Grant and Lee in War and Peace

October 17, 2008
March 29, 2009

General Grant and General Lee: they became America's greatest generals yet used their talents in the war that tore the nation apart. Neither could be purely military men.

Casting a dramatic new light on the events that defined a nation, from the conflicts and rivalries of a fast-growing young republic to the fitful efforts at reconstruction after a terrible Civil War, the New-York Historical Society will present the major exhibition Grant and Lee in War and Peace from October 17, 2008 through March 29, 2009.

Organized by the New-York Historical Society in collaboration with the Virginia Historical Society, the exhibition explores the most critical decades in American history through the lives of two towering men. By telling the stories of Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), commander of the Union armies and later 18th President of the United States, and of Robert E. Lee (1807–1870), commander of the Confederate forces, the exhibition brings to life not only these two compelling figures but the forces that have shaped America, in their time and our own.

"The major achievement of Grant and Lee in War and Peace is its presentation of these two men as embodiments of the dilemmas of American history—not only the legacy of slavery, secession and war, but also the rise of a powerful centralized government and the balance of military and civilian power," said Dr. Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. "Visitors are sure to find parallels between the issues they confronted and those we face today."

Grant and Lee in War and Peace is the third in a multi-year series of exhibitions by the New-York Historical Society, exploring concepts of liberty which began with the groundbreaking Slavery in New York (2005–06) and New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War (2006–07). The series will continue in 2009 with a fourth major exhibition, Lincoln and New York.

From the Mexican War to the Gilded Age

Visitors to Grant and Lee in War and Peace will encounter a wealth of rare and remarkable objects and documents, drawn from the Historical Society's own important holdings and from public and private collections around the country. These materials range from authentic military equipment (including full uniforms worn by Grant and Lee) to period maps and documents (including Grant's handwritten "Terms of Surrender" for Lee) to photographs, sculptures, paintings and drawings (such as artist Paul Philippoteaux's study for the panoramic Gettysburg Cyclorama). Joining these are dynamic multimedia installations and an interpretive video narrated by curatorial advisor Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Josiah Bunting III, which summarizes the principal themes.

Central to these themes is the interplay in American life between military power and civilian authority. During the first hundred years of American history, no fewer than half of the men elected President came from the ranks of Army generals. Grant and Lee in War and Peace is the first major exhibition to examine this phenomenon across a broad sweep of history, from the 1820s to the 1880s, with the Civil War as the centerpiece.

For both Grant and Lee, participation in this history began at West Point. Lee, the son of a wealthy Virginia family with a notable Army background, graduated from West Point in 1829 as the second in his class and spent much of his early military service as an engineer. Though he distinguished himself under fire in the Mexican War (1846–48) and later was the officer who put down the slave revolt at Harpers Ferry and captured John Brown (1859), Lee was as much a builder and administrator as a battlefield commander, undertaking large-scale construction projects around the country and serving as Superintendent of West Point (1852–55).

Grant, by contrast, was the son of a tanner, born in what was then the Western region of Ohio. Upon graduating from West Point in 1839, as 21st in a class of 39, he was assigned to the infantry. He, too, distinguished himself by his daring and bravery in the Mexican War—a conflict that he nevertheless thought was unjustified—but then was given slow promotions and remote postings which left him unhappily separated from his family. In 1854 he resigned his commission and went back into civilian life as a farmer. By the time the Civil War broke out, Grant was in Galena, Illinois, working in his father's leather goods store. Lee at that moment was in Washington, D.C., being offered the command of the Union Army.

In telling this part of the story, Grant and Lee in War and Peace will explore America's tradition of citizen-soldiers volunteering to fight under professional officers but still thinking like democratic citizens. The exhibition will provide insights into the Army's role in an expanding United States, whether reshaping the landscape, patrolling frontiers, conquering territory or suppressing conflicts with Native Americans. Above all, the exhibition will detail the increasingly bloody rivalry between free states and slave-holding states, and the reluctance of political leaders to use troops to restore the peace.

The central section of the exhibition takes visitors into the Civil War itself, with the already illustrious Lee leading Confederate forces to a series of victories in the East, and an obscure Grant struggling to receive a commission and a campaign assignment in the West. The story of these years reaches its climax on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, when a victorious Grant made the first gesture toward national reconciliation by offering magnanimous terms upon Lee's surrender.

