The Magazine

A Civil Reunion

Lee meets Grant at the New-York Historical Society.

Mar 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 23 • By CHRISTOPHER WILLCOX
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Grant and Lee in War and Peace

Through March 29 at the New-York Historical Society

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, two of American history's most enigmatic and controversial figures, are receiving a thorough, and thoroughly stunning, reappraisal at the New-York Historical Society in a blockbuster exhibition that will delight the public and inflame the partisans--particularly those who most revere the gentleman in grey. Originally conceived as separate shows, this monumental project is a joint effort of the New York society and its counterpart in Richmond (the Virginia Historical Society), where the show opened late last year. Its particular genius lies in its careful examination of the similarities and differences in the two men, as well as the regionalist interpretations that have colored their stories for generations.

If General Lee emerges slightly diminished by comparison, it is not from any fault of character or failure of nerve. Indeed, the exhibit keeps pretty close to the mythic, and deeply popular, narrative of the reluctant rebel who supported the Union until the very end, then fought valiantly and against overwhelming odds, accepting defeat honorably and returning to Virginia to cultivate his garden. It is, rather, General Grant's immense, if flawed, stature as a military genius and hugely consequential political leader that casts a shadow over the whole history of the Civil War and the Gilded Age.

Talk about an odd couple. Lee was tall, patrician, impeccably dressed, and kept a volume of Marcus Aurelius alongside his Bible for easy reference. He was the very epitome of Episcopalian gentlefolk. Grant was, by all accounts, short, stout, a sartorial disaster area, and far more likely to have a whiskey bottle nearby than a Bible. He even refused last rites on his deathbed, apparently feeling that he hadn't earned the right to them.

Lee was an effective, even creative, farmer prior to the war and later an outstanding educator as president of what is now Washington and Lee University. Grant failed at everything he undertook outside of public service and was often at the brink of ruin. In the end he saved his family from penury by penning a remarkable memoir with an assist from his close friend, Samuel Clemens. He barely got it out the door before expiring from throat cancer.

Lee married up (to Mary Custis, a step-granddaughter of George Washington) but unhappily. Grant's marriage to Julia Dent was a love match and, if less storied than the marriage of John and Abigail Adams, it would be hard to imagine a happier one. Even their funerals were a study in contrast: Lee's was a modest affair in quiet Lexington, Virginia; Grant's was witnessed by more than a million people in New York City, and his tomb in Upper Manhattan is the stuff of pharaohs.

Both men were effective strategic thinkers and eager to take the offensive on the battlefield. As the exhibit notes, the Civil War's early skirmishes were fought where Lee wanted them to be fought. What set Grant apart and above, however, was his nuts-and-bolts brilliance as a quartermaster: His troops were better supplied and better fed than anyone else's, Union or Confederate. That and his sheer audacity made him the go-to general for Abraham Lincoln, who famously declared that he wanted more drunkards running his battles if they could fight like Grant. By the time he laid siege to and took the supposedly invulnerable Vicksburg on the Mississippi River, the war was pretty much over for the increasingly isolated and undersupplied Confederacy. But not before the death toll reached 618,000. If Grant had one drawback as a warrior, it was his tolerance for casualties. His fellow Union generals judged him harshly on this point, and there is no evidence that Grant inspired the kind of adulation from his associates that Lee famously enjoyed. He was all about results, and the results were undeniable.

Although the Civil War provides some of the most vivid images and artifacts on display, there is a good deal of imaginative and intriguing material on both men's prewar experiences in Mexico and in battles with Indians. And although historians and anyone deeply familiar with the period will discover few surprises, the general public is probably unaware that Lee, a West Point graduate, was offered the command of Union forces by his fellow Virginian Winfield Scott before he decided to join the Confederacy. The what-ifs had he accepted that offer--including, possibly, the avoidance of war--are tantalizing indeed.