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Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee: Their paths to the American Civil War

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The two iconic Civil War generals were from different worlds, yet, their life paths had similarities, as well as contrasts.

Ulysses S. Grant came from humble beginnings, and his parents were first generation immigrants. His father was a controlling figure even arranging, behind his back, to send him to West Point -- and Grant did not want to go. He was only an average student. Once he graduated, however, he served with distinction, and was recognized for his bravery in the Mexican War. During this time rumors circulated that Grant had a drinking problem. It nearly cost him his career, and he barely escaped a court martial over an infraction. After 15 years, he quit the army and went home to Illinois. He refused to work for his father, and instead, he tried several trades, including farming, and failed at them all. After seven years of stumbling along with poorly thought out business schemes, Grant relented and returned back to the profession that he understood – the army. It was 1861.

Robert E. Lee was a member of the Virginia aristocracy. His family was full of national achievers, including two signers of the Declaration of Independence, a Virginia Governor, judges, and businessmen. The family, also, had its share of scandals caused primarily by Lee’s father and older brother. Abandoned by his father when he was a child, Lee and his mother became homeless and were nearly destitute. He had dreamed about being a doctor or an artist, but his mother’s limited funds could not pay the expense of college. An education at The United States Military Academy was free. He placed second in his class at West Point and served over twenty years in the U. S. Army, including the Mexican War and a stint as the Superintendent at West Point. Throughout his career he indicated frustration and loneliness at being away from his family so often, and having only a few promotions in rank. An engineer by training, most of his military career was spent overseeing the construction of bridges. He considered quitting the military a number of times and told his wife in a letter that “I would advise no young man to enter the army.”

Both generals had different entries into the Civil War. Lee was courted by both armies and hailed as a hero even before the first battle took place. Grant was initially ignored for command. There were high expectations for Lee and virtually none for Grant.

Lee blamed politicians for not preventing the war. When Virginia seceded, that meant that his home and family would be at risk. Grant blamed Virginia for the war. If Virginia had not seceded, the pre-war effort would have collapsed, he thought. Grant wanted to punish Virginia, and he did so, by fighting many of the battles in the state.

Grant perceived that the war would be over soon because of the South’s lack of resources. Lee felt very differently. It was because of those shortages, of both men and supplies, he thought that the conflict would not end quickly; Southerners would fight to the end to defend their homes and their way of life. Additionally, he felt that by prolonging the war, Northerners would grow tired of it and demand the government to end it.

And finally, the generals both held slightly different views for having a war. Grant did not consider slavery as the reason, but felt that the union of states needed to be preserved. During his years on the farm he had owned a slave. Despite desperately needing cash to support his large family – he set the slave free. His actions imply his sensitivity towards slavery. Lee, too, did not consider slavery the reason for war. He said he was personally against slavery, but felt that the South, including its institutions, needed to be preserved.

And so it was, the duel began between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.

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