Cover Story - Autumn 2019

Moral Courage and the Civil War

Monuments ask us to look at the past, but how they do it exposes crucial aspects of the present and has an inescapable effect on the future

By Elizabeth D. Samet | September 3, 2019
The April unveiling of a statue of Ulysses S. Grant on the central Plain of West Point, where it joins Washington, Eisenhower, and other luminaries. (West Point/The U.S. Military Academy/Flickr)
The April unveiling of a statue of Ulysses S. Grant on the central Plain of West Point, where it joins Washington, Eisenhower, and other luminaries. (West Point/The U.S. Military Academy/Flickr)

On June 7, 2019, one day after the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, Maine’s governor Janet T. Mills signed “An Act To Establish ‘Ballad of the 20th Maine’ as the Official State Ballad.” The 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commanded by college professor-turned-colonel Joshua Chamberlain, is known primarily for its stand on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg, in July 1863. The ballad, Governor Mills explained at the bill signing, reminds “us of our proud heritage, the role our great state has played in the history of our nation, and to be forever grateful to those who served and saved our country.”

Written by The Ghost of Paul Revere, a folk band from Portland, and released in 2015, the new state ballad is narrated by a soldier from another Maine regiment, Andrew Tozier, whose account of marching up to the aid of the 20th concludes with the image of Chamberlain, “the lion of Bowdoin,” shouting “bayonets” as the soldiers run down the hill against the enemy:

We were steadfast as katahdin, hard as winters rain
Take that rebel yell with you to hell
We are the 20th Maine

… Be proud and true you are a union soldier
Stand fast, ye are the boys of Maine

Like many Civil War engagements, this episode has acquired the sheen of legend over the years. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that the Mainers held their little hill and that the twin federal victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, achieved at the beginning of July 1863, proved a tide-changing moment in the war. The bravery of those volunteer soldiers has long been a source of pride to their home state.

I learned about the new law from a colleague who grew up in Maine. The article he forwarded was less about the law itself, however, than about objections raised by two state lawmakers to the ballad’s attitude toward the South. “[W]e are not Union,” Representative Frances Head (R-Bethel) argued in a public hearing in May, in reference to the ballad’s use of the period term Union, as reported in the Maine Beacon: “[W]e are united states. And I find it just a little bit—I won’t say offensive but that’s what I mean—to say that we’re any better than the South was.” Another state lawmaker, Representative Roger Reed (R-Carmel), also registered concern:

I am a lover of history and especially a lover of the Civil War period and regardless of what side people fought on, they were fighting for something they truly believed in. … Many of them were great Christian men on both sides. They fought hard and they were fighting for states’ rights as they saw them.

I hear in this meretricious evenhandedness an echo of President Trump’s insistence that there were “very fine people, on both sides” of the deadly 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.

As the Beacon noted, the myth of the Lost Cause has made it all the way up to Maine, a place celebrated in my youth as one in which if you had to ask directions to a destination, you shouldn’t be trying to get there. I wish I could say I was surprised, but my colleague has reported that for the past several years he has seen Confederate flags flying whenever he visits family in northern Maine. On a trip to Vermont a few years ago, I saw with my own eyes the Stars and Bars proudly flapping in the breeze. In a meeting with educators from that state’s Northeast Kingdom, I asked about the flag and was told that it had become ubiquitous. The teachers saw it flying, emblazoned on T-shirts, doodled in students’ notebooks. They suggested that its embrace was less an endorsement of specifically Confederate affinities than a statement, in this economically depressed area of the state, of general disaffection and defiance.

The Confederate flag was enlisted as a revanchist symbol during the civil rights movement; today we seem to be at another crossroads along the strange road of Civil War memory, where Maine lawmakers have become apologists for the Confederacy and Vermonters have taken up its flag. The embrace, even the naïve one, of Confederate symbols in a region once proud of its abolitionist history—Vermont banned adult slavery in its 1777 constitution—reveals something alarming.

I grew up in Massachusetts, spent several summers in Maine, and had no real inkling of the enduring power of the Lost Cause until graduate school, when I headed south—to Connecticut, where I was surprised to see the commemoration of Confederate as well as Union dead on the walls of Yale’s Civil War memorial archway. The monument, a central campus thoroughfare passed by many students each day, was dedicated in 1915, when, as the Yale historian David Blight has documented so thoroughly, the movement to reunite and reconcile white North and South at the expense of African-American civil rights had already erased the earlier narrative of the war as the successful destruction of chattel slavery. Two years before, Woodrow Wilson had proudly presided over a reunion of veterans at Gettysburg on the battle’s 50th anniversary. Wilson, the first southerner elected president since the Civil War, also segregated the nation’s federal workforce.

