William C. Davis is the author of the new biography Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee--The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged. His many other books include The Pirates Laffite and Lone Star Rising. A retired professor of history who taught at Virginia Tech, he lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Q: Why did you decide to write a joint biography of Grant and Lee?
A: After 40 years as a Civil War historian I naturally had studied both a fair bit, but a few years ago I was suddenly struck by what I saw as similarities they shared--similar instincts, in some degree comparable management styles, consonant attitudes toward war itself, and more.
There had been several combined biographies before but I did not recall any of them addressing the inner men--their ethical and moral worlds, the development of their personalities, interpersonal relations with families, political orientation--all of the things that went into informing their decisions when they became commanders. So that is what I set out to do.
Q: You write, “The myths long ago replaced the men.” What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about both men?
A: Misperceptions are numerous. One of the most resilient is the notion that Lee never hated the Yankees during the war, the cliche being that he never referred to them as "the enemy" but always as "those people" and the like.
It is nonsense. He used the word "enemy" innumerable times and it is clear from his personal letters to family that by 1863 he had come to detest Northerners, feeling that they had an almost personal goal to destroy his family.
He described them as "malignant" insane, vengeful, and almost came to regard them as a separate race, which of course had been a longtime Southern attitude among extremists, of which Lee had never been one.
As for Grant, the most persistent--indeed the only thing most Americans think they know about him--is that he was a drunkard. He showed not one of the typical symptoms of alcoholism. He did not have a high tolerance for liquor, and a couple of drinks could make him tipsy.
During the war there are about four documented instances of him having too much to drink, but all at times when the battlefield was quiet. Meanwhile, he could go months without a drink, he could have just one and no more, and he was aware that he did not metabolize it well and took precautions to have one of his staff remind him not to have a second drink.
Q: In the book, you write, “Each man embraced instinctive feelings about what it meant to be an American and what his country ought to be.” How did their views on these issues affect their actions leading up to and during the Civil War?
A: Grant is easy. He regarded the Constitution as paramount to all else, and the Union as a single unit, not a partnership from which dissatisfied members could withdraw. He was a Whig in his early principles, a believer in a strong central government, just as Lee had been before the war.
As Grant's political makeup evolved he would seek an America that abandoned its isolationism and became a world leader, one that reformed itself within, extending education to all, affording fair treatment to the native peoples, equal rights for the freed slaves, and more.
Lee on the other hand had a divided allegiance, and faced a choice that Grant and other Northern commanders never had to face. If he stayed in the union and accepted command of the army that was offered to him in April 1861, he would have to lead across his native Virginia and undoubtedly fight battles against fellow Virginians, some of them his own family.
Unlike Grant, while he thought secession was revolution and a terrible mistake in 1861, in time he came to believe that the South could not preserve its rights in the Union.
As for the cause of it all, slavery, neither was much interested in the subject before the war. Lee did not like it in the abstract, but he also did not like or trust blacks, free or slave, and thought that slavery was the only way they could live among whites peacefully.
As for Grant, he was utterly silent on the subject before 1861, but in the course of the war he became committed to emancipation, and after the war to equal rights, including pushing the 15th amendment to ratification when he was president.
Q: You write, “Grant and Lee became commanders not by blood or accident of birth, or by favoritism and politics.” What were the circumstances or attributes that led each of them to become commanders?
A: Grant was very lucky, taking nothing away from his transcendent capabilities. He was in exactly the right place at the right time, in Southern Illinois in the summer of 1861, a backwater where he could learn how to handle first a regiment and later a brigade.
Moreover, most of the Union forces growing in that area were commanded by Illinois politicians, making Grant the only West Point-trained professional, which naturally gave him some standing over the rest.
When it came time to move against Confederates controlling access to the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, he happened to be in command on the spot. Then once he achieved his first success, he was able to build on that.
As for Lee, he was one of the senior old U.S. Army officers to come over to the Confederacy at the beginning, son of a Revolutionary War hero, a hero of the Mexican War himself, and had a distinguished name and universal respect.
It was just assumed that he would hold a high position for the South, which he did, but unfortunately it was as an adviser to President Jefferson Davis. Only the wounding of army commander Joseph E. Johnston at Seven Pines in 1862 gave Lee the chance to show what he could do in army command. But then, like Grant, he showed everyone.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've just finished something that for me, at least, is certainly unique, a biography of a woman whose name no one knows. She is known to history as Loreta Janeta Velasquez, author of an 1876 memoir in which she detailed her supposed adventures in the Civil War masquerading as a soldier to fight in several battles, then acting as a spy for the Confederacy.
It is almost all invention, despite the fact that historians still very much want to believe her because she suits a number of constituencies--the women warrior students, Cuban and Hispanic historians (she falsely claimed to be Cuban), feminists, those studying transvestism, cross-dressing, and the like.
In fact she was a lifelong fraud, almost certainly a prostitute in New Orleans when young, and after the war a compulsive confidence artist of amazing ambition, including trying to capitalize a railroad across Mexico for $50 million.
She genuinely was a pioneer among female confidence artists, something of a pioneering journalist, occasionally a social reformer, as well as a two-time bigamist, and an absolute master at press manipulation. She made herself the first and I think only "media celebrity" in the Confederacy during the war, a sort of Confederate Kardashian.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb