Grant, Lee, and the Politics of Reconstruction

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.


Who’s Buried In Grant’s Tomb?

If you’ve read the “about me” page of this blog you know I live St. Louis, but I am a product of the west coast. Last week, for the first time in my life, I visited New York City. I have wanted to get there for many years, and there were certain things I especially wanted to see; probably not all of which would be what a more typical New York tourist would want to see. Perhaps not surprisingly, number one on my list was General Grant National Memorial, or in more popular parlance, “Grant’s Tomb.”

At Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site I am often asked where Grant is buried. Sometimes a visitor will playfully ask, “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” Well, to be precise, no one is buried in Grant’s Tomb. I can now personally attest that the sarcophagi of Ulysses and Julia can be viewed inside the immense mausoleum that was officially dedicated on April 27, 1897.

Visitors to Grant’s Tomb today may not be aware of the rather sordid modern history of the Tomb; how it was neglected, fell into disrepair, was covered in graffitti, became a place where the homelees lived, and where New York gangs fought gun battles. That history is partially documented here, including photos. Also, Joan Waugh’s book, U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth  includes much on the Tomb’s history. I had the pleasure of a conversation with the NPS rangers at the site who told me stories that make one’s hair stand on end. It wasn’t too long ago that visitation was only around 10,000 annually and NPS rangers were actually afraid to go there. I am happy to report that has all changed now; according to the NPS ranger I spoke to, visitation is about 100,000 a year, and my wife and I felt entirely comfortable (in fact, we were in many parts of the city during our three days and nights and never once felt apprehensive or unsafe).

While much has been done, there is still more that needs to be done, as can be seen in the photos below. In particular, the mosaic sculptures which surround the Tomb are completely out of place. The Tomb is staffed by only three full time NPS employees, one of whom is on loan from Liberty Island while that site is still shut down due to Hurricane Sandy. The shortage of employees means the Tomb is frequently closed because the staff can’t cover both the visitor center and the tomb at the same time. The visitor center is actually a recent addition. It is housed in what used to be the public restrooms under the pavillion overlook. There is a gift shop, and a small interpretive room which has text panels, a few artifacts, and a video. Unfortunately, there was something wrong with the video equipment so I could not view the video. Also unfortunately, there were a few glaring mistakes in the text panels, and a few curious ommisions. For example, there is no mention of Grant and Ward. I would think the story of Grant’s financial debacle would be of prime interest to visitors to New York. I do like the site brochure, which highlights “Milestones of Grant’s Presidency” rather than focusing on Grant’s military achievements.

The former Women's restroom under the overlook is now the entrance to the visitor center.

The former Women’s restroom under the overlook is now the entrance to the visitor center.

The Tomb is impressive evidence of the respect and admiration the American people had for the man who saved the Union. Personally though, I couldn’t help but think it is in a rather odd place. As Joan Waugh wrote, after Grant died there was competition over where he would be buried between various towns in Illinois, Ohio, and Washington, D. C. It was the family, primarily Julia, who chose the New York site. The tomb might have fared better over the years had it been placed elsewhere; my vote would probably be D. C., but that’s just my 21st century opinion. If I had been a 19th century New Yorker, perhaps I would have felt as did the New York Times: “A Most Fitting Burial Place: The Nation’s Greatest Hero Should Rest in the Nation’s Greatest City.”

The bullet hole under the wing of one of the eagles at the entrance testifies to the gritty past history of the Tomb.

The bullet hole under the wing of one of the eagles at the entrance testifies to the gritty past history of the Tomb.

Can you find the mistakes in this text panel?

Can you find the mistakes in this text panel?


Much has been done to rehabilitate Grant's Tomb, but the work is not complete.

Much has been done to rehabilitate Grant’s Tomb, but the work is not complete.

These mosaics need to go.

These mosaics need to go.