The signal I received from Yale’s memorial was emphatically not the one I had absorbed growing up: not from the statue of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in the middle of Boston’s grand Commonwealth Avenue; not from the bronze relief of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th, a regiment of African-American troops, on Boston Common; not from the roll of the dead in Harvard’s staunchly Union Memorial Hall. I knew from the Shakespeare I read at Harvard that there is no cause “so spotless” that it can be fought “with all unspotted soldiers,” but I had not yet been introduced to the idea, stubbornly adhered to by so many Americans, that there is a mandate to celebrate those who took up arms against the United States. Whatever else they may have believed, whatever their private thoughts about slavery, those rebels fought and sometimes died in defense of a particular liberty: namely, the liberty to own other human beings. While I may have initially puzzled over the inclusion of the “C.S.A.” (Confederate States Army) designation after not a few of the names carved in Yale’s memorial, I would probably have remained largely oblivious to the far-reaching tentacles of the reconciliationist impulse for far longer had I not—and I am sensible of the deep irony here—gone from Yale to teach at West Point, an institution as thoroughly bound up with the primal horror of the Civil War as any in the country.

On April 25, 2019, West Point dedicated a statue on its central Plain—the last statue erected there was Eisenhower’s, in 1983—to a crucial figure in that war: Ulysses S. Grant, class of 1843. I first discovered Grant’s great autobiography at Yale, but only at West Point did I begin to grapple with the war he did so much to win and with the way in which he and his contemporaries chose to remember it. The opportunity to give the keynote address at the statue’s dedication dinner was a great honor and delight for me; it was also the payment of a debt of gratitude to the man sculpted in bronze, for it is to Grant—more precisely, to his most enduring artifact, the Personal Memoirs—that I owe my intellectual introduction to military culture, an awakening to its nuances and complexities, and a recognition of the ways in which it can make, remake, and sometimes unmake those who serve.

Reading Grant’s book for the first time decades ago prepared me—although I could not have known it at the time—for the responsibility that lay ahead as a teacher of aspiring second lieutenants who would soon find themselves at war, in Afghanistan and Iraq, as Grant once found himself, in Mexico in 1846, not long after his own graduation, flush with a sense of purpose and responsibility, yet also harboring natural fears and doubts in a profession that for good reasons prefers to conceal them. Reading the Memoirs again and again in the years since, with a deeper knowledge of the desperate circumstances in which Grant wrote—bankrupt and dying of cancer, convinced that with every word he hammered “one more nail” in his coffin—I came to appreciate the unshakable concentration that enabled him to complete it. The book acquired still greater force for me when in the process of preparing a new edition, I had the experience of reading the manuscript in Grant’s own hand at the Library of Congress, alongside the many notes he wrote to his doctor when speaking proved too difficult. Only then, I think, did I perceive fully, in undeniable graphic detail, the fierce magnificence of his fight to preserve clarity of mind amid the rapid and painful disintegration of his body.

What first appealed to me about Grant—what appeals to me still—is his relentless urge to demythologize warfare.

In Grant’s book readers encounter an old general’s reconstruction of a young man’s ambivalence about military life, together with the self-aware adult’s repeated responses to the enduring challenge of making sense of the world as he found it. And Grant’s world was more unsettled than most. We congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented volatility and uncertainty of our age. But truly, what could be more confusing than fighting one’s friends and classmates, as Grant did in 1861? It seems highly unlikely that my students will face that particular challenge, but they will face others, perhaps in their own ways equally daunting. They must be prepared to exercise violent force; they must also be prepared to exercise exquisite restraint and humanity—what Grant would have called “moral courage,” and what a retired officer of my acquaintance who had more of it than anyone I know liked to call “uncommon judgment.” I want them to be as prepared as they possibly can be, not only for the challenges they anticipate, but also for those they cannot. More than anyone, Grant—who had such courage and who also on occasion failed to summon it—has helped me figure out how to accomplish this mission over the years.

I come to the contemplation of Grant and his statue from the perspective not of a historian but of a teacher of literature whose business it is to navigate the realms of myth and to ponder the ways in which the fictions of the past continue to exert their tenacious hold on the present, sometimes seducing us from a reckoning with unpleasant facts. What first appealed to me about Grant—what appeals to me still—is his relentless urge to demythologize. I was won over by his delight in dispelling the many romances that grew up around the Civil War and its participants, by his forthrightness, and by his refusal to isolate heroic action on the battlefield from the causes and consequences it served. Grant’s book was a revelation. He defied my expectations about 19th-century generals. His candor and gentle humor disarmed me, while his rare combination of iron determination and preternatural calm inspired me. For decades now I have found in his book an invaluable companion and guide. The strange and remarkable career of this famous yet long-misunderstood West Pointer has taught me that the most valuable thing I can offer today’s cadets is a kind of preparation for those moments in which they will find themselves completely nonplussed.

