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Grant and Lee: A study in Contrasts
When Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee met in the parlor of a modest house at Appomattox
Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, to work out the terms for the surrender of Lee’s Army
of Northern Virginia, a great chapter in American life came to a close, and a great new chapter
These men were bringing the Civil War to its virtual finish. To be sure, other armies had yet to
surrender, and for a few days the fugitive Confederate government would struggle desperately
and vainly, trying to find some way to go on living now that its chief support was gone. But in
effect it was all over when Grant and Lee signed the papers. And the little room where they
wrote out the terms was the scene of one of the poignant, dramatic contrasts in American history.
They were two strong men, these oddly different generals, and they represented the strengths of
two conflicting currents that, through them, had come into final collision.
Back of Robert E. Lee was the notion that the old aristocratic concept might somehow survive
and be dominant in American life.
Lee was tidewater Virginia, and in his background were family, culture, and tradition. . . the age
of chivalry transplanted to a New World which was making its own legends and its own myths.
He embodied a way of life that had come down through the age of knighthood and the English
country squire. America was a land that was beginning all over again, dedicated to nothing much
more complicated than the rather hazy belief that all men had equal rights and should have an
equal chance in the world. In such a land Lee stood for the feeling that it was somehow of
advantage to human society to have a pronounced inequality in the social structure. There should
be a leisure class, backed by ownership of land; in turn, society itself should be keyed to the land
as the chief source of wealth and influence. It would bring forth (according to this ideal) a class
of men with a strong sense of obligation to the community; men who lived not to gain advantage
for themselves, but to meet the solemn obligations which had been laid on them by the very fact
that they were privileged. From them the country would get its leadership; to them it could look
for the higher values–of thought, of conduct, of personal deportment–to give it strength and
Lee embodied the noblest elements of this aristocratic ideal. Through him, the landed nobility
justified itself. For four years, the Southern states had fought a desperate war to uphold the ideals
for which Lee stood. In the end, it almost seemed as if the Confederacy fought for Lee; as if he
himself was the Confederacy . . . the best thing that the way of life for which the Confederacy
stood could ever have to offer. He had passed into legend before Appomattox. Thousands of
tired, underfed, poorly clothed Confederate soldiers, long since past the simple enthusiasm of the
early days of the struggle, somehow considered Lee the symbol of everything for which they had
been willing to die. But they could not quite put this feeling into words. If the Lost Cause,
sanctified by so much heroism and so many deaths, had a living justification, its justification was
Grant, the son of a tanner on the Western frontier, was everything Lee was not. He had come up
the hard way and embodied nothing in particular except the eternal toughness and sinewy fiber
of the men who grew up beyond the mountains. He was one of a body of men who owed
reverence and obeisance to no one, who were self-reliant to a fault, who cared hardly anything
for the past but who had a sharp eye for the future.
These frontier men were the precise opposites of the tidewater aristocrats. Back of them, in the
great surge that had taken people over the Alleghenies and into the opening Western country,
there was a deep, implicit dissatisfaction with a past that had settled into grooves. They stood for
democracy, not from any reasoned conclusion about the proper ordering of human society, but
simply because they had grown up in the middle of democracy and knew how it worked. Their
society might have privileges, but they would be privileges each man had won for himself.
Forms and patterns meant nothing. No man was born to anything, except perhaps to a chance to
show how far he could rise. Life was competition.
Yet along with this feeling had come a deep sense of belonging to a national community. The
Westerner who developed a farm, opened a shop, or set up in business as a trader could hope to
prosper only as his own community prospered–and his community ran from the Atlantic to the
Pacific and from Canada down to Mexico. If the land was settled, with towns and highways and
accessible markets, he could better himself. He saw his fate in terms of the nation’s own destiny.
As its horizons expanded, so did his. He had, in other words, an acute dollars-and-cents stake in
the continued growth and development of his country.
And that, perhaps, is where the contrast between Grant and Lee becomes most striking. The
Virginia aristocrat, inevitably, saw himself in relation to his own region. He lived in a static
society which could endure almost anything except change. Instinctively, his first loyalty would
go to the locality in which that society existed. He would fight to the limit of endurance to
defend it, because in defending it he was defending everything that gave his own life its deepest
The Westerner, on the other hand, would fight with an equal tenacity for the broader concept of
society. He fought so because everything he lived by was tied to growth, expansion, and a
constantly widening horizon. What he lived by would survive or fall with the nation itself He
could not possibly stand by unmoved in the face of an attempt to destroy the Union. He would
combat it with everything he had, because he could only see it as an effort to cut the ground out
from under his feet.
So Grant and Lee were in complete contrast, representing two diametrically opposed elements in
American life. Grant was the modem man emerging; beyond him, ready to come on the stage,
was the great age of steel and machinery, of crowded cities and a restless burgeoning vitality.
Lee might have ridden down from the old age of chivalry, lance in hand, silken banner fluttering
over his head. Each man was the perfect champion of his cause, drawing both his strengths and
his weaknesses from the people he led.
Yet it was not all contrast, after all. Different as they were–in background, in personality, in
underlying aspiration–these two great soldiers had much in common. Under everything else,
they were marvelous fighters. Furthermore, their fighting qualities were really very much alike.
Each man had, to begin with, the great virtue of utter tenacity and fidelity. Grant fought his way
down the Mississippi Valley in spite of acute personal discouragement and profound military
handicaps. Lee hung on in the trenches at Petersburg after hope itself had died. In each man there
was an indomitable quality. . . . the born fighter’s refusal to give up as long as he can still remain
on his feet and lift his two fists.
Daring and resourcefulness they had, too; the ability to think faster and move faster than the
enemy. These were the qualities which gave Lee the dazzling campaigns of Second Manassas
and Chancellorsville and won Vicksburg for Grant.
Lastly, and perhaps greatest of all, there was the ability, at the end, to turn quickly from war to
peace once the fighting was over. Out of the way these two men behaved at Appomattox carne
the possibility of a peace of reconciliation. It was a possibility not wholly realized, in the years to
come, but which did, in the end, help the two sections to become one nation again . . . after a war
whose bitterness might have seemed to make such a reunion wholly impossible. No part of either
man’s life became him more than the part he played in this brief meeting in the McLean house at
Appomattox. Their behavior there put all succeeding generations of Americans in their debt.
Two great Americans, Grant and Lee–very different, yet under everything very much alike.
Their encounter at Appomattox was one of the great moments of American history.
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