The Unlikely Paths of Grant and Lee

The two men met at Appomattox. The loser would become a role model, the victor an embarrassment.

Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

One hundred fifty years ago, in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Ulysses S. Grant won the Civil War.* His chief opponent, Gen. Robert E. Lee of the Confederate States, had surrendered, all but ending the rebellion that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives but freed millions more.

But this was just the beginning of Grant’s career. Three years later, after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the terrible tenure of Andrew Johnson, he was elected president and served two terms, leaving office as a celebrated statesman. Afterward, he would manage a bank, lose his wealth, and die from cancer, although not before penning the greatest memoir of any former president. But this isn’t the end of his story; Grant would die a second death of sorts, as opponents reduced his life to its worst qualities: His bloody tactics came to the forefront, as did his drinking and the corruption in his administration. There are few monuments to Grant, and they are mostly ignored.

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By contrast, Robert E. Lee didn’t have Grant’s long career in public life. He died in 1870, just a few years after the war. But in his short tenure as president of what’s now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, he became a Southern saint, never defeated, and a man who surrendered his army with honor and dignity. In death, this part of Lee would subsume the whole person. In 1890, when ex-Confederates erected a monument to Lee in the middle of Richmond, Virginia—the old Confederate capital—he would stand as an avatar for the Old South, the symbol of a romantic age. At present, there are Lee memorials across the South: highways, parks, monuments, and state commemorations. And in popular memory, he remains a figure of admiration, an example of duty, honor, and chivalry.

To millions of Americans, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, Lee is a role model and Grant is—despite his gifted generalship and consequential presidency—an embarrassment. What happened? How did the hero of the war become a quasi-ignominious figure, and how did the champion of Southern slavery become, if not the war’s hero, its most popular figure?

The answer begins with Reconstruction. As best as possible, President Grant was a firm leader of Reconstruction America. Faced with the titanic challenge of integrating freedmen into American politics, he attacked the problem with characteristic clarity and flexibility. He proposed civil rights legislation (and would be the last president to do so until Dwight D. Eisenhower, nearly a century later) and deployed troops to hot spots across the South, to defend black Americans from white supremacist violence.* And while there were failures—at times he was too passive in the face of white violence, too paralyzed by petty politics—there were real victories too. After Congress passed the Enforcement Acts—criminal codes that protected blacks’ 14th and 15th Amendment rights to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and receive equal protection of laws—Grant authorized federal troops to confront the Ku Klux Klan and other groups of anti-black terrorists. Declaring them “insurgents … in rebellion against the authority of the United States,” Grant and his subordinates—most notably Attorney General Amos Ackerman and the newly formed Department of Justice—broke the Klan and restored some peace to the Republican South.

In using federal power to prosecute white supremacists and support Reconstruction governments, Grant had tied his fortunes to those of freedmen and their allies. They were grateful. Grant won re-election in 1872 with the vast backing of black voters in the South, as well as former Union soldiers in the North. Appalled by his use of force in the South, his enemies dogged him as an enemy of liberty. Indeed, for as much as scandal plagued his administration, it’s also true that many cries of corruption came from angry and aggrieved Democrats, who attacked military intervention in the South as “corrupt” and “unjust.” Opponents in the North and South reviled Grant as a “tyrant” who imposed so-called “black domination” on an innocent South.

Grant wasn’t blind to his critics, and he devoted his presidency and post-presidency to defending both his record as general and the aims of the war he won. “While I would do nothing to revive unhappy memories in the South,” he once declared, “I do not like to see our soldiers apologize for the war.”

Facing him was a phalanx of Southern sympathizers and former Confederates, from ex-president Jefferson Davis to polemical writers like Edward Pollard, who would give the name “Lost Cause” to the movement to redeem and defend the former Confederacy. Born out of grief and furthered by a generation of organizations (like United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy), proponents of the Lost Cause would wage a battle for the nation’s memory of the war. To them it was not a rebellion or a fight for slavery; it was a noble battle for constitutional ideals. As Davis put it in his two-volume memoir and defense of the Southern cause, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, slavery “was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident,” and the South was fighting against “unlimited, despotic power” of the federal government and its “tremendous and sweeping usurpation” of states’ rights.

Which brings us to Lee, who—in his surrender at Appomattox—gave raw materials to the Lost Cause. “After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources,” wrote Lee in his farewell address. “You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from a consciousness of duty faithfully performed; and I earnestly pray that a Merciful God will extend to you His blessings and protection.”

