Chattanooga History Column: Ulysses S. Grant, Clark B. Lagow, and the Chattanooga Bender

Chattanooga History Column: Ulysses S. Grant, Clark B. Lagow, and the Chattanooga Bender

June 25th, 2017 by Dr. Andrew Bledsoe in Opinion Columns

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on Lookout Mountain near Missionary Ridge in 1863. Four men in uniform pose near the edge of the cliff, while one sits further back on the path. The other four are, left to right, as Gen. John A. Rawlins, Gen. J.D. Webster, Col. Clark B. Lagow and Col. Willam S. Hillyer.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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Rumors about Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's drinking problems dogged him throughout the Civil War and tarnished the reputation of one of the nation's great soldiers.

So worried was the U.S. War Department about Grant's drinking that in early 1863, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton dispatched an official, Charles A. Dana, to join Grant at his Vicksburg headquarters to keep an eye on the general.

Few Americans realize that some of Grant's staff officers also waged their own battle with the bottle, causing much consternation among Union leadership.

One of those officers, Col. Clark B. Lagow, was removed from Grant's staff because of a drinking spree during the siege of Chattanooga. Lagow's troubles may have come to a head in the Scenic City, but his professional problems began months earlier.

Grant knew Lagow from his Galena, Ill., days and valued his friendship. Lagow was not much of a staff officer, however, and possessed no qualifications other than having served in Grant's first command. Lagow's early career went well enough, even meriting commendation and promotion for "courage and good conduct" at Belmont, Fort Donelson and Shiloh.

Unfortunately, the more Grant asked of Lagow, the worse things got. In October 1862, Grant sent Lagow to help explain a complicated plan for the Iuka-Corinth campaign to Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans. Lagow apparently irritated Rosecrans so much that the latter grumbled about "the spirit of mischief among the mousing politicians on Grant's staff" who intended to "get up in his mind a spirit of jealousy."

Despite this, Grant remained loyal to Lagow and continued giving his friend important assignments. In April 1863, Grant assigned Lagow to supervise a flotilla of supply vessels near Vicksburg. Lagow carried out orders, leading his craft through a ferocious Confederate bombardment but losing one boat in the process. Grant regarded Lagow's operation as a "great success" but curiously did not elaborate on Lagow's role.

Things reached a new low in May 1863, when Grant ordered Lagow to escort Confederate prisoners to Island No. 10 near Memphis. Lagow failed miserably. According to an irate garrison commander, Lagow neglected his prisoners' provisions, overloaded them onto a single riverboat and lost track of his guards.

There is no record of Grant's reaction to those complaints, but they must have left a negative impression. By July 1863, Dana believed that Grant wished to get rid of Lagow at the earliest opportunity.

The rest of Grant's officers apparently agreed. Lt. Col. James H. Wilson, another staffer, called Lagow a "rounder" and a man "with but little character and less military knowledge or useful experience," who exerted a "thoroughly bad" influence on the general.

Dana considered Lagow "a worthless, whiskey-drinking, useless fellow," and Grant's chief-of-staff Lt. Col. John A. Rawlins wanted to sack Lagow but was constrained by the general's loyalty to his friend.

Eventually, even Lagow's friendship with Grant could not redeem him. In October 1863, as Grant arrived in besieged Chattanooga, Lagow committed a series of gaffes, including getting lost, providing bad intelligence to headquarters and turning in poor performances of his duties. By early November, Dana was convinced Grant wanted to "get rid" of Lagow.

The final straw came on Nov. 14-15, 1863. William W. Smith, cousin to Grant's wife, Julia, was visiting the general's Chattanooga headquarters and witnessed "[q]uite a disgraceful party — friends of Col Lagow, stay up nearly all night playing &c." Lagow's drinking, carousing and gambling were so obnoxious that Grant himself had to break up the gathering at around 4 a.m.

Lagow's Chattanooga bender is particularly shocking given Grant's own struggles with alcohol and his absolute prohibition against drinking in his headquarters. The next morning Lagow failed to show up for breakfast and the colonel was, according to Smith, "greatly mortified at his conduct last night. Grant is much offended at him and I am fearful it will result in his removal."

Grant permitted Lagow to resign rather than be court-martialed in consideration of their prewar friendship.

That Grant tolerated Lagow for so long reflects the importance he placed on loyalty, trustworthiness and harmony among his advisers. While loyalty is admirable, Grant was willing to overlook shortcomings among his advisers and allies, sometimes to the detriment of military effectiveness.

Dr. Andrew S. Bledsoe is assistant professor of history at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn. He is the author of "Citizen-Officers: The Union and Confederate Volunteer Junior Officers Corps in the American Civil War." For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.

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