General U. S. Grant, Mathew Brady, and the new American Hero




In case you weren’t paying attention during your Civil War history class, the picture above in not Grant, it is Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It was take in 1863 and was pretty typical of a portrait of a Civil War general. He stands tall in his battle uniform, with resolute eyes, beautiful shinny boots (you can be sure he didn’t shine them), and a sword. Every inch the patrician. He was the son of Major General Henry Lee III “light Horse Harry” who later became the governor of Virgina.       

Grant, like Lincoln, was a mid-westerner. A common man. At West Point, Lee was Captain of Cadets  while Grant muddled along near the bottom of his class. Grant was quiet, shy, self-effacing. When Grant met Lee during the Mexican-American War, he was thrilled; Lee later said he didn’t remember the meeting. The next time they met was at Appomattox – after Grant’s army had pounded the shit out of Lee. Lee was still resplendent in his beautiful uniform, Grant was wearing a muddy privates uniform with his three stars pined on the shoulders.

Grant had come to do a job and he did it. The picture below shows just that.



It is a new kind of portrait. It was probably taken during the Overland Campaign just after the battle of Cold Harbor. Grant is not the patrician hero: he looks tired, his eyes are sad, his boots are muddy. Unlike Lee, war is not a great adventure for Grant. It is a dirty job to be done.

Grant was the new American hero. The quiet man just doing his job. John Wayne. Gary Cooper in High Noon.  No braggadocio flourishes, just quietly getting the job done.


This is probably Mathew Bradley’s most famous photo. Not only because of it’s informality, but because it is so penetrating. I have read that a good portrait is a artifact of a relationship. This is a portrait of a man, the picture of Lee, in contrast, is generic. The pictures, together, are emblematic of the Civil War. Up until then, portraits were formal affairs but this portrait was informal.  Lee is shown as the patrician, and by extension, the south as feudal. They are formal portraits reflecting a formal society: ridged, stratified, looking back. This portrait of Grant, the dynamic new kind of American from the West, and by extension, the new and dynamic North: the new America.

An America that is open to the common man. Open to change, at ease with its new frenzy and energy and looking forward. In about a hundred years, from 1800 to 1900, we went from being the equivalent of a third world country to being the world’s industrial powerhouse. And the cleavage point was the Civil War: before it, we were mostly an agrarian society; after it we (the North, at least) were an industrial, urban society.

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