Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History

D.G. Hewitt - June 16, 2018

For thousands of years, humans have been embracing the effects of alcohol. In Ancient Greece, for example, the art of wine making was perfected as early as 2000 BC, with a Goddess even devoted to the alcoholic beverage. Meanwhile, In India, people were distilling a drink called sura from rice almost 1,000 years earlier. Similarly, the Babylonians had a wine goddess of their own and regularly drank to her health from 2700 BC onwards. In many ways, alcohol was the great leveler; it wasn’t just the lowest classes of society who drank to get drunk, kings, queens and rulers did too. And they have carried on doing so ever since. It’s far from surprising, then, that key moments in world history occurred while the protagonists were under the influence.

In some cases, alcohol was a blessing, helping notable individuals from history achieve greatness. At other times, of course, it was more of a curse, causing chaos. Either way, the place of booze cannot be ignored. And so here we have just ten episodes from world history where alcohol played a part. Sit back, pour yourself a cold drink, and learn more…

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
Was the Battle of Stones River decided by a drunken officer falling from his horse? Wikimedia Commons.

The Battle of Stones River

On the final day of 1862, the two armies contesting the American Civil War met outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. They came together soon after the Battle of Fredericksburg, a major Confederate victory. The Union army was in desperate need of some good news. And, luckily for them, the final, and decisive, battle of the Stones River Campaign, saw the Union’s forces facing men led by Benjamin F. Cheatham, a wild, reckless alcoholic.

The battle was very bloody indeed. Of all the significant battles in the whole Civil War, that of Stones River recorded the one of the highest percentages of casualties on both sides. Cheatham’s actions were a significant contributing factor here. Throughout the day, he was observed as acting foolishly and recklessly. He would give orders one minute and then ask for the opposite thing a minute later. Tragically, it seems that his foolhardy ways on that fateful day sent many men to their death. Cheatham would order charges that were poorly-coordinated – if they had been thought through at all – and so doomed to fail.

General Braxton Bragg, the Confederate army’s man in charge on that day, had a plan. And he almost pulled it off perfectly. His specially-timed charges led to significant numbers of Union soldiers surrendering and being taken captive. However, some Civil War historians argue that Bragg’s plan would have been an even greater success had it not been for Cheatham’s drinking. According to some accounts, the Major General not only got his men into position behind schedule but, when it was time for them to charge, he fell off his own horse.

Cheatham’s booze-fuelled failure meant that the Union Army had enough men to make a stand and hold the position for two days. In the end, and on the third day of the battle, the Union artillery did their job, killing an estimated 1,800 Confederate troops in less than an hour. While the Battle of Stones River was not exactly a Union victory, it certainly was a Confederate defeat. Moreover, it gave the Union a much-needed morale boost they would take with them into future fights.

Defenders of Cheatham argue that, while he was certainly fond of a drink, and while there can be little doubt he was sometimes under the influence while leading men into battle, the story of Stone Rivers has been wildly exaggerated. They argue that the main source for Cheatham falling drunkenly from his horse was the army chaplain, a man by the name of Dr. Charles Todd Quintard. Not only was the doctor a friend of General Bragg’s, meaning he might want to shift the blame from the man in charge, but he was also vehemently opposed to drinking. Could it be that he used the battlefield fiasco to further his own agenda?


Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
Selim II love his favorite wine so much he invaded Cyprus to get his hands on it. Wikimedia Commons.

Sultan Selim II goes to war for his favorite wine

The very fact that Sultan Selim II, head of the Ottoman Empire from 1566 to 1574, is also known as “Selim the Drunkard”, is surely enough to give an impression of how he ruled: for the most part, under the influence. While his father, the appropriately-named Suleiman the Magnificent, had overseen the rise of the Ottoman Empire, his sozzled son promptly brought it to its knees, making major enemies and losing vast amounts of money and territory. And, according to the legend, he risked – and lost – it all due to his love of Cypriot wine.

Selim was not a natural leader, or a natural politician. He hadn’t been groomed for power. However, his elder brother died of smallpox, his own father ordered the murder of his step-brother and, finally, another brother died in another bout of palace intrigue. So, in September 1566, Selim II took control of the Ottoman Empire, with no relevant experience or even interest in the role. For a while, this didn’t matter. He left the running of the empire to trusted advisors. While they were busy with matters of state, he hosted wild parties. Soon, his playboy lifestyle had earned him the nickname Selim the Drunkard.

