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Local News October 23, 2008  RSS feed

Civil War Icons On Display In Exhibit

Grant, Lee And Their Paths To Glory
by Richard Pyle

(AP) Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee met face-to-face only twice—once toward the end of the war with Mexico in 1848, and 17 years later at Appomattox, where then-Union commander Grant accepted the surrender of Lee's battered Confederate army.

But the lives of these two iconic figures of 19th century America were both parallel and intertwined, as a new exhibit that opened last Friday, Oct. 17 at the New-York Historical Society makes clear. "Grant and Lee in War and Peace" illuminates two men who in their similarities, differences and selfcontradictions embodied the travails, successes and failures of the fast-expanding nation.

A 1920 painting of the Appomattox meeting, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, dramatically underscores these themes: Lee, the loser—tall, dignified and resplendent in gray uniform and gilt sword—shaking hands with Grant, the victor—a rough-cut figure in muddy boots and an ordinary solder's tunic with shoulder bars tacked on.

"It's really a 'Lost Cause' version of the event, in which Lee is the central figure and Grant looks as if he is the one who's surrendering," says Kathleen Hulser, curator of the exhibit.

That image reflects the post- Civil War adulation heaped on Lee as an American hero, while Grant's efforts as president to make postwar Reconstruction succeed received lit- tle credit and are not well-known today.

"Few people are aware that Grant sent federal troops south to try to break up the Ku Klux Klan, and to protect the rights of blacks," Hulser said. "He was the only president to do that before Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock in 1957."

The exhibit, to run through March 2009, grew out of an earlier presentation by the Virginia Historical Society, which began as an observance of Lee's 200th birthday in 2007 but eventually merged into a co-production by the two societies.

Although the emphasis in Richmond was more Lee, less Grant, simply including the latter "was rather courageous on the part of the Virginia Historical Society," says Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. "It was a very big risk for them, as complaints from visitors bore out. Grant is still considered the enemy there."

Mirrer says the New York exhibit seeks to convey how Grant and Lee helped to reshape relationships between America's military and civilian authority—through wars, westward expansion and the difficulties of post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South— which, she said, might even offer some lessons for Iraq today.

Along with military items— including Lee's dress uniform, Appomattox sword, pistol and spurs; and Grant's black frock coat and padded leather saddle—artifacts in the exhibit reveal lesserknown aspects of the rival leaders. There are sketches by Lee as an Army engineer and two remarkable water color paintings by Grant. Lee's black dancing slippers rest near a pair of beaded moccasins worn by Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud when he met with President Grant in Washington.

Also displayed are portraits, photographs, colored drawings by Union officer Abner Doubleday, a Lincoln letter to Grant, and a Bowie knife confiscated from anti-slavery rebel John Brown after his capture by militia troops led by Lee at Harper's Ferry, Va., in 1859.

Lee was a Virginia aristocrat whose father had fought with George Washington, and who himself married into the Custis family, Washington's in-laws. He ranked second in his West Point class and later became its superintendent. He professed to hate slavery, yet commanded an army that fought for its preservation.

Grant, 15 years younger, was the son of an Ohio tanner and finished 21st in a class of 39 at the military academy. He also abhorred slavery, yet had a personal slave until 1859. And like Lee—and Abraham Lincoln—he married a woman whose relatives owned slaves.

Both men served with distinction in the war with Mexico, yet both regarded that war as an act of aggression.

Lee told his wife, Mary Custis Lee, that the United States had "bullied" Mexico, adding, "of that I was ashamed as she was the weaker party." In his memoirs, Grant recalled he had "bitterly opposed" the Mexican war as "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger nation against a weaker nation."

Having lived in Ohio and Illinois—then the "west"—and served in frontier army posts as distant as Oregon, Grant had a personal affinity for Indians and as president tried to advance their tribal interests along with those of blacks.

Both men had New York connections beyond West Point. Grant served in 1852 on Governors Island, where his former quarters still exist. Lee spent much time in New York state and in 1841-46 was a captain of Army engineers at Fort Hamilton on the Brooklyn side of New York harbor. "The sea breezes are very cool and refreshing," he wrote to Mary.

As southern states seceded in 1861, Lee rejected Lincoln's offer to command the Union army to side with his native Virginia—a decision that got him branded a traitor in the North. The next year, Lee freed the Custis family's 170 slaves—but was then angered by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation a few days later.

Had Lee accepted the Union command, he might have ended the war quickly, leaving the South and its "peculiar institution" of slavery intact. Years later, Grant saw it that way. In a conversation with German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, he suggested it was a good thing the war had lasted long enough to guarantee slavery's demise.

Both men were seen as brilliant commanders despite blunders that led to appalling casualties. Grant admitted that ordering an attack at Cold Harbor that claimed 7,000 of his men was the worst decision he ever made; Lee said the ill-fated "Pickett's charge" that sealed a Union victory at Gettysburg was "all my fault."

Hulser says a key topic in the exhibit is how West Point not only produced officers trained to fight wars but, as the nation's only engineering school at the time, trained them to design and construct dams and other civic works.

Thus it includes Lee's engineering sketches for rediverting the Mississippi River from its meandering course back toward St. Louis, a project that effectively restored that city's commercial waterfront.

A centerpiece of the exhibit is Grant's famous order at Appomattox, spelling out surrender terms and allowing Confederates to retain their horses and side-arms— handwritten by his secretary, Col. Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian who later became commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Grant administration.

Lee and Grant never met again after Appomattox.

Lee retired to semi-private life as the president of Washington College in Lexington, Va., which was renamed Washington and Lee University. He died in 1870, two years after Grant was elected president, but remained the symbol of the "Lost Cause"—a cult of southern sentiment that continues today in some places.

The same unrepentant rebels who mythologized Lee vilified Grant as a "butcher" and drunkard. Bribery scandals that plagued his second term as President—though not of his making—made matters worse. Financially ruined later by bad business deals, Grant recouped his fortune with his memoirs, completed just days before his death from throat cancer in 1885. Like Lee, he had lived 63 years.

His funeral procession in New York City covered seven miles and was seen by more than a million people. Just as his badly deteriorated tomb overlooking the Hudson was renovated in the 1990s, only in recent decades has Grant's personal reputation been rehabilitated by biographers and historians.

"In the past 20 years there has been a really fresh look at Grant, as the man who tried in a forthright manner to address the unfinished business of the Civil War," said Josiah Bunting III, a retired threestar general and historian who has written his own Grant biography and is an adviser to the exhibit. let, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the sandwiches are browned on both sides and the cheese has melted, about 5 minutes per side.

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