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What does the author see as the most striking similarities between the generals?
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Does the author appear to be neutral or biased in his description of the two men? How did you arrive at your opinion?
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Grant and Lee: A Study in Contrasts ? Bruce Catton
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 on American life came to a close, and a great new chapter began.
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 terns 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 fourth (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 higher values ? of thought, of conduct,
or personal deportment ? to give it strength and virtue.
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 of 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 General Lee.
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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
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 meaning.
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 on 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 modern 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 for his cause, drawing both his strengths and his weaknesses from
the people he led.
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