Grant and Lee in War and Peace

New-York Historical Society, New York, N.Y., Through March 29

Grant was a corrupt drunkard who recklessly butchered men. Lee was a brilliant general and a perfect Southern gentleman. These longstanding myths get much-needed infusions of historical reality in this suggestive, and sometimes slyly provocative, exhibit.

It balances reductionist clichés, for example, by documenting some of Grant’s amazing accomplishments: his horsemanship and quartermaster skills; his use of improvisation, learned from Zachary Taylor during the Mexican War, to outfox Rebel adversaries; his dogged persistence despite the unexpected turns and gore of battle; and his commitment to escaped slaves and freedmen. Low-key and soft-spoken, artlessly unaffected, blindly loyal to friends, Grant became a hard man running a hard and bitter war of attrition. “I can’t spare this man,” Lincoln said famously after bloody Shiloh—where Grant lost more than 13,000 killed, wounded or missing—boosted cries for the general’s head. “He fights.” Nominated and elected president almost despite himself, Grant then oversaw a hard and bitter peace that left him exhausted—and his reputation in muddy tatters.

For his part, Lee, key postwar symbol of Old South mythologies, was indeed a typical Virginia gentleman: an unapologetic slaveowner and incorrigible flirt fairly obsessed by family lineage and social rank. And while he was a very good general, Gettysburg, for instance, made clear his serious limits as strategist and tactician.

Revamped from last year’s more nostalgic “Lee and Grant” exhibit organized by the Virginia Historical Society, this well-designed show presents a complex yet seamless multimedia web. There is extensive memorabilia (George Washington’s pistol, inherited by Mrs. Robert E. Lee; Grant’s spurs and West Point demerits list; Lee’s Book of Common Prayer and black leather dancing slippers; drawings by Grant and Lee); classic paintings (George Catlin, Winslow Homer), woodcuts (Currier & Ives) and photos (Mathew Brady); and eye-catching interactive and video stations. All this is woven through an intelligent, browse-friendly spatial arrangement.

A central theme is the development of the U.S. Army that shaped these two American leaders. To allay national fears of a standing army and to facilitate the nation’s prodigious growth, West Point graduates such as Lee and Grant mapped the land as the territories multiplied, building roads, bridges and levees while trying—feebly—to patrol it. As Kathleen Hulser, exhibit curator and the society’s public historian, notes, “West Point trained the only engineers in the country, and their work demonstrated to Americans that the army was a useful and vital national resource.”

This is history with contemporary resonance. Senior exhibition historian Richard Rabinowitz says, “We wanted to invite viewers to think about how we got to where we are now.” The Welcome Panel amplifies how: “This exhibition asks us to reflect on the application of military power to the achievement of our national goals.” It offers possible parallels: between the Seminole Wars (where Abner Doubleday wrote, “We can’t fight what we can’t see”) and Vietnam; between the army’s politically induced paralysis during the Bleeding Kansas crisis and Bosnia and Kosovo; and between nation-building in the Reconstruction South and in Iraq. Free of proselytizing and dogma, “Grant and Lee” is engaged history at its best: using the past’s questions to suggest ways of seeing today’s.


Originally published in the February 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.