The raising of Grant’s statue comes at a time when the significance of Civil War monuments has become a subject of national debate, and it would be a tragic failure of moral courage to shy away from the opportunity it presents us to grapple with that fact and to consider with Grant’s own directness who we are and who we wish to be. Most obviously, monuments invite us to look at the past, but the ways in which they do so also expose crucial aspects of the present and have inescapable consequences for the future.

When I told friends about the dedication, some were puzzled: “Don’t you already have a statue of Grant up there?” Indeed, it has taken a long time for this Civil War victor and two-term president to join the rarefied group of figures ringing the central parade ground where they survey the Corps of Cadets. Those twin fathers: George Washington, splendid on his high-stepping horse, and the elegant Sylvanus Thayer—an early superintendent referred to as the father of the military academy—sealed away by stone and time. The gallant John Sedgwick, commander of the Union Army’s Sixth Corps, whose extraordinary last words before being killed by a sniper’s bullet at Spotsylvania were reported to be, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Next, two 20th-century figures whose flamboyance can hardly be contained by statuary: the brazen Douglas MacArthur, whose heightened prose—a heady amalgamation, a friend recently suggested to me, of Kipling and the Bible—can be seen from “drizzling dawn” to “dripping dusk” emblazoned on the walls behind him; and George Patton, with his bespoke uniform, ivory-handled pistols, and flair for the dramatic gesture. And finally, the most recent addition to the Plain before today’s, Eisenhower, a man more elusive perhaps than his contemporaries—a soldier whose expertise in building coalitions was essential to victory yet far less romantic than leading the Third Army across France—but someone whose achievement is heralded by the spectacular title of Supreme Allied Commander and whose presidential reputation has risen steadily among historians.

Grant seems in crucial ways the antithesis of the canonized heroes whose circle he has now joined. His distaste for uniform was as marked as Patton’s delight in it; his prose is as crisp and lean as MacArthur’s is majestic and grandiloquent. In some respects, perhaps, Eisenhower—general and president—is his closest analog, but Grant’s reputation has had a far more uneven trajectory. Although his name appears on the old Mess Hall, now a cafeteria and barracks, Grant has always seemed less a presence than an absence at West Point, eclipsed, most obviously, by Robert E. Lee. Much of this absence owes to the vicissitudes of historical imagination, but part of it may also owe to Grant’s own style. If Grant “had studied to be undramatic,” declared his fellow Civil War general Lew Wallace, “he could not have succeeded better.” Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur—the blockbuster novel that ultimately made its way onto both stage and screen—knew a little something about dramatic potential. Another Union veteran, S. H. M. Byers, who was able to observe Grant at work in the field, recalled that the general possessed “true bravery … . He was eminently and above all things a cool man, and that, I take it, was, in the exciting times in which he lived, the first great key to his success. He was not made hilarious by victory, nor was he depressed by defeat.” Byers adds, “The war was Grant’s opportunity, and he was at an age and had the disposition to seize it. But his military renown was not of luck alone. It was earned blow by blow.”

Grant’s success was also made possible by an early acceptance of war’s bitter realities rather than by an embrace of its illusory glories. In Mexico, he witnessed grievous wounding and death; he lost friends to the diseases that flourished because of climate and the lack of proper camp sanitation. During the Mexican War, while reluctantly serving as regimental quartermaster—a job he got because of his aptitude for training horses—Grant first learned the unglamorous, unromantic business of feeding, supplying, and transporting armies, and of caring for the wounded and burying the dead. As a young lieutenant, he also saw the uses and the limits of planning in the face of war’s unpredictability and came to understand the inextricable relationship between war and its political contexts and aims. In other words, Grant knew even as a junior officer that war isn’t about battlefield heroics alone, and he mistrusted braggarts, bravado, and empty shows of gallantry.


Grant finished his Personal Memoirs while bankrupt and dying of cancer, convinced that every word hammered another nail in his coffin. (Library of Congress)

At his death in 1885, Grant was a national hero known throughout the world. Members of the Corps of Cadets saluted the train carrying his coffin past West Point on the way to New York City. More than a million and a half people crowded the streets of Manhattan to watch his funeral procession, and his tomb, dedicated in 1897, remained the city’s most popular monument for almost two decades. There are Grant statues in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Brooklyn, and Vicksburg. Grant’s status still looked secure in 1900, when Theodore Roosevelt placed him in the empyrean: “mightiest among the mighty dead loom the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln and Grant.”

