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Ulysses S. Grant vs Robert E. Lee on Slavery

Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

Grant and Lee at Appomattox

Grant and Lee at Appomattox

April 9, 1865

On April 9, 1865, two men sat down together in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. The older of the two, impeccably dressed in his finest uniform, was Robert E. Lee, general-in-chief of the Confederate States of America.

His opposite number, attired in the mud-spattered uniform of a private soldier with only the shoulder straps of a Lt. General to denote his rank, was Ulysses S. Grant, the supreme commander over all the armies of the United States. At that moment, the two were arguably the most important individuals on the entire North American continent.

Lee was there to offer, and Grant was there to receive, the surrender of the Confederacy’s most important fighting force, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Although conflict in the nation’s Civil War would continue elsewhere for a few more weeks, the surrender at Appomattox marked the final failure of the Confederacy’s attempt to establish itself as a separate nation founded on the “cornerstone” of African slavery, as its Vice President Alexander Stephens put it.

From the moment Lee and Grant affixed their signatures to the surrender document, the issue of American slavery was forever settled. Henceforth, the United States would truly be, in principle if not entirely in practice, the land of the free.

The Ironies in the Attitudes of Lee and Grant Toward Slavery

For four harrowing years Robert E. Lee had fought fiercely to defend slavery and Ulysses S. Grant just as fiercely to destroy it. But there was a surprising twist in the personal beliefs of the two commanders regarding the South’s “peculiar institution.” Both men had been slave-owners. Yet it was Lee, the Confederate, who proclaimed his personal belief that slavery ran counter to the laws of God and should eventually be abolished, while Grant, the victorious representative of the supposedly anti-slavery North, never voiced any moral objections to it.

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.

— Robert E. Lee in 1856

Still, when it came to the actions each took toward the slaves under his authority, Grant’s behavior was that of a committed abolitionist, while Lee worked hard to hold onto his slaves as long as he could.

In this two-part series we will examine the attitudes and actions of both Grant and Lee with regard to slavery as an institution, and toward the enslaved people who were under their control. This article focuses on Grant. To get an in-depth perspective on Lee's attitude toward slavery, please see:

On Slavery: Robert E. Lee vs Ulysses S. Grant

Grant Did Not Consider Himself an Abolitionist

In his biography, Grant, historian Ron Chernow describes the young Ulysses as having grown up in “an ardent abolitionist household.” Grant’s father, Jesse, did indeed have strong anti-slavery convictions. When, in 1848, Grant married Julia Dent, the daughter of man who owned thirty slaves, Jesse was so incensed that his son was joining “a tribe of slaveholders” that he refused to attend the wedding.

On the surface at least, the son seemed to have inherited few of the father’s abolitionist sentiments. Before the Civil War, Grant never expressed any personal moral objections to slavery. His only concern was with the threat the institution posed to the unity and survival of the nation. That concern led him to vote in the 1856 presidential election for the pro-slavery Democratic candidate, James Buchanan, rather than for the anti-slavery Republican, John C. Fremont. In His Memoirs Grant explained his reasoning this way:

"It was evident to my mind that the election of a Republican President in 1856 meant the secession of all the Slave States, and rebellion. Under these circumstances I preferred the success of a candidate whose election would prevent or postpone secession, to seeing the country plunged into a war the end of which no man could foretell. With a Democrat elected by the unanimous vote of the Slave States, there could be no pretext for secession for four years."

In an 1863 letter to his home state congressman, Elihu Washburne, Grant summed up his pre-war attitude: “I never was an Abolitionist,” he said, “not even what could be called anti-slavery.”

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I never was an Abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery

— Ulysses S. Grant in 1863

And yet in his dealings with both free and enslaved African Americans, Grant showed himself to be uncomfortable with the slave system.

Lacking Money, Grant Relied on His Slave-Holding Father-In-Law

In 1854 Grant was a Captain in the U. S. Army stationed in California. Separated by more than a thousand miles from Julia and his children, the desperately lonely officer decided to resign his commission so that he could go back to Missouri to be with his family. But with the loss of his Army salary, Grant soon found himself in deep and seemingly perpetual financial difficulty.

Between 1854 and 1859 the Grant family lived mostly at White Haven, the Missouri farm owned by Julia’s father, Col. Frederick Dent. Not only did Grant supervise the plantation’s slaves, he also purchased a slave of his own from the Dents (probably at a nominal price) to help work the 80-acre section of White Haven that Col. Dent had given the Grants as a wedding gift.

Slaves at work on a plantation circa 1863

Slaves at work on a plantation circa 1863

Grant Treated Both Slaves and Free Blacks With Dignity

As a farm manager, Grant acquired the reputation among his neighbors of being far too generous in his treatment of African American workers. He treated the plantation’s slaves with dignity, refusing to beat them to force them to work. In fact, he would often roll up his sleeves and work right alongside them. He also paid the free blacks he hired the same wages a white worker would get. Other farm owners complained that Grant was “spoiling” the blacks.