If Lee Had Won At Gettysburg

    There has been lots of discussion and comments on blogs and Facebook regarding the THC Gettysburg program (see here, here , here, here, here, and here). For the most part the reaction has been negative. Despite having read numerous books on the subject, I am no expert on Gettysburg. I have only visited the battlefield once. With that disclaimer, I will say that I thought the program could have been a lot better.  One commenter on Brooks Simpson’s blog pointed out something that struck me as well:

   “and the usual the Rebs always ‘almost succeeded” followed by all the dire results this would engender, Isn’t “almost succeeded” just a fancy way of saying failed? but then the Rebs never fail on the History Channel. Then they move on to the Rebs taking Culp’s Hill and again all the dire scenarios of disaster are mentioned that were sure to follow “if”…”

   Gettysburg, in the popular narrative, was the “high water mark” of the Confederacy; the time when the Army of Northern Virginia came oh so close to winning the war. But the result of Pickett’s failed assault on the third day sealed the fate of the slaveholder’s dream of an independent nation. This is a narrative that was arrived at in hindsight, a perspective perhaps made most famous by William Faulkner in Intruder in the Dust:

     “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.”

     The war, of course, went on for two bloody more years, and historians have repeatedly pointed out that no one at the time thought Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg was the end of all hope for the rebels. But, what if Lee had won at Gettysburg? Would that have spelled the end of the United States? Would those boys in gray really have been able to plant the rebel flag in Washington as Faulkner imagined?

Image from http://www.gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/MI.php

   In earlier posts I have written about my great-great-great-grandfather, Cyrus G. Luce, who served as Governor of Michigan from 1887-1891. In his first year in office he appointed a monument commission to oversee the construction and placement of monuments on the fields of Gettysburg to honor Michigan units that had fought there. In June of 1889 the commission had completed its work and Governor Luce travelled to Gettysburg to attend the dedication ceremonies and officially place the monuments into the care of the Gettysburg Battlefield Association. There were several speakers that day who gave passionate, eloquent speeches. An accounting of the Monument Commission’s work and a description of the dedication on June 12, including the text of the speeches given, was published and is available online here. The speeches are quite interesting and raise some intriguing questions. I’d like to highlight several passages, but I’ll start with one that directly addressed the question I raised above. This is from a speech given by Rev. James H. Potts:

     “Somebody has said that if the Gettysburg victory had turned in the other direction, the rebellion would have proved a success. Gen. Lee would have then marched on to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, enriching himself and his men as he went, until at length England and other foreign powers would have officially recognized the South as conqueror. May be so, but I don’t believe it. By no possibility could Lee have won such a victory as would have annihilated the Army of the Potomac and removed every obstacle from his track. Our national resources were not exhausted. We had enough men of 65 or 70 like the heroic John Burns, of Gettysburg, to have seized their muskets and fought the veterans of Lee back into their own South land.

     Napoleon said ‘In war men are nothing, but a man is everything.’ The North had ‘a man’  and the ‘men,’ too. It would have taken more than one victory on Northern soil to have crowned Jeff. Davis the American King. The very boys and babes we left with our wives and mothers at home, under the shock of such a calamity, would have grown six feet in one night and shot the Confederate chief into petticoats long before their fathers did.”

     There is obviously some bluster in Rev. Potts’ avowal, but I think he makes a good argument. The war didn’t end because Lee lost at Gettysburg, but it wouldn’t have ended if he had won either. What do you think?


Wide Awake Films Promotes Missouri Civil War Tourism

     I’m assuming this video is meant to draw visitors with an interest in the Civil War to Missouri. 

     “While names like Grant, Lee, and Sherman resonate as powerhouses of the Civil War, Missouri lays claim to legends of its own.” 

 I’m not sure I understand this statement. Missouri can certainly claim ties to Grant and Sherman, and even Lee. Perhaps they were unaware of Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site when they made this video. And, why the focus on Anderson, Quantrill, and Jesse James? What makes them so important? Is the guerilla warfare really the  most important story to tell about the Civil War in Missouri? Is it the most compelling? Is the average visitor to Missouri more interested in people like Quantrill than in other people of the time? Just wondering. What do you think?


Missouri’s Statues In The U. S. Capitol

      Several years ago my wife and I visited Washington D.C. for the first and only time. We took the tour through the Capitol building which was a thrilling experience for us, having both spent our entire lives on the west coast. Prior to this visit I did not know about Statuary Hall or that each state has contributed two statues of important people. You can read about the history of Statuary Hall here. My guess is that there are many people who don’t know about this and that few can name the two people representing their state. How many Missourians know that the two statues contributed by Missouri are Thomas Hart Benton and Frank Blair?

