Lee and Grant: Images of Fatherhood in Victorian America

By Abigail Cocco ’19

Before they were great Civil War generals, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant were fathers. Lee had seven children, three sons and four daughters. Grant was the father of three boys and a single girl. Though they are intended to paint overwhelmingly positive portraits of the two men, their children’s words give us a sense of these two generals as fathers and the ways in which they reflected standard trends in fathering during the Victorian Era.

During this period, the rise of industrialization and capitalism codified gender norms and altered the dynamics of family life. Fathers increasingly worked away from the home as the production of goods shifted from the hands of artisans to the hands of unskilled laborers. Men left the farm for factories, where they completed specialized tasks in the manufacturing process. New ways of producing goods cut costs and made these goods affordable for middle-class Americans. A new middle class ideal emerged, and central to that ideal was a father who could provide these material goods while his wife and children stayed home. The shift in priorities that resulted from the emerging capitalism changed the father’s role within the home. These changes were especially pronounced in the North but also appeared in the South in a more muted version.

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U.S. Grant with wife, Julia, and son, Jesse. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

 

As more men went to work outside the home, mothers came to occupy the central role in the family. It was during this era that the idea of “separate spheres” for men and women became firmly entrenched in American society. Both Grant’s and Lee’s families followed this typical model of the “ideal” Victorian family: their military service necessitated that their wives be the ones to care for and educate their children. However, while family life typically centered on the mother’s care and moral guidance, fathers continued to serve as the ultimate authority within the household, having the final say in disciplinary matters and teaching their children about morality and virtue.

Lee’s and Grant’s families confirm this generalization of fatherhood, particularly of the father as the disciplinarian. Grant’s wife, Julia, wrote in her memoirs, “Whenever [the children] were inclined to disobey or question my authority, I would ask the General to speak to them.” Robert E. Lee Jr. said that while he could sometimes circumvent his mother, “exact obedience to every mandate of my father was a part of my life and being at the time.” Yet, the means by which a father disciplined his children during this time were reflective of society’s greater emphasis on personal choice over external pressures.

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Photo credit: virginiapioneers.net

In early America, the father typically managed his household in an authoritarian style, demanding obedience from both his wife and his children. In the mid-19th century, however, a child’s sense of social responsibility was expected to come from within, rather than from oppressive modes of discipline. According to his son, Frederick, Grant’s “usual method of correction was to show disapproval of our actions of his manner and quiet words.” This, he remarked, “was more effective with us than scolding or whippings would have been. We all felt consternation and distress when he looked with disapproval upon what we had done.” Robert Jr., too, feared the disapproval of his father. He wrote, “I never thought why, but was perfectly sure when he gave an order that it had to be obeyed.” Even when his father was away during his childhood, Young Custis Lee felt the weight of the responsibility to please his father. On most of the occasions when he acted up, he “could be managed by a gentle reminder that his father had left the family in his care.” The way that Grant and Lee disciplined their children is unlike the strict nature of the discipline we associate with them as generals. The disconnect between society’s emphasis on personal choice and the army’s more traditional means of keeping troops in line partially explains why officers in both armies struggled to discipline their men. Many soldiers, particularly volunteers, resisted the army’s erosion of their independence and personal choice. A similar resistance could arise in the home when sons grew older and began to assert their own independence and manhood by challenging the previously unquestioned authority of their fathers.

Though fathers remained the ultimate disciplinarians in the home, their role in the family shifted from an authoritarian one toward a more companionate relationship with their wives and children. Though wives were still subordinate to their husbands, the emergence of two distinct spheres for men and women ensured that husbands and wives would begin to work together as equals in the management of the household. At the same time, the culture’s emphasis on personal choice, as well as the diversification of means of earning wealth, meant that people were more likely to marry for love and attraction rather than to consolidate land holdings or political power. Outward displays of affection and emotion inside the home became a way for fathers to escape the strictness of life outside of it. Familial ties in the Victorian Era were usually rooted not in the authoritarian relationship of the past but in the mutual desire of fathers and their children for love and tenderness. While Lee was “very firm on all proper occasions, his children’s “greatest treat was to get into his bed in the morning and lie close to him, listening while he talked to us in his bright, entertaining way.” According to Frederick, Grant showed affection to his children through actions rather than words. He “bought his children many toys” and “liked to make them paper boats, which he would sail in the gutter after a rainstorm.” These images of Grant and Lee stand in sharp contrast to the ways in which they are typically remembered as firm, martial, masculine men. They remind us that Grant and Lee were not just incredible generals but were also ordinary men forced to make difficult decisions and grapple with the emotional effects of those decisions.

