I Knew Grant was the Shorter Man, But…

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Bryan Cheeseboro…

On January 10, 2021, I participated in a program on the Facebook page Shelby Foote & the American Civil War to discuss General/President Ulysses S. Grant from Appomattox through his presidency and to the end of his life (July 23, 1885).  It was a lively discussion; however, we did not make it as far as we planned (not even close), and we will be scheduling Part 2 at a later date.

As I was preparing for the program in the days before, I consulted several sources from my personal library to refresh my knowledge and learn more about Grant.  One of the many books I looked at was The American Heritage Picture History of the Presidents.  My copy is a handsome, three-volume set in a slipcase.  The books were published in 1968, and the last President featured is Lyndon B. Johnson.  The book had some valuable information about Grant’s world tour after his presidency that I included in the notes I compiled.  But I noticed something else in this 53-year-old book that I found very interesting.

On page 471 is one of the most powerful, commanding pictures of Grant.  Many of us know it, as it is found in many places: some time in 1864, he stands next to a tree, in front of a tent, hand on hip, with a look of determination that he will not be done until the Confederacy is defeated.  It is one of my favorite pictures of the general, as it communicates why he defeated Lee.

And speaking of Lee, I found that when I flip ahead just a few pages in the book (475), there is a full-page color picture (a painting, actually) of him.

A full-page painting of Lee in a book about Grant.

Honestly, I find the juxtaposition a fascinating time capsule of the two men and of how history was presented in the late ‘60s–years after World War II; during the Cold War and the Civil Rights Era; after Kennedy’s assassination; during Vietnam; and the year Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were murdered.  I honestly wonder if the publishers of American Heritage even gave any thought of minimizing Grant and magnifying Lee.  No, it is not critical or criminal that the man who won the war is depicted as lesser compared to the man who surrendered to him.  But it is telling.

Certainly, by the 1960s, Grant’s reputation was minimized.  The book talks about rumors of his drinking and uses the “B” word–butcher–in describing the costs for his army in the campaigns in Virginia in 1864 (but in fairness, President Lincoln stood behind him and his efforts).  Meanwhile, Lee is described as “exemplary” and “robust;” he opposed secession and was a “Christian gentleman” who sees slavery as a “moral & political evil.”   The reality is, of course, that there are bits of truths to the realities of both men.  But the problem is what the narratives have left out.

Grant had trouble with alcohol and may very well have been an alcoholic.  But he was never drunk when it counted and maintained his control. Grant waged a campaign in 1864 that lost a lot of men.  But so did Lee.  Both sustained comparable losses in the Overland Campaign.  Why is Lee’s even greater casualty rate (50% to Grant’s 45%) ignored? Lee was a Christian gentleman who believed slavery was evil.  While he said this, he nevertheless participated in the practice and punished enslaved people.  President Grant stood behind the Enforcement Act of 1870, which protected African-American voters against KKK terrorism.

The Lost Cause historiography of the Confederacy vilified Ulysses S. Grant and deified Robert E. Lee.  I cannot say I am interested in a narrative that will now try to flip the script and make Grant a saint and Lee wicked beyond belief.  But some accuracy and balance would be nice.

Bryan Cheeseboro works every day with original Civil War records at the National Archives. He is also a board member of The Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington, DC; a Civil War military and civilian reenactor; and creator of The Civil War Era Historian’s Page on Facebook.

13 Responses to I Knew Grant was the Shorter Man, But…

  1. Interesting perspective on the two pages, Mr. Cheesboro. I doubt any slight was intended on the sizing question, but who knows after 60 years? Both men are fascinating characters, each with their own flaws (as we all have). I just finished a brand new book – Grant’s Tomb by Louis Picone that just came out last week. A fascinating story on how Grant’s Tomb came to be built in Riverside Park in New York City and its ups and downs over the years. If you are interested in Grant, I commend it to you.

  2. Always love to see Bryan’s posts, the Library of Congress is fortunate to have him on their staff. However, I believe the casualty rate argument is hardly one that acquits Grant of charges of tactical ineptitude. Lee’s army at the commencement of the Overland Campaign was about half the size of Grant’s. And yet his rate of casualties was only 5% greater than Grant’s. This meant his army stayed roughly the same size in comparison to his opponent’s, as he he was falling back toward reinforcements and fortifications. It did not prevent his army from launching several rather successful counterattacks as at the Wilderness, by Heth and Gordon at Spotsylvania, at Cold Harbor on June 2, and throughout the Siege of Petersburg, not to mention the detachment of nearly a whole Corp to the Valley under Early. As a military leader in the east his strength was strategic durability, not tactical skill. His positive civil rights actions in the post war years shouldn’t obscure this. I tend to think the pro Grant school currently in the saddle has somewhat overcompensated for the hagiography about Lee that was the previous fashion.

