By Janny Scott -- "The New York Times"
Monday, November 20, 2000
The Charlotte Observer -- Monday, November 20, 2000
OP-ED Page: Viewpoint On Books
"Admiring U.S. Grant more, Robert E. Lee less"
By Janny Scott
For the better part of the last century the images of two of the greatest icons of the Civil War remained fixed in the American imagination: Robert E. Lee as the noble and tragic leader of the confederate forces, the brilliant tactician fighting against over-whelming odds, and Ulysses S. Grant as the heavy-drinking butcher who used the North's superior resources to grind down the South, then became one of the worst presidents in history.
Those characterizations are now being challenged by a string of books that are both more admiring of Grant and more skeptical of Lee than would have seemed imaginable only a short time ago. Some historians trace the change to broader shifts over the last few decades in scholars' attitudes toward the Civil War and Reconstruction and in public attitudes toward race.
There is now what Gray W. Gallagher, a Civil War historian at the University of Virginia, calls a cottage industry in books criticizing Lee's generalship -- faulting him for his aggressiveness, accusing him of having squandered limited manpower and needlessly prolonged the war. The long-held idea that Lee opposed slavery has also been discounted.
Meanwhile, several new books on Grant portray him as an extraordinary general who gave a new dimension to American military strategy, whose casualties were proportionally fewer than Lee's, who not only fought to save the Union and free the slaves but also worked hard to enforce Reconstruction and black equality in the South long after it ceased to be popular. Even the extent of his drinking is in doubt.
"There's no question that a re-evaluation is under way," said Jean Edward Smith, a historian at Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va., whose biography, "Grant," is scheduled to be published on April 9, the anniversary of Lee's surrender at Appomattox. "And that has several roots. The first is the re-evaluation of the Civil War and the aftermath and the whole question of slavery and our reassessment of the white South."
James M. McPherson, a historian at Princeton and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era," (Oxford University Press, 1988), said, "The kind of romanticized sympathy-with-the-underdog attitude to the Confederacy has been increasingly out-weighed by the recognition that what the Confederacy was fighting for was a society based on slavery. And what the North was fighting for, if not initially and enthusiastically, was a society moving toward biracial democracy."
Though some earlier writers, like J.F.C. Fuller and Bruce Catton, had challenged the dominant perceptions of Grant and Lee, the current change in tone seems to have begun a decade ago with the publication of "Lee Considered: Gen. Robert E. Lee and Civil War History" (University of North Carolina, 1991), in which Alan T. Nolan argued that Lee's aggressiveness led to his defeat.
At least four other books have followed: "Uncertain Glory: Lee's Generalship re-examined" by John D. McKenzie, "How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War" by Edward H. Bonekemper III, "Robert E. Lee's Civil War" by Bevin Alexander and "Lee Moves North: Robert E. Lee on the Offensive" by Michael A. Palmer.
"I think there was a constituency out there that was kind of fed up with the Lee myth, and once somebody started nailing it, they all came out of the woodwork," said Nolan, whose book was favorably reviewed by historians but was also excoriated on the editorial page of The Richmond News Leader.
At least as many recent histories and biographies are reassessing Grant's military and political careers, among them: "President Grant Reconsidered" by Frank J. Scaturro, "Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President" by Geoffery Perret and "Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865" by Brooks D. Simpson, a historian at Arizona State University who is working on a second volume.
Three novels about Grant were published last summer. The PBS series "American Experience" plans a two-part biography of Grant. And Joan Waugh, a historian at the University of California at Los Angeles, is writing a book on the memorialization of Grant in the 19th century.
Waugh and others trace the glorification of Lee to the turn of the last century and the attempt to reunify the country and move beyond the war. As Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University, explained, Lee was held up as someone the entire nation could look back on with pride, an embodiment of the nobility of the South, courage against great odds and devotion to principle.
To put the best possible spin on the war, Southern writers in the post-bellum years characterized the South's shattering defeat as an honorable effort against impossible odds, Gallagher said. To distance the Confederacy from the taint of slavery, those so-called Lost Cause writers suggested that the war was not about slavery but constitutional issues.
"Lee as the exemplar of slave-owning aristocracy was romanticized by three generations of Southern historians," said Smith, the Grant biographer. "Grant was denigrated by this same school of historiography, which really dominated American thought through World War II."
John Y. Simon, a historian at Southern Illinois University and the editor of Grant's papers, said Grant's reputation dropped to an all-time low in the 1930's, at the time of the country's abandonment of the Reconstruction policies Grant had worked to uphold.
Now, however, Smith in his new book emphasizes Grant's dedication to racial equality, his support for black suffrage and for Lincoln's policy of admitting black soldiers into the Army, his efforts as president to crush the Ku Klux Klan and his pursuit of a peace policy in the West.
The current reassessments have not gone entirely unchallenged, especially with regard to Lee. Gallagher, who says that Nolan did a good job of getting people to look more realistically at important aspects of Lee's life, dismisses much of the criticism of Lee as a soldier: "I think they're almost dead wrong in terms of Lee's impact on Confederate fortunes."
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