The middle-class ideal was a family in which the father worked to provide for his family and allowed his wife and children to stay at home. Unfortunately, this ideal was not attainable for most families. Working-class fathers had no choice but to send their wives and children to work in factories in usually terrible conditions. The exploitation of children in factories led to calls for reform and the emergence of ideas about the sanctity of childhood. These ideas prompted adults of all classes to take a greater interest in the well-being and education of children. Moral obligation and deep affection demanded that parents involve themselves in their children’s education. Though mothers took primary charge of their children’s education, the Lee and Grant children recall their fathers taking active roles as well. Robert Jr. wrote that on many occasions, his father would help him with difficult arithmetic by going through the problems step-by-step. Frederick Grant recalled fondly the times when Grant would read aloud to his family from classics like Oliver Twist and the works of Charles Dickens. Fathers were also responsible for teaching their children the strict moral code of the Victorian Era, as well values like “purity, honest, truthfulness, and consideration of others,” which Grant, according to his son, taught his children by example. Considering the emphasis on separate spheres for men and women during this time, it is no surprise that fathers’ interactions with their children were colored by perceptions of gender norms. Fathers encouraged their sons to pursue activities associated with masculinity. Both Robert E. Lee Jr. and Frederick Grant confirmed this image of the Victorian Era father. Grant was “so anxious that his boys be strong and manly, and took the greatest interest in our sports and pleasures.” Lee, too, took a great interest in his sons’ physical activities. He monitored their progress in sports like horse riding and swimming. Both men encouraged their sons to uphold values traditionally associated with masculinity from a very early age. Frederick wrote, “My father…would not tolerate timidity in his small boy, and a display of it meant an unhappy hour for him, and me also.”

A father’s relationship with his daughter was often incredibly important in Victorian America. However, as family members negotiated their social and gender roles in a war-torn and increasingly capitalist society, this relationship took on a different dynamic that in had in the past. Fathers were more inclined to treat their daughters as companions, and both increasingly relied on the other for love and affection. In one sense, this relationship was a way for fathers to maintain a sense of stability in a family unit that was increasingly out of their control, though “power over daughters now came less from authority than from paternal love.”

Both Grant and Lee were incredibly close with their daughters. Grant’s only daughter, Nellie, was said to be his favorite child, and Lee referred to his daughter, Mildred, affectionately as “Precious Life.” The relationship between fathers and daughters in the North and South was a familiar constant that served to preserve a sense of the old social order. In the South, these relationships took on political significance. The legitimacy of fathers’ authority over their wives and daughters served to “naturalize subordination” and, therefore, help justify the subordination of African Americans under the slave system. The political significance of the father-daughter relationship in the South perhaps ensured that this relationship would more closely resemble the paternalistic one of previous generations than it would for Northern families. In the North, close and more companionate relationships with strong fathers seemed to produce self-assured daughters who were more willing to strike out on their own. It was sometimes mentioned in the press that Grant’s daughter, Nellie, “was too fond of partying, staying out late and doing other things teenagers are prone to do.” In 1874, Nellie married against Grant’s wishes and moved to England with her husband. While in the past, marriage often meant separation from their fathers, daughters in the Victorian Era maintained strong bonds with their fathers. Nellie communicated with her parents very frequently and sometimes spent summers with them, even after her marriage. She remained extremely close to her father for the rest of his life. Upon learning of the severity of his illness, she rushed to the United States. Grant, though he was dying at that point, met his only daughter at the dock when she arrived.