  3. Factual inaccuracies regarding Lee: 1) He lost the War because he was outnumbered, and because Grant and Lincoln stopped prisoner exchanges in early 1864, in order to starve Lee of troops, leaving 30,000 of their own men, three times the size of Atlanta, at Andersonville in a situation of minimal rations due to the embargoes and the ‘burn and destroy’ tactics of Union soldiers in the South. In addition, Grant was willing to sacrifice 10,000 of his own men at Cold Harbor, and then order further charges, which were refused, something Lee would never have considered. “Butcher” is appropriate, however, not for how he won the War, but for how he treated his own men. 2) Lee’s “participation” in slavery was minimal – it’s easy to tell where you’ve shaded the truth – involving the very few slaves who attended his mother as she failed, and then went to live on a Custis plantation in 1829 (by 1846, “Nancy and her children”, Robert E. Lee will), and the fact that he was designated Executor of his father-in-law’s estate. Executorship is not equivalent to ownership, so neither Lee nor his wife nor his children ever owned the Custis slaves. “Participation” is a clever way around that. Lee asked to be relieved of the duties of Executorship, but the Virginia court handling the estate refused his request. In general, if you have problems with Lee as Executor, you should take them to Virginia’s legal system, which favored property rights and debtors. In the end, all documented, the Custis slaves and the few remaining Lee slaves, if any, were emancipated in Dec, 1862.. As you know, but didn’t mention… Grant’s wife’s slaves were freed with the 13th Amendment in 1866. Re “punishment”, Elizabeth Pryor couldn’t prove he had Wesley Norris whipped, however hard she tried, and you can’t either. No actual evidence was presented, and Norris’s father may have been involved in petitioning for 10 acres of Arlington. Selina Norris Gray, Mrs. Lee’s most trusted servant, to whom she gave the keys to Arlington when they had to leave, was a close relative of Wesley’s. So, if you want to burnish Grant a bit, fine; his bad reputation in the 1960s was based mainly on the significant corruption of his Administration, for which he may not have been directly responsible. His reputation as a much tougher guy than McClellan or Meade or any other Northener on the battlefield was well-deserved, since those fellows couldn’t get very far at all, but ultimately he won by having more to work with. The fact that you have written this article for the express purpose of supporting the myth of a “Lost Cause Myth”, and have had to shade some facts to even come close, says to me that perhaps you should leave the task of history to people who are seeking the truth and not a political agenda of limited long term use.

    1. Talk about circular logic…using the Lost Cause Myth to defend the effectively exposed Lost Cause southerner interpretation of the war.

      1. Carson is spot on in her critique. The so called “Lost Cause Myth” is itself a myth. It is a popularized pejorative used by modern historians to dismiss a Southern take in tge war because they cannot dismiss Southern apologetics with historical evidence. Modern historians are more influenced by political fashions of the day than they are real historical evidence. I’ve yet to find a single so called “tenet of the Lost Cause” that cannot be supported by primary source evidence. And the fact that many of those so called tenets are obviously nothing more than a subjective repulsive reaction to any praise that Southerners directed toward their military men is more evidence that the so called “lost cause myth” is nothing more than modern political persuasions influencing a historical narrative divorced from historical reality.

      2. Unfortunately, Rod, there’s just enough truth in the Lost Cause myth to make it believable, but overall, it’s a fantastic mythology that helps partisans feel better about South and little more. And I say that out of all due respect to folks like Lee and Jackson, whom both have much to teach us. We do them a disservice by mythologizing them rather than treating them as real men with plusses and minuses.

        The easiest way to debunk the Lost Cause is to look at the Western Theater. Oh, wait–there was a Western Theater? To listen to Lost Causers, the war was all in Virginia–not in the west where the Confederacy got its ass kicked over and over. Pay no attention to those armies behind the Appalachians….

        And of course, the Lost Cause ignores the centrality of slavery to the war. Just read the Ordinances of Secession. And the Cornerstones Speech. And “Apostles of Disunion.” And all sorts of other documentary evidence written before the war. The Lost Cause instead emphasizes the postwar writings and excuses of Southerners.

        The Lost Cause is a real, and unfortunate, phenomenon.

      3. You’re absolutely right, Chris; the Lost Cause is not a myth at all. And criticism of it is nothing new. In 1871, Frederick Douglass said that “The spirit of secession is stronger today than ever. It is now a deeply rooted, devoutly cherished sentiment, inseparably identified with the ‘lost cause,’ which the half measures of the government towards the traitors have helped to cultivate and strengthen.” These words- and everything Douglass was- a man who escaped enslavement in 1839 and devoted his life in public speaking, writing and activism to bring about the end of slavery- are why false narratives like the Lost Cause did everything to erase the existence of Black men like him.

        I’ve read enough of original writings of Confederates to know that they wanted the South to be defined by slavery. I’ve seen how much they hated abolitionists and efforts at Black freedom. I’m just so thankful for those who have come to this understanding of history. If you haven’t, it’s not my problem.

    2. Am I supposed to care what you think? Or ask for your permission to publish an article? I know I can back up what I wrote with factual evidence. Lee fought to have men enslaved and Grant fought for their rights. Excuse me if I don’t appreciate the same people you do.

      You know what you can do with your opinion.

  4. Bryan didn’t make a heavy point of it, but the fact that Grant’s primary image in a book intended to be kept was a photograph (even if a great one) and that Lee’s was a post-war painting was another less than subtle way in which the defeated Confederate general was elevated.

  5. I enjoy learning of the qualities, good and bad, of both men.

    For those interested in the subject of business leadership, I recommend:

    Leadership Lessons of Robert. E Lee by Holton, and

    Cigars, Whiskey, and Winning Leadership Lessons from Ulysses S. Grant by Kaltman.

    Both books relate many things that happened in Civil War battles/politics to modern day business leadership.

  6. I think American Heritage got it spot on. Grant is portrayed in an authentic photograph as a real person. Lee is a painting. An artist’s interpretation of the man. Not necessarily the authenticity of a photograph. Grant the man vs. Lee the image, dare I say the myth.

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