     The law that created Statuary Hall was passed in 1864 and reads:

…the President is hereby authorized to invite each and all the States to provide and furnish statues, in marble or bronze, not exceeding two in number for each State, of deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services such as each State may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration; and when so furnished the same shall be placed in the Old Hall of the House of Representatives, in the Capitol of the United States, which is set apart, or so much thereof as may be necessary, as a national statuary hall for the purpose herein indicated.

 This is a rather vague criterion, hence there are, what I would term, some highly questionable choices; for example, Virginia has none other than Robert E. Lee standing there in the Capitol of the government he made war upon. Somehow I doubt that the men who passed the law in 1864 would ever have expected to see Lee included. It is also interesting to note that the states may at any time change the statues. This has happened recently; Michigan replaced Zachariah Chandler with Gerald Ford and California replaced Thomas Starr King with Ronald Reagan. These are interesting and debatable choices. The process by which the choices are made is also interesting, as noted by the bloggers to which I linked.

     All of this has had me wondering about the selection of Benton and Blair. Certainly, there are any number of Missourians who might have been or could be honored with a statue, so why Blair and Benton?  To this end I sent an e mail to the Missouri State Archives and received this very kind reply:

Dear Mr. Pollock:

 I have checked the Journals of the Missouri House and Senate during the period 1893 – 1899.   The bill to set up a commission to carry out the directive to have statues of Benton and Blair passed in 1895 and the commission reported that the work was completed in 1899.  I can tell you that the bill was sponsored by Rep. John L. Bittinger, Republican, of Buchanan County, but I didn’t find any information about why Benton and Blair were chosen or if others were considered.

 The bill itself has only general language – which I think came from the federal act – that Benton and Blair were “illustrious for their historic renown and distinguished for their civil and military services.”  We don’t have legislative records other than the published journals for this time period because so many records were lost in the 1911 Capitol fire.

 In 1899 there was also legislation to pay for a cemetery memorial for Benton and in that case there was a statement entered in the journal about Benton’s contribution to the state.  It’s not directly on point to your inquiry but I suppose it illuminates something of the esteem in which he was held at the time.  I could send you a copy of that document if you’d like to see it.

 I don’t know if there has ever been consideration given to replacing either statue and it wouldn’t be practical to try to search for that in archival records without a specific date range to search.

 You might find more information in a search of historical newspapers.  Here’s one site you might take a look at if you’d like to attempt that: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/search/pages/

 Thank you for your inquiry.  Please let us know if we can be of further assistance.


 Robyn B.


 Missouri State Archives

 What a shame that the legislative records were lost to a fire! I have not yet tried to search for newspaper accounts on this, but I might at some point. I did do a quick google search for John Bittinger, who turned out to be quite a fascinating individual himself. This from an 1881 biographical sketch caught my eye:

 “Mr. Bittinger, while in no sense a partisan, has always taken an active part in politics as a member of the Republican party.  In 1862, he was a delegate and Secretary of the first Emancipation State Convention ever held in Missouri, and has been chosen a delegate to every Republican State Convention since the organization of the party.  In 1872, he was a delegate to the National Republican Convention held in Philadelphia, which nominated President Grant for a second term, and was also a member of the Republican State Central Committee for many years.”

So, Bittinger, a Republican, was instrumental in having Benton (a life-long Democrat) and Blair (who, although a founding member of the Republican party in Missouri, quickly reverted back to the Democrats after the war) chosen to represent Missouri in the U. S. Capital. I also find it intriguing that Bittinger attended the Emancipation Convention which was a creation of B. Gratz Brown. I will be writing about that later.

Finally, I wonder how long it will be before someone or some group decides that Missouri should change their statues. I’m actually a bit surprised Benton and Blair (Blair in particular) have stayed so long.


John Logan’s Indictment of United States Military Officers Who Sided With The Confederacy

     I had a discussion with someone today regarding Robert E. Lee’s decision to side with the Confederacy. This gentleman told me that I must admire Lee; that Lee had agonized over his decision but felt compelled to be loyal to his state. He argued that most Americans considered themselves citizens of their state first before the war. I told him I disagreed with that assertion, and that I actually have a much greater admiration for George Thomas than for Lee. The following comes from the 1887 publication, The Volunteer Soldier of America by John A. Logan. Perhaps someone would like to explain to me why Logan was wrong.

