WASHINGTON — One came from an aristocratic family in Virginia; the other, a working-class home in Ohio.
Each attended West Point, earned commissions and participated in the Mexican War of 1846-48.
And both would face off at the head of opposing armies in one of the bloodiest campaigns of the American Civil War.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant hailed from dissimilar backgrounds, and would later travel different roads during their Civil War experiences. But their one and only face-to-face meeting during the war in Appomattox, Va., in April 1865 would help bring the war to a swift close.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery explores their backgrounds and roles in the Civil War with a special exhibition on display through May 25, 2015.
“One Life: Grant and Lee, 1864-1865” presents more than 30 works drawn from the museum’s collection, and organized by Portrait Gallery senior historian David C. Ward.
The Civil War produced a bevy of generals. While some of these figures are still familiar today, none achieved the iconic status of Grant and Lee.
Lee was born Jan. 19, 1807, the son of a Revolutionary War hero, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. Light-Horse Harry squandered most of his fortune and left his family financially strapped. But the young Lee persevered. He graduated near the top of his class from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, married a descendant of George Washington, and served with distinction during the war with Mexico. As Southern states seceded from the Union, President Abraham Lincoln offered Lee command of the federal forces. Instead, Lee opted to follow his home state out of the Union, and became a Confederate general.
Among the works devoted to Lee on view include several prints and photographs of him during the Civil War period. One lithograph shows Lee mounted on his famous horse, Traveller, in the field. Another piece, a mezzotint based on a photograph by photographer Mathew Brady, depicts a courtly Lee in profile. Lee appears in an actual Brady photograph on view, taken a week after the war ended, seated between his son, Gen. George Washington Custis Lee, and his aide, Col. Walter Taylor, on the porch of Lee’s home in Richmond.
The exhibit also addresses myths about Lee that emerged in the years after the war.
The Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia in April-May 1863 is considered Lee’s greatest battlefield victory. Facing a much larger Union force attempting to flank his position at Fredericksburg, Va., Lee divided his army and sent a portion of it to counter the Union soldiers at the Chancellorsville crossroads. It was a bold move. But it worked, due in no small measure to a surprise attack by Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Before Jackson’s maneuver, Lee had met with Jackson to discuss the plan. In the wake of the war, artists and illustrators rendered this meeting with a heroic twist. A large chromolithograph in the display, “Last Meeting between Generals Lee and Jackson” (1879), portrays this moment as a glorious occasion, with the two generals surrounded by a host of Confederate soldiers. In truth, the meeting took place in a quiet setting, with the generals virtually alone.
Younger than Lee, Grant was born on April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio. The son of a tanner, Grant was a shy boy, but developed a strong fondness for horses. A mediocre student at West Point, he later earned recognition for his gallantry during the Mexican War. An early tintype, c. 1847-51, shows a young Grant in uniform around the time of the Mexican War.
Between 1861-63, Grant led Union forces in the Western theater, scoring victories In Tennessee and Mississippi during a time when federal forces suffered repeated defeats to Lee in the East. When Lincoln appointed him commander of all Union armies in 1864, Grant headed into Virginia to confront Lee.
Many of the images of Grant in the exhibit depict him during the Overland Campaign in 1864. A sketch by war illustrator Alfred R. Waud shows Grant writing a dispatch shortly after his army has crossed the Rapidan River, launching the campaign. Two Albumen stereographs by photographer Timothy O’Sullivan capture Grant during his war council outside a church in Massaponax, Va., on May 21, 1864. Nearby hangs probably the most famous image of the Union general. In a photograph produced by Brady, Grant bears an intense expression as he leans against a tree outside his tent at Cold Harbor, Va., in June 1864.
The commands of the two generals reach an intersection with two paintings in the center of the exhibition.
“Skirmish in the Wilderness” (1864) by artist Winslow Homer conveys an eerie sense of the deadly fighting between Union and Confederate soldiers during the Battle of the Wilderness, the first major clash of the campaign. Above it, “Lee Surrendering to Grant at Appomattox” (c. 1870) by artist Alonzo Chappel captures the solemn dignity of the moment, which all but ended the war on April 9, 1865. Below the paintings, the death masks of both men sit on pedestals.
After the war, Lee led a quiet life as the president of Washington College in western Virginia. He died of a stroke on Oct. 12, 1870.
Grant went on to serve two less-than-stellar terms as the 18th U.S. president. After his presidency, personal boom-and-bust financial cycles plagued his life. Shortly before he died of cancer on July 23, 1885, Grant completed his celebrated memoir, which helped provide a steady income for his family.