Many people tend to judge historical characters based on their stand on issues that align with modern political opinions. In fact, we find that, like all people, most historical characters are complex, with good traits and bad. Most do not fit neatly into modern categories of correctness. Many make mistakes. Some evolve and become better people, and some don’t. Rather than judging people by how they align with modern politics, we ought to recognize positive traits and accomplishments while condemning the bad. If we do, we find that most people have qualities to admire, and no one has lived a life worth cancelling.
We might take as an example the modern views of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Based simply on an analysis of where they stood on a single issue – slavery – the tendency has been to praise Grant for fighting the war against slavery while condemning Lee for fighting to defend it. If the Confederates were evil for defending the right to slavery, and the Union was good for fighting to eradicate it, then Lee was a bad guy, and Grant was a good guy. Many people view all of history in this light, dividing people into good or evil based on modern political views and then condemning and cancelling those with whom they disagree. This is the justification for tearing down statues and renaming military bases, streets, and courthouses. However, history is much more complicated and does not easily fit into these categories.
In the case of Grant, we find a self-made man from a lower middleclass family. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1843 about halfway through his class. After fighting bravely in the Mexican-American War, he resigned his commission to pursue business, mainly for financial reasons to make more money. During this time, he purchased and owned a slave but did not have the stomach for it and soon after became a staunch abolitionist. When the Civil War came, he was offered a captaincy but held out for higher rank and pay. He accepted an assignment as lieutenant colonel and rose quickly in rank due to his success on the battlefield, though he was often criticized for his bloody approach and for racking up more casualties than other commanders. He was also criticized for forcing labor from freed slaves and for his apparent alcoholism. Despite his personal failings, Abraham Lincoln appointed him as the commander of all Union forces, and he defeated Lee at Appomattox, Virginia. After the war, Grant was elected president in 1868. Historians have generally criticized the corruption of his administration – his pursuit of money continued to be a problem – but he nevertheless received praise for helping to reconcile the South, ending reconstruction, and providing immediate equality to former slaves.
Lee, meanwhile, came from a famous Virginia family owning a large plantation and many slaves. He graduated from West Point in 1829 second in his class. He also holds the distinction of being only one of five cadets who earned no demerits while at school. He served faithfully in the military, including the Mexican-American War. Unlike Grant, however, Lee remained in the Army, eventually serving as Superintendent of West Point. He took off only two years to run his family plantation after not being able to find an overseer. Although later accused of treating his slaves poorly, most historians have seen this as the result of applying the strict disciple to which he was used. In 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy. Lee opposed the rebellion, but he felt honor-bound to support his state. He quickly proved a great tactical commander and won many battles. He was remembered as a highly honorable leader, just and kind towards his men and enemies alike. However, he eventually lost due to the North’s greater manpower and industrialization. Despite calls for him to refuse surrender, he believed it more honorable to save lives. After the war, he opposed former Confederates continuing the war, and he sought reconciliation, even going so far as meeting Grant in the White House. He also opposed raising statues of Confederate leaders, whom he felt were unworthy. He supported the manumission of slaves but believed that they ought to receive an education before being admitted to citizenship. He briefly served as president of Washington University before dying in 1870.
One can make many comparisons between Grant and Lee. For most, what is important is that Grant opposed slavery and won the war, while Lee was a slaveowner and lost. Yet both of their views were complex. Lee opposed slavery in general as an institution incompatible with liberty, and though he reluctantly accepted slavery, he sought a more practical approach to freeing slaves. Meanwhile, Grant was opposed to slavery and did much to advance equality, but he nevertheless had no qualms about forcing freedmen to work for him if it served his goals. Grant made his career serve his ambitions, while Lee continually sought a career of service and training. Grant was a self-made man and much more money-driven, which got him into trouble while president. He was practical in his approach to warfare and sought to win no matter the cost. Lee, meanwhile, was driven by honor and service. He cared for his men and surrendered to save lives. Both seemingly learned from their mistakes. Grant later came to seek for reconciliation with his former enemies, and Lee came to regret his support of the Confederacy and opposed continuing the fight. While modern politicians tend to view them only through a single lens, they were much more complicated than often recognized.
In reviewing their legacies, it is Grant’s and Lee’s change of heart that is most striking. Both recognized their mistakes and sought to reconcile a nation that remained divided for a decade after the Civil War. In the end, this is the trait that is most admirable and from which this generation most needs to learn. Let us also have the humility and wisdom to recognize our shortcomings and seek reconciliation with those we once wished to destroy. Sometimes history is complex. Let us hope we learn from it.
© 2022 J.D. Manders