Myths about Generals Lee and Grant

Last week I invited readers to debunk a favorite myth of their own, and Gary Adams became our first guest blogger:

My name is Gary Adams and I run a Face Book group by the name of Southern Heritage Preservation. Don’t allow the name to fool you– our goal is that of  Cicero: “THE FIRST law of the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice.”  After what Southroners call “the war,” events and remarks were recorded by various sources that “usually” ensured the event and quote were correct, but that was not the case during the ear in question.  We take these stories and adages and examine them and have found more than a dozen to be false and many more questionable.  If you enjoy Civil War history, please feel free to join us.  

“Tell Hill he must come up … Strike the tent.” were reported as the last words of General Robert E. Lee. There are suggestions that Lee’s autobiographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, embellished Lee’s final moments.  Lee suffered a stroke on September 28, 1870. He died two weeks later, on October 12, 1870, shortly after 9 a.m., from the effects of pneumonia. Lee’s stroke had resulted in aphasia, rendering him unable to speak. When interviewed, the four attending physicians and family members stated “he had not spoken since 28 September…”.  We had to dig through the obituary and newspaper interviews to collect this material. 

Many Southron love to post this statement attributed General Grant: “If I thought this war was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission and offer my sword to the other side.”  They argue that this proves the war was not over slavery. While I personally agree, this is not proof as indeed, it is political lie.  We managed to track it down to a comment made by a political opponent running against Grant for President.  Here is the reference to the original newspaper and documentation. The quotation is but another myth.  (

I would like to thank Mary Theobald for allowing me to address her audience and to thank you for taking the time to visit her site.  
Gary Adams, President SHPG


3 Responses to Myths about Generals Lee and Grant

  1. Gregory hubbard says:

    That small aside, ‘…They argue that this proves the [Civil] war was not over slavery. While I personally agree, this is not proof…’ There are so many events and trends, large and small that appear to prove that slavery WAS the cause of the ‘Late Unpleasantness’ that perhaps this is an area of study which tangles myth and fact, both defined by perspective. For example there is the FACT that the Southern States were concerned about the northern ‘anti-slavery’ states outnumbering them, and thus outvoting them in Congress and outlawing slavery, and so undermining the basis for their economic system.

    There were multiple political crises before the Civil War whose sole basis was the issue of whether new states would join the Union as slave or free. Several great stars of American politics sacrificed their careers to cobble together political solutions to prevent secession by ‘slave states.’ Prominent among them, in a somewhat simplified account of events, were Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.

    There is also a great pile of incidents that also support slavery as a primary cause of the war. For example, the grand apologies offered by public supporters of the institution of slavery whenever they felt threatened by politics or public opinion, and the fact that the so-called ‘Border States’ were stripped of most of their free Black population after the Dred Scott decision made all Blacks ‘escaped slaves.’

    For me, as a historian, what I find disturbing is the push over the last several decades to redefine American history solely in terms of slavery. This has become a minor industry in census analysis. It is easy, for example, to find essays on the numbers of slaves in various towns, cities and states before the emancipation, or so-called proof of popular support for slavery in the north. Try to find equally detailed information on the number of woodcarvers in various industries. How many, free or slave, were employed in the vital industry of barrel makers? There is no comparison, of which I am aware, of the numbers of mechanics and builders (house wrights) who styled themselves Mechanics and Builders, in opposition to those who performed essentially the same jobs, but called themselves Engineers and Architects, or any discussion based on the census of how this changed through the course of the nineteenth century.

    This skewed view of our history has created new myths, such as America was the first and only nation in the modern era which engaged in the transportation and enslavement of African peoples.

    So which is more destructive? Reporting facts that are readily documented but incomplete, or passing along myths that have no real basis in reality or logic?

    By the way, I first heard the phrase ‘The Late Unpleasantness’ from an old fashion Southern lady, an historian of considerable grandeur, perhaps 75, a quadriplegic who explored every battlefield of the Civil War in a wheelchair, helped by strong friends.

    Gregory Hubbard

  2. southron98 says:

    A new book is stating Lee did have “Last Words” and as I post this alert I readying correspondence to the author trying to resolve the issue.

  3. Debra says:

    Did Robert E. Lee speak following his stroke? “Myth Busters” says no. However, his son Custis Lee reported that his father responded to his request to take his medicine with the words, “It is no use.” There are other eyewitness reports of Lee speaking after the stroke, including his saying to Dr. Barton, “I feel better.” Most contemporary reports indicate that Lee’s words were monolithic and simple but there are certainly indications that he spoke. To accuse Douglas Southall Freeman of embellilshment is, at best, speculation. I think we must be careful about “debunking myth” lest we debunk history in the process.

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