It’s commonly believed that Selim’s fondness for Cypriot wine is one of the main reasons – if not the leading reason – why, in 1571, he ordered his men to invade Cyprus. Given the military strength of the Ottoman Empire, the invasion went well at first. The Sultan was soon enjoying the many riches he could plunder from the island, including its famed alcohol. However, other European powers took a dim view of Selim’s actions. Pope Pius V lobbied for a year to for the so-called Holy League. Then, 12 months after Selim’s bold and boozy invasion, the allies hit back. Hundreds of ships clashed at the Battle of Lepanto. It was a disaster for Selim.

The Ottoman Empire lost almost all its navy in the battle. They also lost thousands of men – most taken as slaves by the victors. But it wasn’t all bad news for Selim: He managed to hold onto some parts of Cyprus, giving him a steady supply of the world’s finest wine. He would enjoy three more years of partying in Constantinople. And this is how he died – drunk, and happy, slipping and hitting his head on a fine marble floor.

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
According to one history, a Nazi general was too drunk to blow up vital bridges on D-Day. Wikimedia Commons.

A Nazi general’s drinking helps Allied D-Day plans

In June 1944, Allied troops launched their invasion of mainland Europe. Most famously, tens of thousands of men landed on the beaches of northern France to bring the fight to the Nazis. At the same time, some troops also dropped into France. Operation Tonga was the codename given to the operation which saw airborne divisions drop onto Caen, in Normandy, between June 5 and 7. Some men parachuted in, while others landed in special gliders. For the most part, the plan was a huge success. The enemy were largely taken by surprise – especially those Nazi officers who were sleeping off hangovers when D-Day got underway.

The plan was simple enough: strategic bridges over the Caen Canal and the Orne River were to be captured so as to ensure that the German High Command could not send reinforcements to the beaches where the main Allied attacks were happening. As well as capturing key bridges, others were to be destroyed. The Nazis realized the importance of these bridges, and they too wanted to keep them out of their enemy’s hands, which is why they primed some of them with explosives. At the first sign of invasion, commanders were to give the orders to blow the crossings up.

However, according to one legendary war yarn – made famous in recent years by historian and popular writer Stephen M. Ambrose (of Band of Brothers fame), some bridges were left intact due to the drunken shenanigans of a certain high-ranking Nazi. Major Hans Schmidt was tasked with guarding two bridges over the River Orne. Given their strategic importance, he was told the crossings were not to fall into enemy hands. If necessary, Schmidt was to blow them up.

When the time came, however, he was nowhere to be seen. In fact, when the first paratroopers and gliders were landing in northern France, the Major was in bed. He had been out for a big night the night before, drinking with a lady friend until the early hours of the morning. Once the alarm was raised, he needed some time to sober up and even then, he lost his way. Rather than making it to the two bridges to oversee their demolition, he drove straight into the British. He was taken capture and the Allied forces held the bridges.

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
Ulysses S. Grant’s alcoholism may have spurred him on to important Civil War victories. Wikimedia Commons.

Ulysses S. Grant wins vital Civil War battles while under the influence

Ulysses Simpson Grant was a soldier, politician and President of the United States of America. As well as being a tactical genius, both in the debating chamber and on the battlefield, he was also fond of a drink or two. The extent of his drinking is hardly up for debate. Though his enemies may well have taken every opportunity to exaggerate his love of booze, most historical records, even Grant’s own accounts, do acknowledge that he was often under the influence. What is up for debate, however, is whether his drinking actually helped him rather than hindered him. Indeed, would he have lacked the boldness to make key decisions in the American Civil War had he been completely sober?

Grant’s fondness for alcohol came despite the fact that he was born into a strict Methodist family in Ohio, 1822. After a promising start to life, graduating from West Point and then serving with distinction in the Mexican-American War, he struggled to fit into civilian life and his financial woes were the source of much discomfort. When the Civil War erupted, and he joined up again, quickly rising through the ranks, he sensed a chance to regain his prestige. Within months, Grant had made it to the rank of General, and his success at the Battle of Shiloh and then the siege of Vicksburg, which helped gain control of the Mississippi, were pivotal moments in the bloody conflict.

So what role did booze play in this? If Grant were around today, he would undoubtedly be classed as a ‘high functioning alcoholic’. More than this, alcohol, Abraham Lincoln himself noted, actually made Grant “a better field commander”. Driven on by his past failures and knowing he had nothing to lose, he was the boldest general of the whole war, taking risks others would never have dared to consider. At the same time, he was also a ruthless disciplinarian. While he hated his own lack of self-discipline, he expected more of others and so Grant’s army became extremely professional and well-drilled.