The exhibition's final section, which follows Grant and Lee back into civilian life, offers new scholarly assessments of the roles both men played after the Civil War. Visitors will leave the exhibition understanding why Lee was seen as the "knight on white horseback" he became in Southern mythology, as the enduring symbol of a noble Lost Cause. A new and more realistic image of Grant will emerge: not simply the ineffective President surrounded by corruption, as he has been known, but a determined champion of Reconstruction and the rights of freedmen, and a far-sighted leader in seeking peace and justice for American Indians.

The exhibition also offers visitors an illuminating glimpse of how the public furor around escaping slaves and the Underground Railroad shaped the life and times of Grant and Lee. In this era, many African-American people moved from pleading "Let my people go" to seizing their own freedom. They fled the slave system and in so doing rejected slavery's legal and social foundations. A special audio tour interprets resonant objects in the exhibition that tell the story of Georgian slaves who ran away to join the Seminole Indians in Florida and of the slave escapes and revolt planned by John Brown. The tour also addresses the complicated situation of Robert E. Lee and his slaves who claimed their freedom and boldly informed the press of their grievances. Finally, the exhibition considers General Grant and President Lincoln's policy on fugitive slaves. This is the little-known story of the contraband camps that sheltered thousands of fugitives during the Civil War, an episode that is called by some historians the last chapter of the Underground Railroad.

Educational Initiatives and Public Programs

Like all of the Historical Society's major exhibitions, Grant and Lee in War and Peace will be accompanied by an extensive body of interpretive materials and guides, tours and programs for teachers and school groups and interactive experiences, including a web site, podcasts and cell-phone tours. Public programs will include a special symposium, "Reassessing the Myths," with presentations by scholars including Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Josiah Bunting III, William S. McFeely, Gary Gallagher and Eric Foner. Other public programs will include a tour of Grant's Tomb; walking tours of Civil War monuments in New York City, led by experts such as Dr. Michele Bogart,
Dr. Harriet Senie and Dr. Sarah Webster; and a tour of historic Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn (where Lee was stationed from 1841 to 1846).

Saturday Living History Days geared to families will feature Civil War re-enactor troops and character interpreters of major figures such as Grant, Lee, Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, who will teach visitors about life during the period. Additional Living History Day programs will include storytelling, musical performances and fun-filled interactive Quiz Shows for people of all ages.

Exhibition Development and Support

The exhibition curator is Kathleen Hulser, Public Historian of the New-York Historical Society. The senior exhibition historian of Grant and Lee in War and Peace is Richard Rabinowitz, President of the American History Workshop. The advisory team of eminent scholars included David Blight (Yale University), Eric Foner (Columbia University), Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Josiah Bunting III (author of Ulysses S. Grant, Times Books, 2004) and John Y. Simon (Southern Illinois University).

The exhibition Grant and Lee is organized by the New-York Historical Society in collaboration with the sister project of Lee and Grant, and they share many objects. Lee and Grant was organized by the Virginia Historical Society in partnership with the New-York Historical Society, Washington and Lee University, the Museum of the Confederacy, the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia, Arlington—the Robert E. Lee Memorial, and Stratford Hall—the Birthplace of Robert E. Lee. Lee and Grant was made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities: great ideas brought to life.

This exhibition was developed with grant funds from the
U.S. Department of Education
Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) Program

Additional generous support provided by:
Mr. and Mrs. Bernard L. Schwartz
Richard Gilder and Lois Chiles
Susan and Roger Hertog
Mr. and Mrs. Thomas A. Saunders III
The Bodman Foundation
James S. Chanos
Sarah E. Nash and Michael S. Sylvester
Beth and Ravenel B. Curry III
Diana and Joe DiMenna
Ahuva and Martin J. Gross
Mr. and Mrs. John Klingenstein
The Walton Family Foundation, Inc.
NYSE Foundation
Mabel and Leon Weil
The Hyde and Watson Foundation
Kate Kelly and George Schweitzer
Nancy and Burton Staniar
Mr. and Mrs. Edwin T. Johnson
Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP
Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP
Rosalyn and Irwin Engelman


Exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds


from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs

Media Partner:

Creative: Tronvig Group