On July 4, the National Portrait Gallery opened “One Life: Grant and Lee.” Recently, we spoke with the exhibition’s curator, museum historian David Ward.
Q: This is an interesting concept for a show and certainly an appropriate one to begin the conclusion of the museum’s Civil War commemorations. Typically, our “One Life” gallery space (first floor, east side of the two museums) is set aside for works that represent the experience of one person’s life, or a particularly seminal moment in one person’s life. Previously, for example, the Portrait Gallery has hosted exhibitions on Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, Katharine Hepburn, and Elvis Presley in this space. What was behind the decision to put an exhibition featuring both Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in this space?
A: I just thought it might be kind of interesting to break with our traditional format and consider the way in which lives influenced each other; I could see doing a “One Life” exhibition in which you treated a marriage, for instance. I also thought it would be significant as part of our Civil War programming to consider Grant and Lee in the context of the last year of the war in Virginia, from May 1864 to April 1865, when they confronted each other in the most elemental way possible as commanders of opposing armies bent on each other’s destruction.
Finally, they are linked by being opposites: Grant was very much a man of the northern middle and working classes, while Lee was the epitome of the southern aristocracy, with roots going back into Virginia history. They are historical and biographical “types,” if you will. But mostly they were two excellent generals, one of the few times that two evenly matched commanders faced each other in a prolonged campaign.
Q: How did two people in this space traditionally reserved for one fit into your curatorial concerns?
A: It wasn’t really possible given the space and the collection available to do a large exhibition that considered their life and times. Those have been done anyway. I just wanted to get at the essentials of their characters, biographies, and careers in as concise a way possible.
I hope it’s a visually and intellectually stimulating appetizer to the subject. It certainly isn’t anywhere near a final word on both men. But I think it raises interesting issues and questions for further exploration.
Q: As the Civil War entered its closing year, Grant and Lee met each other for a prolonged struggle—the so-called endgame, if you will—and it must have occurred to Lee that the odds were greatly against the Confederate undertaking. Facing Grant and coming to understand that Grant was not afraid to throw men into the fight must have been difficult for Lee. However, it must have been evident to him sometime around the time when Petersburg was besieged that all was lost. Why do you believe he chose to stay in the field as long as he did?
A: I think Lee always realized that the southern cause would be difficult, if not hopeless, hence his strategy of twice invading the North and hoping for some kind of negotiated surrender or armistice based on a Union collapse. It was never clear how this would happen. The idea was that the northern will to win would simply collapse, I suppose.
Conversely, the end game was tough for Lee because he fought so doggedly yet with diminishing odds that there could be any ultimate success, especially once Sherman has cut his way to the sea and then headed north. Once Grant dislodges Lee from Petersburg and causes Lee to attempt to escape—although to what end is very hard to know; what exactly is Lee going to do?—the end game comes very quickly.
I think there is a general problem in ending wars: that one side has fought so hard for something it deeply believes in that it doesn’t want to concede defeat, failing some kind of knockout blow that makes it evident.
Q: Last, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian are great repositories for the material culture of the Civil War. From this wealth, how did you prioritize your choice of portraits and objects for this exhibition?
A: We have pretty good portraits of both men in the museum’s collection. And I supplemented those with some images from the Library of Congress. I was lucky enough to get Lee’s death mask from Washington and Lee University, where he is buried. So there is a nice representative collection of different kinds of pictures, from rather fanciful renderings of both generals to “on the scene” drawings of Grant at Vicksburg.
The show is visually interesting and has especially nice photographs. And I was very pleased to get Alonzo Chappel’s painting of Appomattox, which shows the scene as it actually was rather than as how it was visually mythologized: a small room with only a few people in it. And we also included the great Winslow Homer painting Skirmish in the Wilderness, which was one of his first oil paintings and artistically documents the opening of the final campaign in Virginia.