Tales of Whiskey and Ulysses S. Grant

log cabin bitters bottle and ulysses grant

By Rebecca Ruger-Wightman

Ulysses S. Grant, aside from being well-known as the general on the winning side of the Civil War and later our nation’s president, was also a well-known whiskey lover. However, Grant’s love of a full bottle was slightly different than the beachcomber’s love of a full bottle found. Apparently, his contemporaries thought his drinking habits detrimental to the Northern cause and approached then President Abraham Lincoln about it, as described in Colonel Alexander K. McClure’s 1901 Abe Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories: 

“Grant is a drunkard,” asserted powerful and influential politicians to the President at the White House time after time; “he is not himself half the time; he can’t be relied upon, it is a shame to have such a man in command of an army. 

“So Grant gets drunk, does he?” queried Lincoln, addressing himself to one of the particularly active detractors of the soldier.

“Yes, he does, and I can prove it,” was the reply.

“Well,” returned Lincoln, with the faintest suspicion of a twinkle in his eye—"you needn’t waste your time getting proof; you just find out, to oblige me, what brand of whiskey Grant drinks, because I want to send a barrel of it to each one of my generals.”

That was likely the end of discussion about the measure of Grant’s frequent imbibing, though not the only time mention of whiskey and Ulysses S. Grant wound up in the same tale. In 1875, a US special prosecutor arrested 238 people in The Great Whiskey Ring, where a large group of whiskey distillers conspired to defraud the government of millions of dollars in liquor excise taxes. Bribes, schemes, and criminality ensued, and reached all the way up to now President Grant’s own private secretary, Orville E. Babcock. Babcock was indicted as a conspirator, and it was alleged that profits from the theft of taxes padded the pockets of the Republican party and that the President had to have known of the scheme. Grant himself was subpoenaed to testify and soon Babcock was acquitted, many say in part due to Grant’s suddenly faulty memory. It was neither the first nor the last conspiracy connected to Babcock’s name.

After his acquittal, Babcock found himself appointed by Grant to the post of Inspector of Lighthouses in the South. In 1884, Babcock drowned while aboard a government schooner, delivering construction supplies.

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