Mathew Brady’s picture of General U. S. Grant and the new American Hero

This is a very much modified copy of a post I made in 2009. I am reposting it now because, 150 years ago, the Army of The Potomac was in the middle of what is now known as The Overland Campaign. Grant  and Lee had battled to a draw in The Wilderness on May 5th through the 7th, 1864. This is where the Army of The Potomac learned that Grant was a different kind of general and they were going to become a different kind of Army.

Up until now, the Army of The Potomac would move south, fight the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and win lose or draw – sadly, it was often lose – retreat to rebuild and re-provision for the next battle. This time, when Grant pulled his troops out of the battle-line, it was not to retreat, but to move further south to attack again at Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21), then again and again. This was total war. Grant had said I propose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer, and he meant it.

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

This is a new kind of portrait and Grant was a new kind of general. The picture was probably taken during the Overland Campaign just after the battle of Cold Harbor. Grant is not the patrician hero, Grant, like Lincoln, was a mid-westerner. A common man. In this picture, he is tired, his eyes are sad, his boots are muddy. This is probably Matthew 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 an artifact of a relationship. This is a portrait of a real man, the dynamic new kind of American from the West.

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.



2 thoughts on “Mathew Brady’s picture of General U. S. Grant and the new American Hero

  1. …and a precursor of the kind of portraits that Danny Lyon began doing about 100 years later. I’ve been reading and re-investigating his work after getting “The Seventh Dog” recently…”The Bikeriders” was just re-issued in facsimile by Aperture. If you don’t know his stuff, go look…if you do, well, look again.

    A man of our times.


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