Until this spring, however, Grant was a little hard to find at his alma mater. Wherever he did appear, it was in the company of Lee. Their portraits flank a doorway inside the library, and in the old library they faced each other, like duelists suspended in time, at opposite ends of the reference room. Lee Barracks sits next to Grant Barracks. A structure called Reconciliation Plaza, given by the Class of 1961 on the occasion of its 40th reunion, features reliefs of Grant and Lee at its center. A series of panels dramatizes local moments of amity across the lines in the midst and wake of the war. These plaques tell a highly sentimental story about reunion and healing—especially that between West Point graduates who found themselves on opposing sides of the battlefield. But you can read them all without ever learning why the war was fought and what it achieved. I suspect that the monument’s donors, a class that suffered great loss in Vietnam, found in this narrative a way to comment obliquely on the nation’s failure to reconcile itself to their war.

As I have suggested, Grant’s long residence at the periphery of West Point’s Civil War consciousness owes in part to personality but in larger measure to the wrenching reality of the military academy’s intimate relation to the nation’s greatest cataclysm. Its graduates, all trained to serve in the United States Army, ended up filling the ranks of the rebels as well as those of the federals. Lee, who had been the academy’s superintendent in the 1850s, nevertheless could not conceive of a loyalty higher than one to the soil of his native state. The very southern character of 19th-century West Point was not lost on its critics: during the Civil War some legislators argued for the school’s closure, given its apparent aptitude for nurturing traitors.

It took time, but eventually Lee’s name proliferated at West Point just as it did throughout the country: in addition to the barracks, named in the early 1970s, a relatively recent Nixon-era provocation, there are a road, a gate, and an entire housing area commemorating him. This trend dates from the 1930s, a boom time for the Confederate recognition movement throughout the United States. Lee is the protagonist of a particular narrative that came to dominate the way the country remembered the Civil War. Written by Confederate veterans and their champions, it glorified the South’s Lost Cause and turned its soldiers into knights and cavaliers. Strip it of its chivalric romance and you find a venomous doctrine of white supremacy that undergirded Jim Crow and denied to emancipated African Americans the civil rights Grant had helped to win on the battlefield and, as president, fought to preserve.

The late-19th-century national reconciliation movement—of which Grant’s own coffin, accompanied by two federal and two Confederate pallbearers, proved a potent symbol—continues to shape the way many Americans understand the Civil War today. Grant did not share this understanding. Declaring in his Personal Memoirs that slavery was the cause of the war, he also judged that cause “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” Grant rejected a course of vengeance. But if he took no delight in the “downfall” of his enemies, he refused to celebrate the rebels for fighting “long and valiantly.” He knew that physical courage meant little without moral courage to direct it.

The statue is most obviously the celebration of a soldier—he appears in a general’s uniform—but Grant is also West Point’s indispensable author. Personal Memoirs is a triumph of military prose as well as a major contribution to American arts and letters. Books have a different kind of immortality from statues; they are ever-present to their readers, living again each time we open them. As West Point was gearing up for the statue dedication, I was reading Grant’s book with cadets in a course on the literature of the Civil War. I have never worked with a group of students more willing to grapple with the complexities and ambiguities of being a 21st-century American military professional or with the complexities and ambiguities of being a 19th-century one. They approached this subject with a clarity and honesty I think Grant himself would have applauded.

My students spent time considering Grant’s definition of courage. Physical courage is the coin of the realm in military culture, and Grant, lucky for him, had it, as he discovered in his first battle: “There is no great sport in having bullets flying about one in evry direction,” he wrote to his future wife, Julia Dent, “but I find they have less horror when among them than when in anticipation. Now that the war has commenced with such vengence I am in hopes my Dear Julia that we will soon be able to end it.” Grant’s equanimity in the face of danger was widely admired by his contemporaries. After watching him coolly resume his writing of a dispatch when a shell exploded right in front of him during the Civil War, a soldier of one Wisconsin regiment was heard to say proudly, “Ulysses don’t scare worth a damn.”

