"In the Beginning, all America was Virginia."
William Byrd II
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Lee and Grant

Introduction

Lee and Grant was on display at the VHS:
October 13, 2007 – March 31, 2008

By the end of the Civil War, most Americans considered either Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant to be a hero. The reputations of these two generals, however, would wax and wane over the next 150 years. The time has come for a reassessment of these two men, on whom fell the greatest responsibility for the survival or disintegration of the United States.

This exhibition is far more than a study of Lee and Grant, however. These generals have come to symbolize the two nations that fought the Civil War. Each was a product of his region and his rearing. When we investigate the values that they championed and the decisions that they made, which literally changed the course of America's history, we better understand how war came about. And when we examine their efforts to forge a reunited nation in the years after the Civil War, we also discover the sectional legacies that many contemporary Americans have inherited from southern gentry and from Yankee self-made men.

Robert E. LeeReinventing Robert E. Lee, 1865-2007

Throughout his life, Robert E. Lee aspired to remarkably high standards of duty, honor, self-denial, and self-control; his personal qualities were thought by many of his contemporaries to be a worthy example. Lee was particularly revered in the South. Writers defending the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy described him as a military genius who represented what was best about the Old South. By the end of the 1800s, Lee was widely accepted as an American hero. Former Union officer Charles Francis Adams could eulogize his onetime opponent as "one of our sacred men" whom we "wish to resemble." Sculptors and painters depicted Lee as a noble figure, and Douglass Southall Freeman wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography about the general. Winston Churchill ranked Lee as "one of the noblest Americans who ever lived."

What was worst about the Old South, however—the institution of slavery—would undermine Lee's standing in American memory. Lee has become a lightning rod for attacks against both the society of the antebellum South and the oppressive circumstances faced by many African Americans in the years since the end of the Civil War. Today, many Americans question how any man can be considered great if he joined a cause that attempted to break apart the nation and perpetuate slavery.

Ulysses S. Grant, 1864Reinventing Ulysses S. Grant, 1865–2007

Ulysses S. Grant's place in American memory would seem to be secure. From humble beginnings, he rose to save the Union. He was a talented and highly determined individual who had become first in the hearts of his countrymen, many of whom were quick to see the parallel between Grant’s achievements and those of George Washington. As president, Grant advanced the rights of African Americans and Native Americans, and in international affairs he steered the nation from the brink of wars with two European powers, Spain and England. Grant fought bravely against his last terrifying foe, throat cancer, and when he died more than a million people watched his funeral procession pass through the streets of Manhattan. Painters, sculptors, and biographers celebrated his accomplishments. While we now think of Abraham Lincoln as the greatest American of his moment, many of their contemporaries would have seen Grant as his equal.

However, as Lee's national stature rose, Grant's declined. The slaughter on the western front during World War I restored memories of Grant's huge losses in Virginia in 1864. Lapses in judgment by appointees of President Warren Harding in the 1920s recalled the political scandals of the Grant administrations. By the late 1900s, Grant's importance had dimmed to the point where his magnificent tomb was largely neglected. Until recently, Grant was often viewed as a man of little spirit and less imagination, remembered more for the accusations of alcoholism than for his heroism.

 

