he might have contracted the same deadly disease.

Maybe it was this fear of death that drove him forward, attempting to accomplish all that he could.  But it also made him look erratic. Add to this his hot temper, youthful age and appearance, and apparent lack of interest in hobnobbing with the other officers and the list of Wolfe’s detractors began to grow.   

But when it came to the battlefield, there were no doubts. Having distinguished himself during the Seven Years’ War, he pushed for aggressive action at the Battle of Rochefort, while his commanding general sat idle. Wolfe showed he was a man of action and a soldier of distinction, and he caught a very important eye, that of Prime Minister William Pitt (the Elder). With the war raging on both sides of the Atlantic, quality commanders in short supply, so Pitt earmarked Colonel Wolfe for leadership in Canada. 

Pitt’s faith in the young leader was rewarded when now Brigadier-General Wolfe along with Robert Rogers’ Rangers, lead a successful amphibious attack on Louisbourg, in New France, now modern-day Nova Scotia. 

Wolfe’s star was rising, and after another up-and-comer General Howe died in a battle at Ticonderoga, Pitt was forced to turn to his next best option for the critical campaign at the narrowing of the St. Lawrence River. The Battle of Quebec would be under the leadership of none other than 32 year old, Major-General James Wolfe. 

According to the 1786 book “Letters and Poems by the Late Mr. John Henderson...” this wasn’t a popular choice for everybody, including William Pitt’s main rival the Duke of Newcastle, who apparently went to King George II, telling him every rumor he’d heard about Wolfe, including his temper, neurosis, and restless energy, finally exclaiming, “the gentleman was by no means eligible for so important a station, being positively mad.”  

But King George, hungry to have as many aggressive generals at his disposal as possible, is said to have replied, “Mad, is he? ...before he sets out I wish to my God he would bite some of my (other) Generals, and make them mad too!”

Major-General Wolfe would go on to become the most revered British military man of his era. At the Battle of Quebec, he and his men scaled the impossibly steep cliffs of the Plains of Abraham, completely taking the French by surprise. The maneuver would rank as one of the greatest military tactics ever undertaken. But unfortunate for him and the British Empire, General Wolfe would succumb to wounds that he sustained during the battle. But the victory would help England end France’s reign in Atlantic Canada. And would forever mark the young General Wolfe as a legend. 

The story of the conversation between the Duke of Newcastle and King George II isn’t widely mentioned in history books, possibly because it may be more anecdotal that actual fact. Neither of the men involved were alive / when the tale was finally spun three decades later. But to lovers of history it was a fun and humorous story, that was well worth passing down. 

And as you will discover in today's episode, whiskey would find its own humorous anecdote, when a war weary president would be forced to defend an accused drunkard, as his choice for the head of the Union army. 

Lincoln’s General Predicament 

How did President Lincoln get into this predicament? Many thought the North had the men, the industry, and the weapons to easily win a war against the South. Many thought, as they did with World War I, that the war would be a quick one, over in 90 days, some speculated. But wars are not fought on paper, they are fought on battlefields with Generals, tactics, iron wills, and agendas. 

And finding the right General for the Union that must have ranked as one of President Lincoln’s most frustrating problems. And his first choice, should have been a cautionary tale for what was about to come.

Being recalled from his post in Texas, after the Lone Star state seceded from the Union, Robert E. Lee headed to Washington D.C., where President Lincoln asked him to put down the rebellion in the South as the head of the Union army. And while Lee was opposed to secession, he was not in favor of marching through his beloved home state of Virginia as an aggressor. So he declined. Within weeks Virginia voted to secede from the Union and Robert E. Lee would choose to defend his home state as the head of the Confederate army - it was there that he would firmly plant himself, as a thorn in Lincoln’s side.  

Next choice for the President, General Irvin McDowell. But McDowell was a supply officer, not a field commander. And it would be a Herculean task to have an army ready in such a short amount of time. And McDowell over complicated plans caused his superior forces to be crushed at Manassas.  

Next up was General George B. McClellan. To McClellan’s credit, his ability to organize and prepare an army was exactly what the Union’s forces needed. But while he did yomen’s work getting them prepared, he never wanted to use them. After marching to within 20 miles of the Confederate capital of Richmond, he stopped advancing and ended up being outwitted and driven into Maryland. 

So out with McClellan and in with General John Pope. But another failed attempt on Richmond led to another battle at Manassas. And even with 26,000 more troops, he lost the battle and gained twice the casualties of General Robert E. Lee’s outgunned force. 

Back to McClellan for a second turn. Things looked encouraging at first, as he led the Army of the Potomac to victory over Lee at Antietam, but against Lincoln’s wishes, he let Lee escape without pursuit.  

Next to the plate was General Ambrose Burnside, whose most lasting contribution to the world was the term “sideburns” of which he was famous for. But on the battlefield, his ineptness reared its ugly head immediately in a crushing loss at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Then it was General Joseph Hooker, who boasted about his abilities as a dictator, rather than a commander. Frustrated, Lincoln swallowed hard and put him in charge anyway. At the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia, he stalled when he had an early opportunity to take the battle, and his 133,000 men lost again to the 60,000 Confederate soldiers they opposed under Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

You could call it a comedy of errors, if all of this bumbling wasn’t leading to such an abhorrent loss of life.