According to the historian James McPherson, all this came to a head at Vicksburg. Fired up after a bender, Grant decided to attack hard and fast. He refused to wait for more supplies of ammunition or medical necessities and, when the initial attack proved unsuccessful, he decided to lay siege to the town instead. In the end, his boldness won out, even if Grant himself skipped two days of the siege to join friends and enjoy a marathon whiskey binge down by the banks of the River Yazoo.

By all accounts, however, while Grant embraced the bottle during his time in charge of the battlefield, he reined it in upon entering the White House. Indeed, according to the great man’s biographers, he took the role of President very seriously indeed and there are no accounts of him being recklessly drunk while in office – and, given the number of enemies he had, both political and real, it’s safe to say that any indiscretion would have been gleefully seized upon at the time.

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
king Henry VIII of England got drunk and wrestled with his French counterpart – with serious consequences. Wikimedia Commons.

Henry VIII’s summit turns into a drunk wrestling match

As most of us know, King Henry VIII of England had a huge appetite, and not just for food and women. The monarch was also a big drinker, downing huge amounts of wine and regularly enjoying to excess at his lavish banquets. According to the history books, on many occasions, such drink-fueled festivities descended into farce or pure debauchery. So, when Henry VIII arranged a summit with king Francis I of France, it was inevitable that wine would play a big part in fueling the efforts of international diplomacy.

The summit took place in a field outside of Balinghen, close to modern-day Calais in northern France, for two weeks in June 1520. Both kings brought huge parties with them for event, which was planned with the goal of improving relations between England and France. Indeed, it was even hoped that the two kings could find a way of making law between Christian nations completely illegal.

Hundreds of people attended. And, while the summit was supposed to be a serious affair, it soon became one giant party. It was this decadence that gave the event its name – large tents were erected, many of them fashioned out of golden silks, and in these, the kings and their courtiers really let their hair down. The accounts from the time reveal that wine foundations were built and flowed most days and nights. Archery contests and jousting were held. Perhaps wisely, the rules of the summit dictated that the two kings would not compete directly against one another in any of the sports.

Suddenly, however, fueled by drunken bravado, King Henry VIII challenged his French counterpart to a wrestling match. Though accounts differ – largely due to political bias – it’s safe to say that, despite his huge frame, Henry was not the greatest of wrestlers. Francis won the rumble. Henry was a very bad loser. The summit, which had started in such good spirits and with high hopes, soon turned sour. Both kings packed up. The party was over.

What effect that drunken decision to have a booze-fueled wrestling match had on history is open to debate. But the summit never did ensure peace for Europe. Instead, within weeks of returning to England, Henry’s main man, Cardinal Wolsey, forged an alliance with Charles V, King of Spain, head of the Holy Roman Empire and avowed enemy of Francis I and France. Later that same year, Charles declared war on France, starting a conflict that would last five years and leave thousands of men dead.

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
Alexander the Great allegedly got so drunk he burned down a whole city. Pinterest.

A drunk Alexander the Great destroys Persepolis

In May of 330 BC, Alexander the Great finally took the city of Persepolis. Though his enemy, the Great King of the Achaemenid Persians, Darius III, managed to escape, Alexander had his city and the heart of his empire. It was, by all accounts, a truly wonderful place, with ornate palaces, advanced infrastructure and lush gardens. Most generals would have preserved it and made it a part of their own empire. Alexander, however, had Persepolis burned down, a decision he would make in an instant and regret long after. So, what made him act so rashly? Well, according to some contemporary sources, his judgement was clouded by his two weaknesses – alcohol and beautiful women.

There was no question of leaving Persepolis untouched. For starters, Alexander’s army needed to be satisfied. They had travelled far and fought well. He owed them a share of the glory. And, as was the custom in those times, this meant letting them loot at will. Alexander himself was not above enjoying the spoils of war. It’s believed he stripped his enemy’s palaces of gold and other precious metals and jewels, sending all the loot back to his native Macedonia. Surely this would have been enough? Not quite.

To celebrate their victory, Alexander and his men held a party. The wine flowed freely and passions boiled over. Alexander started toying with the idea of burning the city. His trusted generals advised him against it in the strongest terms possible. However, according to the ancient writer Diodorus Siculus, Alexander was swayed by a beautiful courtesan by the name of Thais. He wrote that the young lady “said that for Alexander it would be the finest of all his feats in Asia if he joined them in a triumphal procession [and] set fire to the palaces.” Fuelled by the wine, he agreed and the party descended into a long night of debauchery and arson. As the city burned, courtesans played music.