Col. Dent had turned over four slaves to Julia when she married Grant, although he never formally transferred ownership to her. One of the Dent family slaves, Mary Robinson, later recalled hearing Grant declare that "he wanted to give his wife's slaves their freedom as soon as possible." He was unable to do so because the slaves were still legally the property of Col. Dent.

He wanted to give his wife's slaves their freedom as soon as possible.

— Dent family slave, Mary Robinson

Grant Freed His Only Slave Instead of Selling Him

During the White Haven years Grant worked not only at farming, but also at several other occupations, including selling firewood on street corners in St. Louis. But he never made enough to live on and pay off his debts. His finances eventually reached such a low state that two days before Christmas in 1857, he pawned his watch for $22 to buy presents for his family.

Yet in March of 1859 Grant appeared before the Circuit Court in St. Louis to set free the only slave he ever personally owned. Grant’s deed of emancipation read as follows:

Know all persons by these presents that I, Ulysses S. Grant, of the City and County of St. Louis, in the State of Missouri, for divers good and valuable considerations me hereunto moving, do hereby emancipate and set free from slavery my negro man William, sometimes called William Jones, of mulatto complexion, aged about thirty-five years, and about five feet, seven inches in height, and being the same slave purchased by me of Frederick Dent. And I do hereby manumit, emancipate and set free said William from slavery forever.

In testimony whereof I hereto set my hand and seal at St. Louis this 29th day of March, A. D. 1859.

Grant left no record of why he chose to free William Jones instead of selling him. At that time the sale of a slave like Jones could have brought Grant anywhere from $1000 to $1500 ($28,000 to $42,000 today) in badly needed cash. We can only infer that even though he didn’t think of himself as an abolitionist, neither was he comfortable with being personally involved in the slave system.

Grant Fought to Abolish Slavery to Save the Nation

By 1863 Grant, now recognized as the Union’s foremost general, understood that if the nation was to be saved, slavery had to be destroyed once and for all. In the same letter to Elihu Washburne in which he declared that he had never been against slavery, he went on to say:

“I try to judge fairly and honestly and it became patent to my mind early in the rebellion that the North & South could never live at peace with each other except as one Nation, and that without slavery. As anxious as I am to see peace reestablished I would not therefore be willing to see any settlement until this question is forever settled.”

After the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln asked Grant to work toward recruiting newly freed slaves, as well as free blacks, into the army. This was, at that time, an unprecedented move, considered unworkable by many in the North. But Grant assured the president that he was all for the project. In August of 1863, the same month of his letter to Washburne, Grant wrote to Lincoln saying:

"I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support. This, with the emancipation of the negro, is the heaviest blow yet given the Confederacy...

"By arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy [will] weaken him in the same proportion they strengthen us. I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy to the enlistment of a force sufficient to hold all the South falling into our hands and to aid in capturing more."

Although Grant was enthusiastic about welcoming freed slaves into the Union army, it still appears that his motivation was not any moral objection to slavery, but the prospect that these new recruits would help to win the war. At this point, although he was personally uncomfortable with slave holding, and as a soldier would fight hard to free as many slaves as possible, Grant was still no abolitionist.

The Civil War Changed Grant's Attitude Toward Slavery

During the war years Grant's commitment to abolishing slavery seems to have been based more on utility than morality - slavery needed to be destroyed in order that the nation might live. But by the time he looked back on the war several years after it ended, his thinking had changed.

In June of 1878, when Grant was touring Europe after serving two terms as President, he met with Prince Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of the German Empire. New York Herald reporter John Russell Young, who accompanied Grant on his trip, recorded the conversation. When Bismark ventured the opinion that the North had fought the Civil War primarily to save the Union, Grant corrected him.

"Not only save the Union, but destroy slavery," answered the General.

"I suppose, however, the Union was the real sentiment, the dominant sentiment," said the prince.

"In the beginning, yes," said the General; "but as soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle."

It was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.

— Ulysses S. Grant in 1878

Unlike his earlier lack of moral clarity concerning slavery, it's clear that by the time of his conversation with Bismark, Grant's attitude toward keeping human beings in bondage had evolved. Long after he successfully concluded a war fought to destroy slavery, Ulysses S. Grant had finally become a true abolitionist.

© 2018 Ronald E Franklin


Robert Jackway on June 23, 2020:

Grant may not have referred to himself as an abolitionist prior to the Civil War, but especially given the time period they lived (both he and Lincoln) were incredibly bold, deliberate and tenacious in their efforts to abolish slavery. Unfortunately, given our current state of national and political turmoil it breaks my heart to see this country still fighting over civil rights. When will we learn to love each other more than a statue or a flag?

