Published: December 30, 2008
By the end of the Civil War, most Americans considered either Ulysses S. Grant or Robert E. Lee to be a hero. Since then, much has been written about their respective roles in the war, but surprisingly little about them together and in the totality of their careers, especially in regard to the postwar period of their lives.
The reputations of the two iconic military leaders, molded in part by sectional biases that inflated the achievements of one †often to the detriment of the other †have waxed and waned since 1865.
Grant (1822‱885) and Lee (1807‱870), America’s greatest generals in a war that tore the nation apart, emerged from the conflict and postwar period with contrasting images.
Often pictured as a bumbling, alcoholic commander willing to sacrifice large numbers of troops on the battlefield, and later as a president who led a scandal-ridden administration, Grant has become more highly regarded in recent years. There is growing recognition not only of his determination and courage, but the brilliance of his field tactics in major battles of the Civil War, and that his presidency was marked by some significant achievements.
On the other hand, over the years, Lee came to represent the impeccable, almost saintly leader whose outnumbered forces often carried the day against great odds in the war, and a lofty figure whose dignity reflected the nobility of the South’s “Lost Cause.” Recently, however, that exalted reputation has been questioned by increasing numbers of historians †North and South †who suggest that his role as an historical symbol may have outstripped his actual accomplishments.
All these and other factors that marked this epoch are explored in “Grant and Lee in War and Peace,” a thought-provoking exhibition that immerses visitors in the experiences of Grant, Lee and their fellow citizens in the Mexican and Civil Wars, and in the rebuilding of the nation into a unified capitalist behemoth in the Gilded Age.
Organized by the Virginia Historical Society and the New-York Historical Society (NYHS), and curated in New York by NYHS public historian Kathleen Hulser, the exhibition is on view through March 29.
In visual terms, the exhibition offers a wealth of rare and interesting objects and documents drawn from the society’s holdings and from public and private collections around the country. These materials range from military equipment (such as full uniforms worn by Grant and Lee) and period maps and documents (like Grant’s handwritten “Terms of Surrender” for Lee) to paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs (including Mathew Brady portraits of the two generals).
Grant’s father, Jessie, operated a successful tannery in Ohio. Hiram Ulysses (as he was then called) was hardly a star at the military academy: standing 5 feet 1 inch tall and weighing 117 pounds, he was a reluctant student, ranking 21st out of 39 students in his class and accumulating many demerits. He stood out only in art class and in horsemanship.
Failing to be assigned to the cavalry as he had hoped, Grant ended up in the infantry, serving with valor in the Mexican War, as did Lee. Both men opposed America’s invasion of a weaker neighbor, although welcoming combat as an opportunity for career advancement. Appalled by the carnage they witnessed in Mexico, both Grant and Lee strongly opposed the idea of war in 1861.
A lieutenant before the war, Grant married Julia Dent, sister of his West Point roommate. Serving at a series of lonely outposts, separated from his family and failing to gain promotions, Grant quit the military in 1854 and retreated to his father’s leather goods business in Galena, Ill.
Born into a distinguished Virginia family with a long record of public service, Lee was the son of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a hero of the American Revolution, later a governor and congressman. Robert grew up in Stratford Hall, a stately brick mansion on the James River in Virginia. His father was a close friend of George Washington, and Robert married Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter, Mary Randolph Custis.
Carrying on the family military tradition, Lee excelled at the military academy, receiving no demerits and ranking second in his class. An oil portrait of the 31-year-old Lee in dress uniform by William Edward West suggests he was comfortable in his career. Lee served with distinction as an engineer in the Mexican War and was superintendent of West Point, 1852‵5. The death of his father-in-law forced Lee to leave the Army and take up farming at his wife’s elegant family home, Arlington House in Virginia (Today, it overlooks Arlington National Cemetery.)
The exhibition explores the views of the two generals toward slavery. Lee, who strongly opposed the institution and believed that it was more trouble than it was worth, made modest efforts to achieve emancipation “to remove a weakness at home and to get sympathy abroad and to divide our enemies.” In late 1862, he freed the 170 slaves owned by his late father-in law, in keeping with his kin’s will, and toward the end of the war, he sought to have slaves freed who could be mustered into the Confederate army. After the war Lee accepted emancipation and urged Southerners to support the new order.
Grant, while declaring he was not an abolitionist, freed his only slave in 1859. He reenlisted in the US Army not to liberate slaves, but to save the Union. The choice, he said, was between traitors and patriots, “and I want&⁴o be ranked with the latter.” Grant’s wartime experiences encountering thousands of black refugees convinced him that “the North & South could never live at peace with each other except as one nation, and that without Slavery.” As president, Grant consistently worked to protect the hard-won rights of freedmen.
As war approached in the spring of 1861, Lee, regarded by Lincoln and his advisers as the best soldier in the nation, was offered command of the Union army, but he famously refused. Tendering his resignation in April 1861, Lee said, “Save in defence [sic] of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword.” His decision to join the Confederacy was not about defending slavery, but rather to preserve his personal honor and defend his family and homeland. “It was about doing what he thought was right,” say the exhibition organizers. As commander of Confederate forces, Lee oversaw numerous battles in which his outmanned army consistently performed well against the massive Union fighting machine.
Grant, meanwhile, came out of retirement to take command of a regiment of Illinois volunteers and went on to win significant victories at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga out West. Impressed, Lincoln made Grant a lieutenant general and gave him command of all Union forces. “Grant is my man and I am his the rest of the war,” said the president.