Finally, it was General Lee taking decisive action, bringing the war to the North - trying to break the will of the Yankees by fighting on their turf. They reached as far as Gettysburg, PA, where Lincoln’s latest General, George Meade took the battle to the Confederates and won, but like McClellan before him, he failed to pursue and defeat Lee’s army.

Lincoln was beside himself. 

General Grant the Fighter or Drinker?

But yet, there was amazing news coming out of the West, a Union General who was winning victory after victory, taking the battle to the Confederates. 

Ulysses S. Grant was an unlikely hero at the inception of the war between the states. When the first shots rang out at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, he was in Galena, Illinois working as a clerk in his father’s leather goods store. 

Army life had been both good and bad to him. When he was appointed to West Point, he was a reluctant soldier who worried about his academic abilities and was concerned about the mundane lifestyle. But he soon grew to like the Army and graduated from West Point 21st in his class of 39. 

He was immediately engaged to Julia Dent, the sister of a classmate, but marriage would have to wait. He was called into duty for the U.S. Army as a quartermaster in the Mexican-American War. But soon his ability with horses would lead him into victories and subsequent accolades from his commanders. 

Things were looking up for Grant. He returned home after the war and married.  

But post-war times weren’t kind to him. He was sent on a lonely assignment to upstate New York without being able to take his wife, then off to Detroit, then Panama, Oregon Territory and finally a lonely California outpost in the middle of nowhere. 

For Grant, lonely times brought on melancholy, depression, and then drinking. The drinking became so frustrating that Colonel Grant ended up resigning his post in the Army, although he would always claim that it wasn’t drunkenness that forced his decision. 

But the drinking didn’t follow him home. Even with a failing farm, he seemed happy and content with Julia at his side.

When Lincoln called for troops at the inception of the Civil War, U.S. Grant stood up, ready to fight. He figured his past rank and experience would earn him a high rank, but instead, he was unceremoniasly excluded from the army by General George B. McClellan. To pass the time, Grant spent his time assisting the Illinois state militia. A year later Lincoln called for an additional 300,000 troops and Grant was reinstated into the Federal army as a Brigadier General under the commander of the Army of the West, John C. Fremont. 

Like Lincoln’s other generals, Fremont had a knack for not attacking the enemy. When Lincoln dismissed him for his inaction, Grant seized the moment and won victories at the Battle of Belmont, the Battle of Fort Henry, and the Battle of Fort Donelson. All was headed in the right direction, until Grants tactics came into question during the carnage at the Battle of Shiloh. It was a victory, but a costly one, and it was suggested that Grant may have been drinking during the heavy loss of life and that he should be removed. Lincoln was reported to say, "I can't spare this man, he fights!"

His next action was a siege at Vicksburg. This critical area, if won over by the Union, would put control of the mighty Mississippi River in the hands of the Union and would serve to split the South in two. Grant and his army starved out the population over 6 months, and on July 4th, Confederate General Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg to Grant. Just one day after Meade’s victory at Gettysburg. 

Grant was a hero and he was quickly gaining favor with the masses. And Lincoln and Congress were making waves about bestowing on Grant, the title of Lieutenant General of the Army, a title not held as a permanent rank, since George Washington in 1798.

This prospect sent a chill down some people’s spines. Unlike the arguments of temperament and inexperience that General Wolfe encountered, it was Grant’s reputation as an out of control drinker, that had more than a few people concerned. 

But was Grant really an alcohol abuser like some people were suggesting? Or was this more fable. Taking a few instances and making a mountain out of a molehill, simply to keep the General out of such a powerful position?

An Analysis of Ulysses S. Grant's Drinking History

Ulysses S. Grant’s father Jesse Grant was no fan of the bottle. Ulysses grandfather Noah had abandoned Jesse after having uncontrollable fits of alcoholism after his second wife passed away. And part of the reason young Ulysses was sent to West Point was to help him get on a successful life path, so alcohol wouldn’t be as strong a temptation. 

But West Point and the army were sure to bring some passing acquaintances with alcohol. But if Grant imbibed during this time, no one seemed very concerned.

It wasn’t until Sacket’s Harbor in Upstate New York that Grant himself becomes concerned with with his level of drinking and turns to the Sons of Temperance vowing to pursue a life of abstinence.

But when he went to Detroit, he lost his support network, and out of loneliness, he started drinking again. One night, while passing a storefront, he slipped on the ice and hurt his leg. Grant took the store owner to court and won. But in the court case, the store owner suggested that maybe soldiers wouldn’t slip, if they’d stay sober.

After Detroit, he was transferred to Panama. On the way, he roomed with the steamship’s captain J. Finley Schenck, Who noticed that Grant kept sneaking out in the evening to raid the liquor cabinet.