As typical relationships between fathers and their children evolved, physical proximity became a central element of conceptions of family. The practice of sending children to boarding schools declined, indicating the preference for parental involvement on a more daily basis. In fact, two of Grant’s children, Nellie and Jesse, lasted only a few days in boarding school before returning home. Unfortunately, war threatened families’ abilities to remain physically together. Grant and Lee both longed to be physically close to their families. In 1861, Lee wrote to his daughters, “I wish indeed I could see you, be with you, and never again part from you.” Grant’s wife, Julia, wrote that Grant “wrote me many times, urging me to visit him…which I, at length…decided to do. He desired the children to accompany me.” It is true that Grant often implored his wife to visit him, as long as he determined that the place and time was safe. Frequent letters and visits to camp were just two of the ways that families resisted the separation wrought by war.

In many cases, fathers and sons went off to war at the same time. All three of Lee’s sons served in the Confederate Army, and Lee’s youngest son wrote that whenever he had the opportunity to visit his father, Lee would “talk to me about my mother and sisters, about my horse and myself…I think my presence was very grateful to him, and he seemed to brighten up when I came.” Grant’s son, Frederick, though only twelve years old, accompanied his father on several campaigns. As much as possible, families tried to bridge the separation by keeping each other informed. Lee wrote to his wife, “I have not laid eyes on Rob since I saw him in the battle of Sharpsburg…Custis has seen him and says he is very well, and apparently happy and content.” Lee and Grant exchanged frequent letters with their wives and children, and their families followed their military movements through the newspapers.

As fathers, Lee and Grant were just two examples of shifts in parenting that occurred during the 19th century. Broad societal changes such as the rise of capitalism altered family dynamics and challenged fathers’ total control of their households. In a rapidly changing world, fathers used emotional expression in the home to escape the rigidity of public life and resist the disruption of civil war. Above all, fathers in 19th century America, like Lee and Grant, expressed their love for their wives and children and hoped that it would be returned. Images of Grant and Lee as fathers are valuable because they help us view these two generals, who have been immortalized and so often vilified, as ordinary men. Grant and Lee were imperfect generals and fathers, and they were products of the societies in which they lived.


Sources:

Block, James, The Crucible of Consent: American Child Rearing and the Forging of Liberal Society, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Frank, Stephen, “Rendering Aid and Comfort: Images of Fatherhood in the Letters of Civil War Soldiers from Massachusetts and Michigan,” Journal of Social History, 26 (1) (1992).

Grant, Frederick Dent, Ulysses S. Grant Association Newsletter, April 1869, Accessed at http://www.granthomepage.com/frederick_dent_grant.htm.

Grant, Frederick Dent, Missouri Republican, 1912, Accessed at http://www.granthomepage.com/frederick_dent_grant.htm.

Howe, Lewis, George Washington Custis Lee, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 48(4) (1940) 317-327.

Lee Jr, Robert E. Lee, My Father, General Lee, (New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1960).

McCurry, Stephanie, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Ramold, Steven J., Baring the Iron Hand: Discipline in the Union Army, (Dekalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010).

Rose, Anne C., Victorian America and the Civil War, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Stone, Lawrence, “Family Values in a Historical Perspective,” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Harvard University, November 16th and 17th, 1994.

Dusting Off the Old Heroes of the Republic: The Newest Civil Rights Movement in Washington, D.C.

By Matt LaRoche ‘17

When I decided to attend the Women’s March on Washington this past January, I tried desperately to keep the Civil War out of my mind. I didn’t want to court disaster. Whatever their politics, anyone who knows anything about the Civil War can hear the familiar wails of a nation groaning under the weight of paralyzing political factionalism, deep sectional divides, and a potential constitutional crisis—in the works long before the Trump presidency—surrounding the proper limit and application of executive power in our democracy, amongst other threats. But I just couldn’t allow myself to envision the worst. It made me physically sick to have to wonder, honestly, whether my home was on the verge of throwing away the sacrifices of millions of selfless patriots over the years simply because we could no longer see our neighbors, our family members, as human. Because we had so lost faith in the “unfinished work” that we would surrender liberty for safety, virtue for ambition, and love for power. That we would think ourselves so vulnerable, so small, that we would betray our friends and forsake the world. That we would stop being leaders because the job was no longer easy.

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View of Women’s March from Grant Memorial. Photo by the author.

