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.