Society

At The Start Of The American Civil War, U.S. Grant Held Slaves, Robert E. Lee Did Not

The Union commander was a slaveholder, while the Confederate commander was not, at the war's onset. But that trivial tidbit fails to tell the whole story!

Retelling the Civil War

Jim Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong”, contends that between 60 and 75 percent of high school history teachers across America believe and teach that the South seceded from the Union to preserve states’ rights. This implies that the Civil War was not about slavery, but the rights of states. People in favor of such a view argue that prominent people who fought on the side of the Union had slaves, while fighters from the South did not. Hence, the war could not have been about slavery. The debate implicates Union General, and then U.S. President-to-be, Ulysses S. Grant for owning slaves at the time of the Civil War. On the other hand, many people claim that Confederate general Robert E. Lee did not.

Grant: Raised Abolitionist, Married Into Slaveholders

Grant’s father, Jesse, wrote for the Castigator, an abolitionist paper in Ripley, Ohio. He said that he refused to live in slave states, and wanted to raise his family where slavery didn’t exist. On the contrary, the adult Grant dealt with slaves on a professional basis, but was neutral on the subject. He married into a family which owned slaves. In fact, slaves constructed his home near his father-in-law’s plantation, and there came a time when he supervised those slaves on his wife's familial estate. It is widely documented that Grant engaged in physical labor alongside his wife’s slaves. After the war, a former neighbor recalled that he “was no hand to manage negroes. He couldn’t force them to do anything. He wouldn’t whip them. He was too gentle and good tempered and besides he was not a slavery man”.

William Jones, Grant's Own Slave

Grant did own one slave, a thirty-five year old mulatto named William Jones, in 1858. Jones may have been a "present" from his father-in-law, or Grant may have purchased him. However, a year thereafter, he wrote, “I do hereby manumit, emancipate and set free said William Jones from slavery forever.” Grant could have sold William for more than $700, a sum he could surely have used. Yet, he just simply let the man have his rightful freedom instead.

Robert E. Lee, the Reluctant General

In 2014, the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, acting on a suggestion of Jazz icon Wynton Marsalis, proposed taking down the statue of the Confederate General in his city, and renaming Lee Circle. It set off a fierce debate about sanitizing the past from public spaces and honoring history’s heroes as products of their times. Some people were quick to point out that, though Lee led the Civil War on the side of slavery, he himself was not racist. He actually freed his father’s slaves when he became an adult, and this sentiment has been around for decades. But history is full of personalities that are inspiring, contradictory, mysterious, and poignant. Lee has been consciously cast in a favorable light right from the time of his death, even in the North.

Lee: Slavery, a Necessary Evil

In a letter to his wife from the front-lines, Lee wrote, "slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country." But even in the very same letter he argues that it was necessary for black people to bear slavery in order that they might be abe to come to America an be "civilized". Lee himself was indirectly burdened with this supposed evil. Lee’s wife was descendant of George Washington through an adoption, and owned dozens of slaves and a plantation network. Lee’s father-in-law had willed that the family’s slaves be free after he died “when expedient and proper.” Lee had been born into an old and wealthy family which had fallen on hard times. The Confederate general held on to the slaves until his own plantation was back on track. According to Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s biography of the man, which is based on Lee’s correspondences, the general freed his own slaves prior to the war, though considered buying more afterwards. If the Civil War was about the rights of states, there was one right the southern states particularly wanted to defend, and that was slavery.

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