But Grant also learned that being responsible for others demanded another kind of courage—moral courage—which is seldom theatrical and which sometimes comes at the expense of a public demonstration of physical bravery. Moral courage was closely associated with not doing something in Grant’s world, which understood gallant action but remained uneasy with restraint. Theodore Lyman, who served on General George G. Meade’s staff, confesses in his wartime letters to being “astonished at the extraordinary moral courage of General Meade, which enabled him to order a retreat,” and thus to incur charges of timidity, “when his knowledge, as an engineer and a soldier, showed that an attack would be a blunder.” Grant’s perception of moral courage, invaluable in advance as well as retreat, found its embodiment in Zachary Taylor, one of the commanders for whom he worked in Mexico. “No soldier,” Grant declared, “could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities,” he continued, “more rarely found than genius or physical courage.”

Grant often exhibited moral courage, but sometimes he failed to transcend his age, as when, in the West in 1862, frustrated by illegal cotton trading in the region and reflecting the ambient nativism of the period, he issued an unconscionable order banning Jews—some traders were Jewish, many were not—from his entire area of command. Grant’s own wife would call the order “obnoxious,” and President Lincoln rescinded it immediately. My students and I talked at length about this episode as an example of rash and deplorable decision making in response to the pressures endemic to command. It is one of the moments in Grant’s career that, no matter how much I otherwise admire him, I cannot excuse or explain away.

Grant learned another vital lesson from Zachary Taylor: how to write. And the degree to which he saw Taylor’s style as the most significant expression of his leadership is abundantly clear: “Taylor was not a conversationalist,” Grant wrote, “but on paper he could put his meaning so plainly that there could be no mistaking it. He knew how to express what he wanted to say in the fewest well-chosen words, but would not sacrifice meaning to the construction of high-sounding sentences.” Grant later used a strikingly similar formulation to describe the terms of surrender he gave to Lee: “When I put my pen to the paper I did not know the first word that I should make use of in writing the terms. I only knew what was in my mind, and I wished to express it clearly, so that there could be no mistaking it.”

And this brings us to the future. Grant’s career was something of a surprise, even to him: “Circumstances,” he wrote, “always did shape my course different from my plans.” Like Grant, we cannot know or control what the future will think of us. We can only hope to signal so clearly that there can be no mistaking it our values, principles, and commitments by the way we choose to commemorate the past. Consider the case of Napoleon, whose magnificent sarcophagus at Les Invalides in Paris was completed in 1861, in the first year of the American Civil War. Napoleon’s remains had been returned to Paris some years before from the island of St. Helena, where in 1821 he died in exile, the disgraced scourge of Europe. As the journalist Ferdinand Mount recently observed, all of this happened because of the creation of what Mount calls “the Alternative Napoleon. Instead of Boney the Ogre,” he reminds us, “the warmongering dictator, we met the peace-loving liberator who had wanted nothing better than to bring democracy to all Europe … and had been martyred for his pains.” Today, the pendulum has swung back toward an earlier view of Napoleon, who, whatever his skills as a soldier, had little interest in spreading anything but his own imperial might. Yet his sarcophagus doesn’t necessarily tell us that.

How can we celebrate Grant without creating yet another Civil War myth? While searching for an answer to this question, I did what I often do: I walked over to see the general himself. In the past, this has always meant a trip to his tomb. I live several miles from it in Manhattan, and walking uptown for a visit has become a habit. Surrounded by all the noisy machinery of 21st-century life, the monument preserves the stillness that attends a Civil War battlefield. Standing in the dark and quiet crypt before the red granite sarcophagi of Grant and Julia, surrounded by the ever-vigilant busts of Sheridan, McPherson, Sherman, Ord, and Thomas, tends to encourage contemplation. This time, however, I sauntered over to the Plain from my classroom to look at the still-muffled statue soon to be unveiled, and I took my students with me.

What that sight brought home to us is that no American event is as shrouded in myth as the Civil War, a rupture so devastating that it spawned any number of falsehoods to protect us from the enormity of our national wrongs and the exorbitant cost of righting them. One of my fellow pilgrims noted that the statue, seven and a half feet though it stands, was somehow smaller than he thought it would be. That makes it just right, I think, for we cannot afford to think of as larger than life, inimitable, infallible, someone whose particular virtues and capacity for growth and change our times demand. In a world that is finally beginning to reckon with the distorted legacies of the Civil War, Grant can now take his rightful place as the man who realized on the battlefield Lincoln’s vision of a new birth of freedom. The statue provides the opportunity to celebrate a man, not a myth; to attempt to distill from a career of highs and lows, of errors and achievements, what we find most worthy of commemoration. When those archaeologists millennia hence wonder what we meant when we put Ulysses S. Grant up on a pedestal, I hope they can hear us say so clearly that there can be no mistaking it: This man led an army that emancipated four million people, and in so doing saved a nation.

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