By all accounts, Alexander woke with a hangover and much regret. He had traveled many miles to achieve his goal of taking Persepolis and now, thanks to a drunken whim, the city was no more. These days, the ruins of the main palaces remain and the old city is a UNESCO Heritage Site – keeping it safe from drunken megalomaniacs for the time being at least.

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
The taking of the Winter Palace turned into a month-long wine binge. Wikimedia Commons.

The taking of the Winter Palace becomes a party

For the Bolsheviks, the Winter Palace of Tsar Nicholas II represented everything they were determined to rid Russian society of: inequality, ostentatiousness and unearned wealth. One key aim of the October 1917 Revolution, then, was gaining control of the St. Petersburg landmark and claiming it ‘for the people’. However, the storming of the palace might have derailed the revolution. As soon as the gates were opened, the drinking began – and it was some serious drinking, even by Russian standards.

It wasn’t, however, a classic ‘storming’ of a palace. By the time the revolutionaries had arrived, the guards had long since abandoned their posts. All that the rebels needed to do was climb over the large gates and fences and then break in through mostly unlocked doors and windows. Unsurprisingly, the red-armband-clad masses headed straight for the cellars. Here, the deposed Tsar had amassed one of the finest collections of booze the world has ever known, complete with fine wines, whiskies, cognacs and, of course, lots of vodka.

Huge crowds flocked to the Winter Palace and the party started. The drinking went on for a week, during which time the more serious business of transforming Russian society had to be put on hold. It wasn’t just common soldiers who were drunk and useless. Even the man specifically appointed by Lenin himself to serve as Commissar for the Winter Palace was found drunk on the job. The Bolshevik leadership realized they needed to do something or else their revolution could lose its momentum.

A special Commission Against Wine Pogroms was set up by the high command. The wine cellars were flooded (though many of the firefighters called in to do the job ended up getting drunk too). Even then, people tried to swim down into the cellars, with some people drowning in an attempt to get some free booze. The Commission became increasingly authoritarian, even shooting people who refused to stop partying. In the end, it took nearly one month for the Winter Palace drunkenness to come to an end. By that time, much of the initial enthusiasm that had greeted the October Revolution had died down. However, the Bolsheviks had shown how ruthless they could be and, despite the drunken decadence of Saint Petersburg, they ruthlessly clung onto power.

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
One of the most important battles in Japanese history was won because of some drunken samurai. Wikimedia Commons.

The Battle of Okehazama

For centuries, Japan’s warlords battled it out for supremacy. The battles between them were often bloody and, for the most part, disciplined affairs, with tactics and fighting ability of paramount importance. The Battle of Okehazama was quite different in this respect. While it was certainly bloody, it was far from a masterclass in military tactics. Rather it served as a lesson to all military commanders – never let your men get too drunk that they cannot defend themselves from surprise attacks.

In 16th century Japan, two men named Oda Nobunaga and Imagawa Yoshimoto were vying for control of the Owari Province. In June of 1560, Imagawa Yoshimoto raised an army of 25,000 men and went on the offensive. He was aiming to take Kyoto, then the nation’s capital city. And at first it looked like nobody could stand in the way of him achieving his goal, not even his sworn enemy. Imagawa and his samurai made steady progress, capturing key fortresses and small towns. So, encouraging was their progress that, when they set up camp one day for a break, the men decided to have a party. Since it was an unusually hot summer’s day, the drink flowed even more freely than usual, with even the men’s commander joining in the revelry.

Oda Nobunaga was not one to sit back and wait to be attacked. Instead, learning of his rival’s advances, he raised a small army of his own and set out. Against his advisors’ counsel, he chose to go on the offensive. Cleverly, he used decoys to make it look like he had set up camp in a small fortress and was waiting to be besieged. In reality, however, Oda Nobunaga and around 3,000 of his men slowly crept up on their enemy’s camp and waited for the right moment to strike.

When a passing storm had come to an end, Oda Nobunaga gave the order to attack. Despite being outnumbers 12 to 1, his men recorded a famous victory. The enemy soldiers were either sleeping or too drunk to put up a fight. Many simply fled as discipline broke down. The legend also adds that Imagawa Yoshimoto himself was caught by surprise and initially thought the sound of fighting outside his tent was just his men drunkenly messing around. Upon stumbling out of his tent – drunk himself, apparently – the great warlord was killed on the spot, only managing to lightly injure just one of his enemies.

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
President Nixon enjoyed a drink or two – and his advisers worried about the security implications. Spectator.

