Common Bonds: The Duty and Honor of Lee and Grant

By Woodville, Louisa | Humanities, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

Common Bonds: The Duty and Honor of Lee and Grant


Woodville, Louisa, Humanities


ON MAY 5, 1864, the day dawned beautifully over the Rapidan in Virginia. It would not remain so.

Over the next two days Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia faced Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac. "The woods were set on fire by the bursting shell, and the conflagration raged. The wounded ... were either suffocated or burned to death," wrote Grant By the time the battle finished, each general had lost 20 percent of his army.

The encounter, which became known as the Battle of the Wilderness, was the first time the generals fought against each other in the Civil War. But it was not the first time that their lives had intersected, nor would it be the last. "Lee and Grant," a new NEH-fimded traveling exhibition opening at the Virginia Historical Society on October 17, profiles the two men and attempts to reclaim them from the mystique that has distorted their history and legacy.

According to the show's curators-William Rasmussen of the Virginia Historical Society and Robert Tilton, chairman of the English department at the University of Connecticut, Storrs-historical assessments of Lee and Grant have been influenced by parochialism and contemporary politics. "Both men have been regionalized; one was a hero and the other was a villain. At the same time, Lee was given too much adulation and Grant too little-Grant's reputation just plummeted. People have not been getting a true picture of either," says Rasmussen.

In the exhibition and the accompanying catalog, the curators use the generals' words and those of their contemporaries to reintroduce the men. The commonalities between the two men are striking. They both owned slaves, both were against secession, and both believed that politicians let things get out of hand. "It's amazing to see them saying essentially the same thing about slavery, secession, and avoiding the war," says Rasmussen.

For Robert E. Lee, the elder of the two by sixteen years, honor was everything. His father's accomplishments and failures were both sources of pride and shame. Henry Lee III was a Revolutionary War hero and a governor of Virginia, but his financial failings landed him in debtors' prison. When Lee was a child, his father exiled himself to the West Indies following a brutal attack by a Baltimore mob in 1812.

Grant's early life on the Ohio frontier is a startling contrast. His father, Jesse Grant, was a tanner by trade. Adverse to the family business, Grant spent much of his time working the family's farmland and developing his skills as a horseman.

The lack of family money to pay for a university education resulted in both men attending West Point. The army's traditions of honor suited Lee, who graduated second in his class in 1829. Lee "never 'ran the sentinel post/ did not go off the limits to the 'Benny Havens' of his day, or put 'dummies' in his bed to deceive the officer in charge as he made his inspection after taps," according to his nephew Fitzhugh Lee.

Grant, on the other hand, chafed at West Point's rigors, while excelling in math and horsemanship. When he graduated in 1843, he was 21 out of a class of 39, his demerits sinking his standing. "A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the army even if I should be graduated, which I did not expect," wrote Grant.

For men of their generation, the Mexican War became the first place to test their mettle as soldiers. "To Grant, the Mexican War taught the importance of leadership, morale, and a well-fed and well-clothed army. For Lee, by contrast, the Mexican War offered an immersion in strategy and field operations under varied conditions," says New-York Historical Society curator Kathleen Hulser, who worked on the exhibition's development.

Grant's schooling in leadership came from his mentor General Zachary Taylor. "General Taylor was not an officer to trouble the administration much with his demands, but was inclined to do the best he could with the means given him . …

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