On 13 July 1863, President Abraham Lincoln wrote this remarkable letter to “My Dear General,” Ulysses S. Grant:
I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did — march the troops across the neck — run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, would succeed. When you finally got below, and took Port Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks, and when you turned Northward East of Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.
Yours very truly, Abraham Lincoln.
To this letter from his commander-in-chief, the president of the United States, General Grant made no reply.
One can easily imagine the scene: Grant, reading the letter, folding it into his pocket, shifting his stogie from the right side to the left side of his mouth, and then putting the presidentÃ-s letter out of his mind, sitting down on a tree stump, taking a stick and a pocket knife, and whittling while thinking about his next plan of attack. That was Grant’s way. He was — notes Josiah Bunting, former superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute and author of this incisive new volume on Grant, an installment in the “American Presidents Series” edited by Arthur Schlesinger — the sort of man who gives himself “uncalculatedly to the work.” For Grant, taciturn, imperturbable, undemonstrative, what mattered was executing the job before him — winning battles and winning the war. Praise, blame, reward, and any other considerations were superfluous, dismissed immediately, if recognized at all, in the single-minded pursuit of his objective.
As such Grant epitomizes a certain sort of American hero — an archetype of American Democratic man just as much as Robert E. Lee is an archetype of a gallant, lost, aristocratic Virginia. The first sentence of Grant’s memoirs reads: “My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.” He was the silent American hero: a man who does rather than talks. This was no source of comfort to such as Henry Adams, who wrote that to trace a line from Alexander the Great to George Washington to Grant was to disprove DarwinÃ-s theory of evolution.
The usual comparison is between Grant and Lee. Bunting encapsulates the standard portraits: “Lee’s reputation is as a tactical genius, always making do with less. Beyond this he was seen, in both North and South, as an embodiment of nobility, as humbly allegiant to a cause… a cause he had not made his own without the searching of a patriot’s soul. He was a paragon of modest stillness, forbearance, and humility, and in his person incarnated the virtues of Washington, indeed of Marcus Aurelius.”
As for Grant, Lee’s very virtues “implied the less attractive quality of his opponent. A casual compilation of adjectives describing Grant’s appearance provides evidence of a plebeian character: slouching, rumpled, stooped, sloppy, stubby, grubby, slovenly, dusty, shuffling — all the superficial indicia of what a contemporary called a pachydermism — exactly the kind of character, ruthless and unfeeling, that it must have taken to subdue Lee.” One of Grant’s own staff officers at Appomattox said that Grant was “covered with mud and in an old faded uniform, looking like a fly on the shoulder of beef.” And another regretted that the war had not been “closed with such a battle as Gettysburg…. As it is, the rebellion has been more worn out than suppressed.”
But what the standard comparison misses is how similar in other ways Grant and Lee were. If Grant gave himself uncalculatedly to his work, so too was this a prime attribute of Lee’s. Both men were exemplars of Christian humility. Both men were West Pointers. Grant’s best friends at West Point — and throughout his life — were Southerners and Midwesterners. When Lee wrote about abolitionist New Englanders with rare sarcasm — “Is it not strange that the descendants of those pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others” — he wrote of a regional elite with whom Grant always felt uneasy as well. Both generals were veterans of the Mexican War. After three years of battles in the War Between the States, they were the notable victors: the two great generals who at last had to confront each other. Grant was a master strategist, Lee a master tactician. And when the two men met at Appomattox, they emerged from the encounter with such fellow feeling that their meeting set the stage for the reconciliation of North and South. After the war, Lee never allowed anyone in his presence to speak ill of General Grant.
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