I had the honor of meeting William C. Davis a few months ago when he visited Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. He was the featured speaker for the park’s annual John Y. Simon Day. I took him on a quick personal tour through White Haven. We also had a small reception at which we sat around a table for conversation. I enjoyed getting to meet him and I enjoyed the discussions. At the time, his new dual biography of Grant and Lee, Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee – The War They Fought, The Peace They Forged, had not yet been released. I didn’t find out until one of my co-workers ordered a copy of the book a few weeks ago that Davis had cited a post on this blog in the notes of the book (I was quite flattered.), and I don’t think he knew that night that Yesterday…and Today is my blog. I’ve since ordered a copy of his book for myself and have read through most of it.
Davis informs us in his preface that he relied almost exclusively on primary sources, and that “very sparing use has been made of secondary works, and most of those cited are for purposes of correcting errors found in them, or as recommended further readings.”
For the most part, as I read through the book, I thought Davis treated his subjects with historic objectivity and found little I would disagree with. I am challenged by one aspect of his conclusion, however, and that aspect is represented in the subtitle of the book, “…the peace they forged.” Davis aptly describes the events leading to and including that watershed event in American history, Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. Davis describes the face-to-face meetings between the two great generals and analyzes their feelings and approach to the surrender and the terms agreed upon. In the final chapter, Davis relates “the last meeting” between Grant and Lee.
It was 1869, Grant had been elected President, and Lee sought a visit to the White House. (Interestingly, Fred Dent, now acting as a military secretary to the President, was the liaison who arranged the meeting between Lee and Grant.) The meeting was private. Davis tells us that it was rather short and that accounts vary as to what the former adversaries actually discussed, but they apparently discussed the current state of affairs in the south, in particular the political situation in Virginia and the forthcoming vote on its new constitution. According to Davis, the two men found themselves much in agreement.
[Both Grant and Lee] favored submitting the new Virginia constitution to voters without the disenfranchisement clause, and then holding a separate referendum on that. [Grant] could see that in the Old Dominion the Democrats and moderate Republicans were unhappy with the excesses of the Radicals, and ready to make common cause to exchange resistance to black suffrage for restoration of rights to whites. As summer arrived, and with it nominations for Virginia’s governorship, Grant withheld support from the Radicals’ candidate and tacitly supported a coalition ticket of moderate Republicans headed by Gilbert C. Walker, a Northern-born moderate widely supported by former Whigs in the commonwealth. That put him much in tune with Lee’s antebellum political stance before the war experience made him more conservative. Walker was also aligned with Grant and Lee on the issue of submitting the new constitution and the difficult voting rights clause to separate referenda. Though he could not vote, Lee watched elective politics in Virginia closely, and in June word leaked out that he favored the Walker ticket, as did Grant.
In a close election, Walker won in November to become Virginia’s first Republican governor. As a result, once the constitution passed and it and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments were ratified, military rule ended and Virginia would be readmitted to the Union on January 26, 1870, making it the only state to escape enduring radical reconstruction. Lee may have declined to speak out as Grant wanted, but his views and support for Walker nevertheless became known, and to the extent that Grant was right about Southerners following Lee’s example, the Confederate had an impact. At arm’s length to be sure, Grant and Lee had helped to shape the peace with a template for other states to follow if they chose. (Crucible of Command, pg. 484)
The problem I have is with the last statement. Eric Foner wrote in his Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution:
Southern Democrats made their first attempt to seize the political center in 1869. Instead of running its own candidates for state office, the party threw support to disaffected Republicans, and focused on the restoration of voting rights to former Confederates rather than opposition to black suffrage. In Virginia and Tennessee, the strategy paid immediate dividends. (Reconstruction, pg 412)
While Lee may have been pleased with the results of this course in Virginia, it is pretty clear to me that Grant was not. Brooks Simpson in his book The Reconstruction Presidents wrote bluntly of the Virginia situation: “Grant was not so pleased. In wanting moderate Republicans to win the day, he did not look to hand the state over to the Democrats.” (The Reconstruction Presidents, pg. 141) While Grant may have initially seen Virginia’s course as a “template for other states to follow,” when politicians in other states tried to follow this “template,” Grant quickly changed course and backed the Radicals. In his magisterial study of Reconstruction in Mississippi, The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi, William C. Harris wrote:
From Mississippi, Texas, and Tennessee, where a gubernatorial election was scheduled for August, representatives of both conservative and regular Republican parties descended upon Washington soon after the Virginia election in July to obtain support for their factions. In conferences with President Grant and members of Congress the regular Republicans painted a bleak picture of how affairs in their states would develop if the administration continued to tilt toward conservative Republicans in the South as it had done in Virginia. At a hurriedly called cabinet meeting on July 13, Secretary of Treasury George S. Boutwell, the leading Radical Republican in the administration, denounced the conservative victory in Virginia and declared that the nation had grievously misinterpreted the government’s policy of neutrality in that election; even men in high government and party positions had come to believe that Grant’s southern policy called for the election of the Walker faction over the regular Republicans. They were mistaken, Boutwell said. But the damage to reconstruction had been done, and the only way now to check the disintegration of true republicanism in these states was for the administration to come out unequivocally in support of the regular party there. (The Day of the Carpetbagger, pg. 235-236)
Grant was put in a particularly difficult position in Mississippi when the conservative Republicans, with the support of Democrats, asked Grant’s own brother-in-law, Lewis Dent, to be their gubernatorial candidate. Initially Grant was inclined to support Lewis and the “template” of Virginia, but soon informed his brother-in-law in a letter dated Aug. 1, 1869:
Dear Judge [Lewis Dent]: I am so thoroughly satisfied in my own mind that the success of the so-called Conservative Republican party in Mississippi would result in the defeat of what I believe to be for the best interest of the state and country, that I have determined to say so to you in writing. Of course, I know or believe that your intentions are good in accepting the nomination from the Conservative party. I would regret to see you run for an office, and be defeated by my act, but as matters now look, I must throw the weight of my influence in favor of the party opposed to you… (Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. 19, pg. 221)
Brooks Simpson wrote in The Reconstruction Presidents:
Texas proved more challenging. Although proscription was not an issue, Republican factionalism was especially intense. Grant relied on an old West Point classmate, district commander Joseph J. Reynolds, to advise him what to do; Reynolds eventually sided with the Radicals. For several months the president wavered between Radicals and moderates, hoping that the two factions would work out their differences. When Democrats decided to support the moderates in an effort to repeat what happened in Virginia, Grant threw the administration whole-heartedly behind the candidacy of Radical Edmund J. Davis, who won in a close contest. (Reconstruction Presidents, pg. 141-142)
There are so many books about Grant out there that it can be difficult to recommend just one, and for all but the most dedicated Grant scholar, virtually impossible to read them all. Davis’ approach, a combination Grant/Lee study is unique, however. Davis is obviously an accomplished author, and this book is easily readable. Despite my confusion over his interpretation of Grant’s Reconstruction policy, I still have no problem recommending this book to anyone interested in Grant and/or Lee.