Determined to destroy Lee’s forces at whatever cost in lives and material, Grant kept up the pressure on the Confederates through a series of battles in which Lee’s forces paid a heavy price but held their own. Mathew Brady’s photographs of battlefields littered with bodies brought home to North and South alike the magnitude of the carnage.
In early 1865, anticipating the collapse of the Confederacy, Lincoln preached the doctrine of “malice towards none [and] charity for all” as the means “to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Grant, sharing those sentiments, offered generous terms of surrender to the vanquished Confederates, and treated Lee and his defeated comrades with great respect at the surrender ceremony at Appomattox.
Lee, for his part, accepted defeat with good grace, and discouraged his troops from initiating guerilla warfare. Thus, the two generals who had misgivings about secession and the war at its outset, contributed significantly to the process of healing.
Thereafter, Grant was regarded as the savior of the Union and Lee as the great hero of the Lost Cause. Having opposed secession, Lee sought to promote national reconciliation, political harmony, obedience to authority and, as president of Washington College in Lexington, Va., to provide students with skills to forge the New South.
As general of the army, Grant advocated fair treatment of Confederate veterans and decided where and when to place peacekeeping troops in the South. After campaigning in 1868 on the slogan “Let us have peace,” in his two terms as president he won passage of the Fifteenth Amendment that gave freedmen the vote; supported the Ku Klux Klan Act, which empowered the president to crack down on “disguised night marauders” and promoted justice for Native Americans. Grant used diplomacy to avoid potential wars with Spain and England, and sought, unsuccessfully, to acquire Santo Domingo as a potential refuge for “the entire colored population of the United States, should it choose to emigrate.”
The Grant administration was rocked by scandals caused by appointees to whom the president gave too much power, but exhibition organizers say, “There was never a shred of evidence that Grant himself had any part in, or profited from, these schemes.”
The exhibition and catalog speculate that if Lee had accepted command of Union forces in 1861, the war would have ended more quickly and “slavery probably would have survived it.” Lee would have become a national hero, and “he could easily have become the eighth president from Virginia.”
“Grant and Lee” makes the case that when Grant “brought his marvelous talents of observation and decision to any job, he rarely failed” †citing preserving the Union, enforcing the laws after the war and, as president, seeking a just society not based on sectional priority, race, wealth or ancestry.
Both men sought to explicate the story of the Civil War, but Lee †lacking adequate documentation about the conflict †never completed his text.
Grant, who was bankrupt as a result of a Wall Street fiasco and seriously ill with throat cancer, desperately wanted to leave an adequate estate for his wife and family. He was encouraged by his friend Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) to undertake his memoirs, with Twain acting as editor and publisher.
Ensconced in a cottage at Mount MacGregor in the Adirondack Mountains and wracked with unbearable pain, Grant persevered in the project, relying on his superb memory and official records. Written with simplicity, clarity and accuracy and completed in 1885, a few days before he died, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant is “an American masterpiece,” write historians William M.S. Rasmussen and Robert S. Tilton in the exhibition catalog. Twain called it the “the most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar. ”
Grant’s Memoirs sold briskly, realizing $200,000 for Julia Grant, by then a widow. The book remains admired and in print to this day.
When Lee died of a stroke and pneumonia in Richmond in 1870, he was widely mourned, particularly in the South, as a dignified, principled leader who embodied the best of the Lost Cause. “His character, sense of honor and devotion to duty became the stuff of legend,” observe Rasmussen and Tilton. Lee is buried in the Lee Chapel at what is now Washington and Lee University under a magnificent, marble recumbent statue created by Richmond sculptor Edward V. Valentine.
An enormous outpouring of grief and appreciation followed Grant’s death at Mount MacGregor in 1885. “Americans recognized that a giant figure in their history, a man equal to Washington, was gone,” write Rasmussen and Tilton.
An unprecedented turnout of more than a million people saw Grant’s cortege pass through the streets of Manhattan. In 1897, following the largest fundraising campaign in history, the largest tomb in North America, Grant’s Tomb, was dedicated on Manhattan’s upper west side, with again a million in attendance. It “marked the high point of&⁛Grant’s] popularity. The general’s reputation would never again approach this pinnacle,” say Rasmussen and Tilton.
Over the years since their deaths, the reputations of the former antagonists have fluctuated. In his acclaimed Memoirs , Grant, who was always skeptical of Lee’s high standing, wrote: “Lee was of a slow, conservative, cautious nature, without imagination or humor, always the same, with grave dignity. I never could see in his achievements what justifies his reputation.” On the other hand, President Woodrow Wilson, a Virginia native, said that Lee was “a leader of men in war and peace, a champion of principles, a humanitarian, a man who devoted his entire life to the benefit of others without regard to himself.”
Long a supporter of his old adversary, in late 1865 at Washington College, Lee said, “Sir, if you ever again presume to speak disrespectfully of General Grant in my presence, either you or I will sever his connection with this university.” Reflecting Grant’s widespread popularity as president, biographer James P. Boyd wrote in 1885 that Grant “saved us as a people, a government, a solidified nation&[A]n admiring, loving and grateful people will say: First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
By offering provocative and often new insights into the two greatest generals of the Civil War and comparing their views on key subjects, the organizers of this important exhibition have performed a real service. In examining the dynamics between Grant and Lee, Americans can learn a good deal about themselves as a people, and how they got where they are today.
The 352-page catalog, written by Rasmussen and Tilton, is well documented and full of fresh thinking about the subject. Published by D. Giles Limited, it is a valuable addition to the historical record of its era.
The New-York Historical Society is at 2 West 77th Street. For information, 212-873-3400 or www.nyhistory.org .
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