Not only would this order help cement Lee as a Southern icon—as historian David Blight writes in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Lost Cause advocates would canonize Lee as a “blameless Christian soldier, a paragon of manly virtue and duty who soared above politics”—but it would fuel other narratives: that the nation should honor Southern bravery, that the Union’s victory was one of numerical superiority and not tactical skill (it’s in this that we see the claim that Grant was a “butcher” of men, despite all evidence to the contrary), that Reconstruction was a disaster of federal overreach, and that white supremacy was the proper order of things in the United States. And in at least the case of Southern bravery, Lost Causers would find help from Grant, who admired Lee and the soldiers he led. “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse,” Grant wrote in an oft-quoted passage of his memoirs. “I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”

Grant’s post-facto nod to Lee would stand as a powerful symbol of reconciliation. Blight writes, “Grant’s passing was invoked as a moment of national unity. Some Confederate veterans’ groups in the South passed resolutions of honor and sympathy for their former foe.” Two of his pallbearers were former Confederate generals—appointed by Democratic President Grover Cleveland—representatives of a nation united in mourning and eager to move on. Exhausted by Reconstruction and the battles over black rights, white Northerners were eager to put the past behind them and reunite with their Southern cousins. The Lost Cause was a template for doing just that. White Americans didn’t want to dwell on the challenges of race and emancipation, and the South’s narrative of honor and sincerity—aggressively pushed by Confederate veterans and their supporters—allowed everyone to celebrate the individual greatness of men like Lee and Grant, even as the latter never abandoned his view that the Southern cause was slavery and that the North was right to wage the war.

In popular culture, this sentimental picture of sectional rapprochement was spread by a cottage industry of writers and publishers; in academia, it was helped along in the early 20th century by scholars under the tutelage of historian William Archibald Dunning of Columbia University. Following his lead, a generation of writers would bring the Lost Cause and its ideas into American historiography. To the “Dunning School,” Reconstruction was a terrible failure, a product of dangerous revolutionaries (the Radical Republicans) and an enfeebled, drunken, and corrupt President Grant. Dunning and his students justified the proto-Jim Crow “Black Codes,” and derided the entire project of the Republican Party as a dangerous experiment in “Negro rule.” “A concept that for them,” writes historian John David Smith, “signified a saturnalia of corruption and fiscal excess by black, carpetbag, and scalawag state governments and the tyranny of U.S. Army occupation forces.” Blacks were inferior, they reasoned, and unfit for any government. They praised Andrew Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction and attacked Grant’s in an effort to bury his reputation.

If the ideas of the Dunning School stuck with the public, it’s in large part because it gave white Northerners license to ignore black oppression, and white Southerners a way to justify it. “The traditional or Dunning School of Reconstruction was not just an interpretation of history. It was part of the edifice of the Jim Crow System,” said historian Eric Foner in a recent interview with The Nation. “It was an explanation for and justification of taking the right to vote away from black people on the grounds that they completely abused it during Reconstruction.” It’s hard to overstate Dunning’s influence. President Woodrow Wilson—a virulent white supremacist—held to the Dunning School, as did a generation of the men and women responsible for American mythmaking. Dunning’s narrative was the basis for the novel The Clansman, later adapted into the pathbreaking film The Birth of a Nation—it has all the elements of Lost Cause mythology and history—as well as the novel Gone With the Wind and its film adaptation several decades later. And you can see vestiges of it in our continued fascination with the noble ex-Confederate, sent West in pursuit of life, revenge, or both.

There were strong challenges to this view—W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America stands as the most prominent—but this picture would hold in American life until the Civil Rights movement, when a new generation of scholars challenged the consensus and began the slow work of rehabilitation, for Reconstruction and for Grant. That work continues, exemplified in works like Foner’s Reconstruction and Douglas Egerton’s The Wars of Reconstruction, as well as Frank Scaturro’s President Grant Reconsidered and Joan Waugh’s U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.

But while historians have rehabilitated Grant in academia—as a flawed president who nonetheless held a strong commitment to black rights—his standing still lags in public memory. The reverse is true of Lee. To many, he is what he’s been for almost 150 years: a decent man on the wrong side of history.

Whether this changes depends on where the country goes. Both men are eternally tied to Appomattox and everything it meant, from the end of the Confederate dream to the promise of emancipation. And in turn, their legacies are tied to what those things mean today, from the particular heritage celebrated by millions of white Southerners to the fight for full inclusion of black Americans to national life. Maybe, if full racial equality is in our future, Grant will rise higher as the man who helped move the country a step toward its destination, while Lee declines to the background of history. And if that isn’t our path? Then Lee might remain as an image of what we want our past to look like, and not what it was.

*Correction, April 10, 2015: This article originally misstated that Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia. He surrendered in the village Appomattox Court House, Virginia. And it also misstated that Grant was the last president to propose civil rights legislation until Lyndon Johnson. He was the last to do so until Dwight D. Eisenhower.