At President Donald Trump’s campaign rallies, history usually begins at the 2016 election.
But the president embarked on a lesson of the Civil War while speaking to an audience in Ohio on Friday, praising generals on both sides and telling the story of President Lincoln's relationship with Ulysses S. Grant in characteristically populist terms.
“So Robert E. Lee was a great general and Abraham Lincoln developed a phobia,” Trump began, referencing the Confederate general who won many of the early battles against Lincoln's Union army. “He couldn’t beat Robert E. Lee.”
Phobia is not a word historians associate with Lincoln’s feelings on Lee, but it is true the president was often frustrated by the slow pace of union progress.
Trump then turned to the point of the story: Grant. The Ohio native, born about 50 miles from where Trump was speaking on Friday, wasn’t supported by the military leaders, Trump said. Rumors of Grant’s struggles with alcohol during the Mexican-American War widely circulated in the War Department.
“He had all of these generals. They looked great. They were the top of their class at West Point. They were the greatest people,” Trump said. “There was only one problem: They didn’t know how the hell to win.
“They said 'Don’t take him; he’s got a drinking problem.' And Lincoln said, ‘I don’t care what problem he has. You guys aren’t winning.' And his name was Grant, General Grant,” Trump said.
Trump, who often uses his rallies to pillory what he describes as the nation’s “elites,” framed the story of Lincoln and Grant’s relationship in equally populist terms (even though Grant, who went on to become the nation’s 18th president, was also a West Point graduate).
“And he went in and knocked the hell out of everyone,” Trump said of Grant. “They said to Lincoln, ‘You can’t use him anymore, he’s an alcoholic’ and Lincoln said, ‘I don’t care if he’s an alcohol, frankly, get me six or seven just like him.’”
Trump regularly discusses alcohol in personal terms. The issue most recently come up during the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of not only sexual assault but also of drinking to excess in high school and college.
Trump said he was surprised that Kavanaugh repeatedly noted how much he liked beer as a student when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
A well-known teetotaler, Trump often jokes about his own dislike for alcohol.
"I'm not a drinker, I can honestly say I've never had a beer in my life," Trump said in the Rose Garden press briefing earlier this month. "It’s one of my only good traits."
And he has also discussed the issue in more somber terms. The president's older brother, Fred Trump, struggled with alcoholism and died in 1981 at the age of 43.
"And to this day I've never had a drink. And I have no longing for it. I have no interest in it," Trump said at event last year. "I learned because of Fred, I learned."