Grant’s Wild Ride

Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding Federal occupation forces at Vicksburg, Mississippi, planned a meeting with Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding Federal occupation forces at New Orleans, to discuss future strategy in the region. Grant started down the Mississippi River on September 2, stopping briefly to inspect Federal forces at Natchez. As Grant’s vessel continued to New Orleans, Confederate guerrillas fired on an accompanying boat and wounded three.  

Grant arrived at New Orleans that night and checked into the St. Charles Hotel. A large crowd of soldiers and civilians soon gathered outside to meet the famous conqueror of Fort Donelson and Vicksburg. The crowd serenaded him and demanded that he speak, but as usual, Grant declined; one of his staff officers thanked the people on his behalf and told them, “General Grant never speaks in public.” Notably, the two people who moderated Grant’s drinking–his wife Julia and his chief of staff John A. Rawlins–did not join him on this trip. 

Maj-Gen N.P. Banks | Image Credit:

Banks, also known for his drinking, picked Grant up in a carriage the next day and took him on a tour of New Orleans. At one point, Grant took the reins of the “two spanking bays” and speeded out into the city suburbs at such a pace that the carriages following them could not keep up. Banks hosted an extravagant banquet for Grant that night, which may or may not have involved either or both Banks and Grant hitting the bottle. According to the New Orleans Era:  

“By far the grandest affair of the kind that ever took place in New Orleans was the levee of General Grant at the residence of General Banks last evening. For hours streams of people poured through the spacious parlors. Grant received the ‘storming party’ with as much coolness and calmness as he conducted those which assaulted the stout walls of Vicksburg…”

The next day, Banks honored Grant with a large military review at Carrollton, a few miles upriver from New Orleans. Grant rode a horse that “was vicious and but little used,” which galloped ahead of Banks and the other officers in the entourage. According to a staff officer, “In truth, they did not keep up… the brilliant cavalcade of generals and staff officers were left behind by the hero of Vicksburg, stringing along behind like the tail of a kite.” Grant finally settled the charger down enough to watch the procession.  

The review featured Banks’s Nineteenth Corps, commanded by Grant’s old West Point classmate, Major-General William B. Franklin. Also featured was Grant’s Thirteenth Corps, led by Major-General E.O.C. Ord. Ord’s troops marched past with the names of Grant’s recent victories inscribed on their banners.  

Grant was normally not moved by scenes of military pageantry, but this was different. A staff officer noted, “Terrible is an army with banners–if those banners are torn by the shot and shell of a score of battles… It was not surprising that the usually calm and collected Grant lifted his hat with reverence and deep feeling as the grand old colors, surrounded by his old Shiloh and Vicksburg companions-in-arms, passed before him.”  

Later that night, Grant, Banks, and the officers met at a private home, where they enjoyed “music, wine, choruses, etc.” After the festivities, the officers mounted their horses to return to New Orleans. Grant’s untrained horse “grew quite unmanageable and flew like the wind,” easily outracing everybody behind them. The road came alongside a railroad track, and when an oncoming train blew its whistle, the frightened horse reared, slipped, and crashed to the ground, bringing Grant down underneath him.  

The horse returned to his feet uninjured, but Grant was unconscious with serious injuries to the left side of his body. Officers catching up to Grant quickly carried him to a nearby inn, and Banks sent doctors to examine him. Grant suffered a dislocated hip and a possible fractured skull, and the doctors advised that he would have to remain bedridden for weeks.  

Maj-Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Still unconscious, Grant was taken to the St. Charles Hotel. He later wrote that “when I regained consciousness I found myself in a hotel near by with several doctors attending me. My leg was swollen from the knee to the thigh, and the swelling, almost to the point of bursting, extended along the body up to the arm-pit. The pain was almost beyond endurance.”  

Rumors quickly spread that Grant had been drunk; these were corroborated by Banks and Franklin. But others were not so sure. Major-General Cadwallader C. Washburn, one who was quick to point out Grant’s faults, wrote to his brother, Congressman Elihu B. Washburne (they spelled their last names differently) about the incident but made no mention that Grant had been drinking at all. Grant was a highly skilled equestrian, but even the best would have had trouble when handling such an untrained horse recklessly, regardless of sobriety.  

Grant left New Orleans on the 16th, but he had to be carried aboard a steamer because he still could not walk or sit upright. When the boat reached Vicksburg, Grant was carried to his headquarters, on the first floor of a large mansion, and put back in bed. He reported to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck three days later that he was “still confined to my bed, lying flat on my back,” but he assured Halleck that soon “I may be able to take the field at any time I may be called on to do so.”  

Grant wrote Banks on the 21st: “I am still confined on my back as much as when I left New Orleans, but hope for a permanent cure in the course of time.” Grant finally began moving around on crutches by the 25th, and on the 28th he informed Halleck that he was “ready for the field.” Fortunately for the Federal high command, the major operations taking place at that time were all outside Grant’s department.  


  • Catton, Bruce, Grant Takes Command. Open Road Media, Kindle Edition, 2015.
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  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
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