Robert E. Lee, 1864, by Julian Vannerson Enter Fullscreen More information
Robert E. Lee by Julian Vannerson, 1864
This photograph, taken in Richmond in the year that Lee would confront Grant, was popular in the South because Vannerson's general seems to be the physical manifestation of a culture based on honor and chivalry. The image further appealed to white southerners because Lee remained their best hope for Confederate victory and independence. By 1864, those objectives were fast becoming elusive. (VHS accession number: 2001.2.130)
Jean Antonin Mercié, Lee Monument, Richmond Enter Fullscreen More information
Jean Antonin Mercié, Lee Monument, Richmond, 1890, the unveiling
In Richmond during the 1880s, veterans of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and members of the Ladies' Lee Monument Association collaborated to stage a sculpture competition to honor the most revered of the former Confederates. In the winning entry, sculpted by a French artist, the giant figure of the general restrains his powerful but graceful mount; Lee is shown to be the embodiment of self-control. The size and mood of the crowd at the statue's unveiling—some 150,000 exuberant white southerners—made clear Lee's high reputation in the South in 1890. For those admirers, only the word "Lee" was needed on the base to identify the subject. (VHS accession number: 2002.300.56)
I fought for Virginia. Now it’s your turn! Join the Lee Navy Volunteeers, 1942 Enter Fullscreen More information
I fought for Virginia. Now it’s your turn!, 1942
Mid-century Americans who had been disillusioned by the tragedies of World War I and the Great Depression took an interest in the southern example of survival some eighty years before. Remembrances of Lee's strength of character, which had helped the South to endure defeat and economic misery, once again became popular. Thus, during World War II, recruiting efforts in Virginia were bolstered by invoking Lee's memory. (VHS accession number: 2006.37)
General U. S. Grant, 1899, by Franklin Simmons Enter Fullscreen More information
Franklin Simmons, General U. S. Grant, 1899 Marble, Rotunda, U.S. Capitol, Washington
Near the turn of the century, two important sculptures of Grant were produced for display in the nation's capital. In 1890, the Grand Army of the Republic voted to honor its general with a full-length sculpture to be placed in the rotunda of the U. S. Capitol. It was completed in 1899 and unveiled the next year, beside a statue of the other man who had preserved the Union, Abraham Lincoln. (Architect of the Capitol)
General Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, 1912–20, by Henry Mervin Shrady Enter Fullscreen More information
Henry Mervin Shrady, General Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, 1912–20 Bronze, National Mall, Washington, D.C.
The second Grant sculpture, an equestrian grouping, was placed on the lawn below the Capitol. The idea originated in 1895 with the Society of the Army of the Tennessee, veterans who had served under Grant in the West. Their proposed sculpture was incorporated into a plan then being developed for a new, geometric National Mall—the design that exists today. It would serve as a focal point of the east-west axis. At the opposite end would be a memorial to Abraham Lincoln. The Grant sculpture would be the largest that the nation had ever seen. Its components would stretch more than 250 feet across the lawn below the Capitol, forming a plaza almost the length of a football field. The sum of $250,000 was set aside, making the sculpture the most expensive work of art ever federally funded. The project would take decades to complete. But by 1920 when it was finished, many Americans had lost interest in the nation’s most highly decorated general. In only two decades, Grant's reputation had collapsed. (National Park Service)
Grant on the Porch at Mount MacGregor Four Days Before His Death, 1885 Enter Fullscreen More information
Grant on the Porch at Mount MacGregor Four Days Before His Death, 1885
Bankrupt and suffering from painful throat cancer, Grant turned to writing about the Civil War as a means to provide an income for his family. As he grew weaker he heroically completed his Memoirs. Poignant photographs like this one show the general diligently focused on his task. Grant finished only days before he died. In his reassessment of his military career, Grant had produced an American literary masterpiece. His friend Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) judged the Memoirs "the most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar." Refreshingly honest, clear, and fluidly written, the book was soon in demand in both the North and South. Sales of 250,000 copies were quickly realized, generating for Julia (by then a widow) $200,000, the largest royalty check that had ever been written. (New-York Historical Society)
Robert E. Lee, 1864, by Julian Vannerson
Robert E. Lee by Julian Vannerson, 1864
Jean Antonin Mercié, Lee Monument, Richmond
Jean Antonin Mercié, Lee Monument, Richmon
I fought for Virginia. Now it’s your turn! Join the Lee Navy Volunteeers, 1942
I fought for Virginia.
General U. S. Grant, 1899, by Franklin Simmons
Franklin Simmons, General U. S.
General Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, 1912–20, by Henry Mervin Shrady
Henry Mervin Shrady, General Ulysses S.
Grant on the Porch at Mount MacGregor Four Days Before His Death, 1885
Grant on the Porch at Mount MacGregor Four
Continue reading: Before the War