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 22, 2019:

Thanks, MG.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 22, 2019:

Very interesting and informative. Studied the civil war. It was ordained that Lee will lose and so he did. At least it was the end of slavery though not discrimination

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 22, 2019:

Thanks, John. I hope you enjoyed the Lee article as well.

John Dove on December 20, 2019:

Hi Ronald--

I enjoy your writing style and the focussed research you bring to your Hubs. I especially like this Hub on Grant's views and behavior toward slavery, which I hadn't previously understood.

I will follow your link to Robert E. Lee's relationship to slavery with great anticipation. Thanks

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 05, 2018:

joeryancivilwar, thank you for your reply. I now understand where you are coming from.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 04, 2018:

joeryancivilwar, most of what you say regarding William Jones, his being freed by Grant, and Grant's finances seems to run counter to the accepted historical record. If you have credible primary sources for those claims, please share them.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on August 29, 2018:

Joeryancivilwar, I've never seen any claim in primary historical sources that Grant owned multiple slaves.

Joel M Bridge on July 05, 2018:

It’s a tragedy that American culture has forgotten Grant and his memory has been shamed he’s one of the Paramount examples of an American hero. Humble in life show humility in victory makes mistakes strives to learn from them and generally always tries to do the best thing even when it’s not the best thing for him. There’s only flaw which haunted him throughout his entire life wasn’t his drinking it was overly trusting nature in his fellow man even after saying all that blood shed he trusted people and they took advantage of him.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 07, 2018:

Yes, I think that's the case with many people. But with Lee, I think it's more that he was able, in his own mind, to see his treatment of the enslaved people under his control as being "right" according to his ideas of duty and morality. I admit to not understanding how Lee thought people held in involuntary servitude had a "duty" to work for him for no pay, but he did.

Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on May 07, 2018:

Interesting history. I suppose many people base their stances on practical considerations of wealth and power first and moral considerations second.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 16, 2018:

Thanks, Dora. I agree with you that Grant was probably struggling internally about slavery for a long time. It seems to me that he became anti-slavery in his heart long before his head caught up.

CaribTales on April 16, 2018:

Grant was probably struggling with his conviction all the while to free the slaves. Good for him that he came around slowly but surely. Thanks for these historical episodes.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 14, 2018:

Thanks, hardlymoving, for reading and commenting.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 14, 2018:

Thanks, Yves. I think you are right about Grant's character. Not only did he seem to not harbor the race prejudices that were the norm in his society, but as president he was committed to protecting the former slaves of the South from assaults on both their rights and their persons. I think he is highly underappreciated today.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 14, 2018:

Thanks, Larry. I think you are right that the Civil War was both tragic and necessary. And, as you allude to, there are still unresolved issues from that conflict. Hopefully we can come together to resolve those issues with a bit more grace than the Civil War generation exhibited.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 14, 2018:

Don, I agree that it's not easy to overcome the settled prejudices of the society in which you live. But that's why we must be guided by moral principles instead of just going with the flow. For example, people in the slave-holding states were well aware of Jesus' command that "all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." There was a price to pay for putting that principle into practice regarding relations between the races, and I think we can be very grateful to those, black and white, who were willing to pay it.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 14, 2018:

Thanks, Eric.

savvydating on April 14, 2018:

The quotes you supplied in this article helped us get a true sense of the man, Ulysses S. Grant. One thing I got from this article was that he was a man of high character. It seemed to me that he always believed in equality, which was why he worked alongside the slaves, ironic as that may sound.

In any event, you have brought to life the emotional aspect of Grant's feelings toward slavery. Thank you for that.

Larry W Fish from Raleigh on April 14, 2018:

A great article about these two men, Ronald. The Civil War was the most tragic event of America up to that time, but it needed to be fought. I have visited Gettysburg many times. Many Confederate statues are now being removed including here in North Carolina. My personal feeling that it is wrong. In no way would I ever support the Confederacy, but I think the statues are a part of American history and should remain in place. Just my personal opinion. Thanks again for the article, Ronald.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on April 14, 2018:

I think it is difficult to understand the mind set of those in a different time than our own. Our understanding of race and gender were quite different in a different time. Attitudes, I think, do evolve.To think it wrong to keep keeping black people in slavery one had to first recognize that they are human. Or that all humans have equal rights to dignity.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 14, 2018:

Thank you for this fascinating look into the history and the man.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 13, 2018:

Thanks, Rochelle. I wonder how many of the artists who painted that spacious parlor ever saw it with their own eyes as you did!

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on April 13, 2018:

It is a miracle that this nation survived this complicated conflict at all.

I have stood in the McLean parlor at Appomattox, an it is much smaller than what is seen in artist's depictions.

I enjoyed reading this interpretation of the thoughts and motives of both generals.

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