Nixon drunkenly threatens nuclear war

And, finally, there’s a prime example of what might have been. As the past incidents have shown, alcohol and power don’t always go well together. They’re an especially bad combination when the drinker in question holds the most powerful position on the planet and is capable of starting a nuclear war. According to several of his biographers, President Richard Nixon came close to nuking his enemies in a drunken rage. Thankfully, his aides were wise to his booze-fueled moods and all-out war was averted.

Henry Kissinger, a key figure in Nixon’s White House, long ago revealed that his boss at the time was partial to heavy liquor. Moreover, the President also had a tendency to overreact. “If the President had his way, there would be a nuclear war every week,” Kissinger famously recalled. In one infamous incident in 1969, North Korea shot down an American spy plane. Nixon, fueled by alcohol, summoned the Joint Chiefs. He ordered them to draw up a list of possible targets for a nuclear bomb. Kissinger, who was asked to relay the message, urged the Joint Chiefs to stall. The tactic worked. The morning after, Nixon had sobered up and calmed down.

But this was by no means a lone incident. When he was drunk, Nixon would regularly get aggressive and seek to use the full extent of his powers as Commander-in-Chief. On one occasion, even a conversation about Cambodia led him to get on his phone and demand the Asian country be bombed. Nixon’s staff became even more worried as his Presidency wore on. As their boss became depressed and withdrawn, there were fears that he would reach for the big red button.

Tellingly, in his memoirs, Nixon’s Defense Secretary James Schlesinger revealed that he ordered all military commanders to question any nuclear launch order that came from the President himself. Nixon’s increasing dependence on alcohol was the prime reason for such extreme caution. In the end, Nixon was forced out of office as a result of the Watergate scandal. As a nice footnote to history, in his final hours as President, he was barred from carrying the nation’s nuclear launch codes. Instead, they remained safe in the White House while he boarded a chopper out of DC.

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
A booze-fueled boat race led to a succession crisis in England. Fine Art America.

Future king of England drowns in drunken boat race

If it weren’t for one day of youthful, drunken foolishness, William Adelin would have grown up to become King of England. As it was, he died at the age of just 17, drowned off the coast of Normandy, France. And, while many princes are murdered by their enemies or rivals, young William had only himself to blame for his early demise. His death caused a succession crisis in England and almost caused a huge war. So, how did all this come about?

According to observers of the time, William was a very pampered young man. The son of King henry I of England and Matilda of Scotland, he was made Duke of Normandy, even if the title was largely symbolic. Then, as was the custom, he was married off to Matilda of Anjou, a union that would bring England and Normandy closer together. That was why, on 25 November of 1120, William and his closest men were in Normandy, preparing to cross back over the English Channel. But first, they decided to stay on the beach and have a few drinks. After all, William reasoned, his vessel, The White Ship, was by far the fastest in the King’s fleet. They would easily be able to catch up with the rest of the ships.

The story goes that, upon getting ready to finally leave for England, two holy men blessed the boat. William threw them off, fearing they would ruin the party vibe. He carried on drinking, even sharing his booze with the crew. He urged them to speed up and try and catch the other ships in the fleet. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before disaster struck: The White Ship hit a rock and started taking on water.

To his credit, William might have lived to tell the tale. He made it onto a dinghy but then turned back to rescue his half-sister, Matilda FitzRoy, the Countess of Perche. However, both of them, along with all but a couple of the crew, drowned. William’s death King Henry, who had no other legitimate sons to be his heir, had to navigate a succession crisis. Eventually, he chose his nephew, Stephen of Blois, to take the throne. Tellingly, however, this ushered in a period in English history known as ‘The Anarchy’, from 1135 to 1153. It would be more than 20 years before law and order would return to the land – all because of an evening of drunken, youthful tomfoolery.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“What Happens If the President Gets Drunk?” Time Magazine, June 2016.

“Pour One Out for Ulysses S. Grant”. Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, October 2017

“Field of Cloth of Gold.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

“The Battle of Stones River”. The National Parks Service,

“Commandaria: The fame of the praised wine for kings”. Cyprus Wine Museum.

“The Battle of Okehazama”. Chris Glenn, Japan Travel, November 2011.

“Drunk in charge: Extracts from The Arrogance of Power, the Secret World of Richard Nixon.” The Guardian, September 2000.

“Brewery was burned after Ancient Peru drinking ritual.” National Geographic News, November 2005.

“Diodorus on the Sack of Persepolis”.

“7 times alcohol decided the course of battle.” David Nye, Business Insider, May 2015.