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Grant and Lee in War and Peace, by the New-York Historical Society, Through March 29, 2009

Visitors to the New-York His­tori­cal Society’s ongoing ex­hibit on Ulysses S. Grant and Rob­ert E. Lee will likely be intrigued by the first artifacts they see: artwork created by the legendary com­manders themselves long before they were famous. The first image exhibit-goers encounter is a lighthearted line drawing of Mexican soldiers stealing a pig during the Mexican War. The following two are ro­mantic, moody paintings—one a wooded landscape, the other of bartering Indians. Like other West Point gradu­ates, of course, Grant and Lee learned drawing as a way to understand perspective and help them depict battlefields. It comes as a surprise, however, given the mythology surrounding the Northern and Southern commanders, to learn that the cartoonish pig scene was drawn by Lee, while the lush paintings were Grant’s. That our traditional notions of these two icons would be challenged from the outset is both the strength and weakness of this exhibit.

The show is an updated version of a similar one staged in 2007 at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond that was pointedly dubbed “Lee and Grant.” By switching the titular order of the generals and adding the “war and peace” clause, the New York curators acknowledged their Northern au­di­ence and signaled their intent to tell a larger story. The new display provides much context and background, showcasing an interesting albeit somewhat disconnected set of artifacts. But in the process the exhibit ultimately loses focus on its two headline personalities.

The first room of the exhibit, for example, highlights the role of the U.S. Military Academy in shaping the American citizen-soldier army in the 19th century, offering brief biographies of Grant, Lee and a handful of other West Pointers. This is followed by a larger room examining the conflicts that led inexorably to the country’s dissolution in 1860. Artifacts such as Zachary Tay­lor’s gleaming spurs and a digitized version of Abner Doubleday’s Mexican War sketchbook are wonderful in themselves, and visitors arrive at the Civil War section with a good understanding of preceding eras. Yet aside from an intriguing bit about Lee’s seemingly innocent romantic dalliances, the personalities of Grant and Lee remain largely unplumbed.

Not surprisingly, the two generals emerge as individuals once the exhibit focuses on the Civil War. Once again, the Historical Society has gathered an intriguing array of letters, drawings and other artifacts—including Lee’s U.S. Army sword and Grant’s astonishingly beautiful quilted black saddle. But it could be made clearer what these artifacts had to do with shaping the generals who used them.

When it comes to the surrender at Appomattox, the show prominently showcases the John Leon Gerome Ferris painting Let Us Have Peace, 1865, in which Grant and Lee are shown shaking hands in Wilmer McLean’s parlor. Some of the most pervasive mythology surrounding both commanders is rooted in this painting, as the exhibit rightfully explains.

With its ambitious multiroom and multimedia exhibit, the New-York Historical Society has aimed to debunk the mythology of Grant and Lee. The inner motivation of these great men, however, will likely remain an unsolved mystery to many visitors.