As I stepped out of the terminal at Union Station, into the grey and misting morning, I couldn’t escape these thoughts. Yes, I was thrilled, even energized as I fell into the crowd and somehow we found an irrepressible rhythm that drove us towards the Mall. But I was still scared. This was no battle, but I was bearing witness to a struggle for the nation’s future, and that was too close for comfort for me. Continue reading “Dusting Off the Old Heroes of the Republic: The Newest Civil Rights Movement in Washington, D.C.”

Brooks Simpson on Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of Reconstruction

Brooks Simpson
Brooks Simpson. Image courtesy of ASU.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legaciesToday, we’re speaking with Brooks Simpson, ASU Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University. His numerous publications include: The Reconstruction Presidents (University Press of Kansas, 2009), Union and Emancipation: Essays on Politics and Race in the Civil War Era (Kent State University Press, 2009, a volume co-edited with David Blight), The Civil War in the East, 1861-1865 (Potomac Books, 2013), and The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, an edited volume published in 2013 by the Library of America. He also maintains the blog Crossroads.

CWI: What were Ulysses S. Grant’s goals for the newly reunited nation during the Reconstruction period? How did his vision for postwar America evolve over time?

SIMPSON: Grant sought to balance sectional reconciliation and reunion among whites with protecting the freedpeople in the aftermath of the destruction of slavery. Over time, he came to realize that African Americans needed protection and assistance as they defined what freedom meant, adding political rights (including suffrage) to the need to secure equality before the law regardless of race. Grant contended that reconciliation did not require the acceptance of continued rebellious behavior. Furthermore, he believed that the continued resistance to Reconstruction by those people in the North who had not wholeheartedly supported the war effort should not be tolerated. Grant never doubted the cause for which he fought and saw no reason to apologize for or tolerate criticisms of the Union war effort. Continue reading “Brooks Simpson on Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of Reconstruction”

General McClellan is a Fruitcake and Other Tasteful Metaphors

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

GrantatoThe idea for this post was born from a comment I made while bored and generally sleep deprived on a road trip to the James Buchanan symposium earlier this fall. After some serious historical discussion with my traveling companions, including two other CWI fellows, I made a very non-serious observation. It went something like this:

“You know, I think Buchanan looks a lot like a soft-serve vanilla ice cream cone.”

After being met with some justifiably confused replies, I explained myself: in all the pictures I had seen of him he seemed to have a round and soft face with an upturned tuft of wispy white hair that reminded me of the machine-processed look of a soft-serve vanilla ice cream. I extended my metaphor beyond looks as well, saying that much like ice cream, Buchanan melted under the pressure and heat of the nation during his presidency, requiring Lincoln to come in and clean up the mess—politics and melted dessert both. Continue reading “General McClellan is a Fruitcake and Other Tasteful Metaphors”

A Human Medium

By Amanda Pollock ‘18

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

Civil War Parks serve a dual purpose: to educate visitors about the events that took place on their hallowed grounds, and to commemorate these events. Interpretative elements, such as informational signs and monuments, successfully memorialize and pay respect to the soldiers who risked their lives. Interpreters of the parks function as a ‘human medium’ to educate the public, and are given the unique responsibility to contextualize controversies that still exist today and explain just why these men were fighting in the first place.

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park has always placed a great deal of emphasis on the battle itself, for the sole reason that most people do not even know that two battles were fought at Appomattox. The park has made it its mission “to commemorate the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant…brought about by the Appomattox Campaign from March 29-April 12, 1865, and to honor those engaged in this great conflict.” The employees at this park have the duty to explain to the public the important military events that occurred on park property, as the battles were a crucial part of both the history of the village and the nation. To fail to mention the actions of the men who fought and died there would indeed be undercutting their service. Continue reading “A Human Medium”

The Meade Pyramid’s Shifting Sands

By Jacob Ross ‘15

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

In his essay, “The Politics of Memory: Black Emancipation and the Civil War Monument,” Kirk Savage describes a phenomenon in which the plastic arts of memory can re-appropriate blocks of bronze and stone meant to convey a certain message about the Civil War and change their meaning entirely. There is no better materialization of this theory than the Meade Pyramid located on the Fredericksburg Battlefield. The 400-ton granite structure constructed near Prospect Hill had the original intent of marking the location of General “Stonewall” Jackson’s headquarters; however, in time the purpose of the monument shifted to denote the location of a small, but unique, Union success on the Fredericksburg Battlefield – General Meade’s breakthrough of the Confederate lines. It is this monument’s new purpose which provides its modern namesake.