Then he was on to Fort Vancouver, and here he would meet future General George B. McClellan. During his time at Fort Vancouver, he was apparently openly intoxicated several times in front of the other officers, including McClellan. In this instance, Grant may have picked the wrong man to flout his alcohol abuse in front of. Since it would be McClellan who would make it so hard for him to achieve reinstatement at the beginning of the Civil War. His lack of judgment in who he chose to drink in front of, may also explain the strength of the rumor mill around his drinking.

But his next post was one of his worst. Fort Humbolt, California. He had been paired with Lieutenant Colonel Buchanan, a man he already had an on-going feud with. Buchanan suggested that Grant was drinking heavily on a regular basis and during one particular bender Buchanan put him on report for drunkenness / and told Grant to write a letter of resignation and to keep it in a safe place. And upon his next bender, Buchanan made Grant sign the letter.

Lincoln's Quote

So during the Civil War was it reality, jealousy, or simple politics that led to the increasing rumors of Grant’s drunkenness?

What a lot of people don’t know is, he actually had a shadow during his campaigns by the name of Major John Rawlins, who made it his duty to keep Grant sober. In fact, no one reported seeing Grant drink at Shiloh.

Only at Vicksburg, during the long 6-month siege, was the abuse of alcohol so great as to warrant concern, but again it was inaction, not action that seemed to bring it on.

Still, the General’s reputation left himself exposed and while Lincoln was considering him for higher posts, there were sure to be those that would do anything to keep him from attaining any higher rank / in the Union Army.

In the heat of the debate about the general’s future, on September 23, 1863, the New York Herald reported: 

“a committee of abolition war managers waited upon the President / and demanded the General’s removal, / on the false charge that he was a whiskey drinker, and little better than a common drunkard. ‘Ah!’ exclaimed Honest Old Abe, ‘you surprise me, gentlemen. But can you tell me / where he gets his whiskey?’ ‘We cannot, Mr. President. But why do you desire to know?’ ‘Because, if I can only find out, I will send a barrel of this wonderful whiskey to every general in the army.’

Sound familiar? This quote was right out of King George II’s playbook.  

The writing style, where they refer to “Honest Old Abe” makes this particular quote feel a little tongue in cheek. Or maybe the Herald reporter was writing satire?

Whether truth, fable, or satire - the story gained traction, as the October 30th edition of the New York Times wrote a slightly altered quote, “if he could find out what brand of whisky Grant drank, he would send a barrel of it to all the other commanders.”

And that version of the quote found its way into several other newspapers across the country. 

This quote has carried on down the ages, and has taken on some clever additions, including naming Old Crow as the whiskey that Grant favored. The quote itself, certainly sounds in character with something President Lincoln would say.

However, in a book called “The Military Telegraph During The Civil War, Volume 2,” a telegraph operator Major Thomas Eckhart says he asked Lincoln about the quote, and Lincoln acknowledged he’d heard the quote, and said he wished he had said the words, but that it was most likely only “charged to him to give it currency.”  And then he went on to tell him of the quote from King George II about General James Wolfe.

So Lincoln apparently knew the source of the possible paraphrasing. But it sounds like Lincoln never really said this humorous quote / that has always been attributed to him.

A Podcast Episode Goes Sideways

When I started researching this episode, I was so excited to be building a story around General Ulysses S. Grant and his love for Old Crow whiskey, and how it was that love for Old Crow that President Abraham Lincoln unknowingly pointed to / as a possible fuel source, and secret weapon in winning the war.

But sadly even the Old Crow connection to General Grant is questionable.

Yes, Old Crow was one of the most trusted names for quality whiskey in the 19th Century, but there isn’t a single quote or photo of the General, that I can find, relating to Old Crow whiskey or some kind of faithfulness to the brand. And bottling of a single distillery’s product wasn’t prevalent before or during the war. Most likely he got his whiskey from barrels or bottles that were on hand and filled with whatever whiskey was available. Something tells me an enterprising employee of Old Crow may have started this connection, or perhaps it was just guilt by association, with a very popular and readily available brand being tacked onto the story. 

The thing I found fascinating about this story, is how the more I would dig into it, the more I would have to start doubting sources that in the past would have been beyond reproach. My rule of finding a second source to corraberate fact seems to fall a little flat, when a major newspaper alters another paper’s quote, that might simply have been tongue in cheek satire. It definitely makes the jobs of history hunters a bit more difficult.

Yes. There is a thin thread of possibility that Lincoln said the quote, and who knows, maybe he just forgot. He was kind of busy in those days. But until some further evidence comes along, it will have to remain a fun story, not a fact.

And as for me, I guess I’ll have to be satisfied that, while I wasn’t able to put a war winning whiskey in General Grant’s hands, I think we gained a deeper appreciation for how legends grow and develop over time. And while we may never find the real answers to some very popular whiskey anecdotes, chasing down these rabbit holes is a lot of fun.

I’m Drew Hannush and This is Whiskey Lore