     Upon entering the service of the Government, one and all alike took the oath of loyal support of that Government. Now, this Government was representative, not of any factional number of the States, but of the whole number of the States and Territories comprising the American Union. Theoretically, the money which went to construct the edifices at West Point and at Annapolis, to equip them as academies of instruction, to pay teachers, to support pupils, etc., etc., was contributed by all of the States in a certain proportion. The fact is, however, that the Northern States of the Union, being greatly more populous and wealthy than the Southern States, so called, paid the expense of these institutions in that excess directly represented by the greater revenues of the General Government, based upon the mere fact of their increased population and wealth. Putting this palpable circumstance – which represents the greater obligation of the alumni to one section than to another – entirely aside, it appears that all of the military and naval officials who received their special education at West Point and Annapolis were indebted for that education and for their personal maintenance through varying periods – generally from their early youth up to the year spoken of – to all of the States of the American Union. They were sworn by oath, and bound by every consideration of honor and principle, to the service of those States – not to one of them, nor yet to a dozen of them, but to one and all of them, representing the Government of the United States, whose bread they had eaten, whose money they had received, and from which they had obtained a technical or specific education in war that they had distinctly obligated themselves to use in defense of the Union of States constituting the Government.

     … Within a few years past, exculpation for the attempt to break up the Union has assumed a somewhat new form. It is urged that the right of a State to secede from the Union was, to put it in its best form, but an unsettled question; that the people who attempted secession were sincere believers in their legal right to pursue that course; that, being honest in the conviction, they owed a paramount duty to their State governments, and that for these reasons it is not right that they should be held responsible for violating a principle that has never been established under any binding constitutional interpretation. It is not the present intention to enter into a discussion of the questions growing out of this position, nor to inquire as to the extent of its justice, if any it have. The fact to be dealt with at this time is that, upon the inauguration of hostilities against the United States by a certain number of States composing the Union, there were a large number of citizens who, after having pledged themselves solemnly to support the Government, after having obtained as a bounty from it a military education, after having received a maintenance for a varying number of years, were wholly without justification for the course pursued by them; these citizens not being at all covered by the defense above stated in behalf of the general doctrine of secession.

     The individuals composing the army and navy of the United States – those of them, more particularly, who have received their education and maintenance from the Government – more nearly represent the Government, with a single exception (that of the judiciary), than any other individuals or class of people that compose it. They are permanently attached to it. This cannot be said of any other class of public servants in the whole Government service, except those belonging to its judicial branch. Presidents, Cabinet officers, Senators, members, foreign ministers, consuls, revenue officers, postmasters, clerks, and in short, the whole list of public employés, come and go; but the army and navy hold on forever. They are the only class, with the exception above noted, that are removed from direct responsibility and accountability to the people, at the polls. Changes of party do not affect them. They stand with the expounders of justice, as the representatives of a government that may change every official connected with it, except themselves, at short intervals of time.

     Under this view of the case, their relation to the Government is peculiar, not to say extraordinary. An ex-civil officer of the Government has no connection with it other than that of a simple citizen, with the privileges and obligations pertaining to the character of a citizen. Whatever claim may be made that, under the theory of a supreme allegiance to a State, individuals were justified in following their States in the secession movement, no such claim can be made in behalf of those members of the army and navy who not only deserted the Government, but went into the ranks of those attempting to destroy it. No State sovereignty claim can extend its mitigating influence over them. They belong to the Government per se, and they had no personality that was not distinctly and emphatically absorbed by the Government.

     ….. If it be possible to define different degrees of a crime as great as that of treason, those who, after having received a military or naval education from the Government, used it in an attempt to destroy that Government, were certainly guilty of the supreme infamy of the late Rebellion. The traitorous statesmen who had held high place under the Government might fulminate upon paper, with little other damage than that resulting from the destruction of writing-materials. It was the traitorous defenders of the Government that made the Rebellion practicable. Had they kept the faith of soldiers; had they been true to the obligations of honest men and citizens, there would have been no Rebellion, and the nation would not have been called upon to endure the sacrifices of blood and treasure which followed as a direct consequence of their treason.