The pyramid was built in 1898 by a partnership between the Confederate Memorial Literary Society (CMLS) and the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad. The intent of the monument’s purpose was clear even in the initial stages of design. R.F.&P. Railroad employee John Rice was charged with visiting the mammoth Confederate memorial pyramid at Hollywood National Cemetery in Richmond in order to take measurements in an attempt to build a scaled-down duplicate by the tracks at Prospect Hill. From personal experience, the Hollywood Cemetery Pyramid sits in the epitome of “Moonlight & Magnolia” romanticism, but its location is isolated in a tucked away small portion of the vast cemetery. The Meade Pyramid, however was placed right beside the railroad tracks with the primary goal of serving as a landmark-memorial to the most geographically diverse audience Fredericksburg regularly experienced – those travelers passing through town by rail. If nothing else, it is safe to say that the pyramid embodied romantic Confederate memory and placed it at a location of highest public exposure. Continue reading “The Meade Pyramid’s Shifting Sands”

Realization: Reflections on the 150th

By Bryan Caswell ’15

Though my own musings have led me to doubt the traditional interpretation of the Battle of Gettysburg’s military importance, I still hold Gettysburg to be the greatest battle of the American Civil War, without question worthy and deserving of continued study. In order to reconcile these two points of view I pondered further, attempting to unearth other, less-thought-of reasons for the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg to the course of the American Civil War.

Again my thoughts turned to the summer I spent at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. As one of my duty stations that summer had been Spotsylvania Court House, the second battle in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, I had gained much experience explaining the concepts of this crucial campaign. The most famous aspect of Grant’s series of south-east movements in the spring and summer of 1864 is, of course, his unswerving determination to keep moving towards Richmond, no matter the cost. Grant’s fearless use of the North’s superior manpower and industrial capacity to defeat the waning strength of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia has become legendary in American history. Yet mention of this war of attrition in the American Civil War only truly begins to rear its head in the context of ending the war with the opening of the Overland Campaign. Though Grant and his generals may have been the first to integrate attrition into their strategies, the attrition of Southern armies began almost as soon as the war started. Though victorious at nearly every battle, Robert E. Lee continually lost a higher percentage of his men than did his opponents, and it is this idea of Confederate losses that brings me back to Gettysburg. It is estimated that, out of a total of approximately 70,000 effective soldiers at the start of the campaign, Lee’s army suffered a total of around 23,000 casualties, fully 33% of its force. Among those casualties lurks a second, even more devastating fact. This same percentage of losses was reflected in the Army of Northern Virginia’s officer corps, with at least a third of them becoming casualties over the course of those three days in July, 1863. In an army which has, rightly or wrongly, time and again been lauded for its superior leadership, the loss of so much of that leadership can only have been devastating to the continued performance of the army. In light of these figures, could it not be better to think of Gettysburg as one of the greatest disasters for Southern arms not because of the defeat itself, but due to the cost of any battle so bloody, be it a victory or a defeat?

377254cr[1] Continue reading “Realization: Reflections on the 150th”

“I’m not embarrassed. Are you?”: The friendship of Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain

by Tricia Runzel, ’13 ???And in still one more cradle, somewhere under the flag, the future illustrious Commander-in-Chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole str…

By Tricia Runzel ’13

“And in still one more cradle, somewhere under the flag, the future illustrious Commander-in-Chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind at this moment to trying to find out some way to get his big toe into his mouth – an achievement which, meaning no disrespect, the illustrious guest of this evening turned his entire attention to some fifty-six years ago; and if the child is but a prophecy of the man, there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded.” – Mark Twain, 1879 Reunion of the Army of the Tennessee

With those words, Mark Twain concluded his toast entitled “The Babies.” Silence descended on the Chicago ballroom where the reunited Union soldiers of the Army of the Tennessee held their collective breath as they looked for the reaction of the “illustrious guest” of honor – General Ulysses S. Grant. Both then and now, the former Union general and President of the United States was seen as a man with carefully controlled emotions.

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Continue reading ““I’m not embarrassed. Are you?”: The friendship of Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain”