Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Who Owned More Slaves, Grant or Lee?

The answer to the well known question about General Grant, which is "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb", is Grant. That question was more like a joke or a riddle than a real historical question.  But there is a real historical question: "Did General Grant own slaves?"  This is a very interesting question, given that Grant was the top General fighting for the Union in the US civil war, and that many people argue whether or not the war was mainly about slavery.  (and I assume everyone knows the Union was the side allegedly opposed to slavery)

The problem with trying to research questions like this is that there is no one source of "truth" in the U.S.A. (or maybe any country, but the distinction is really obvious in America)  So you may find in one book, that Grant did own slaves, thus proving that the Civil war was NOT about slavery.  And you may also come across this quote from Robert E. Lee, the top general of the Southern Confederate states (the ones who allegedly supported slavery)

"There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil." Robert E. Lee December 27, 1856

That quote, along with Grant's ownership of slaves seems to prove that the war  was not really about slavery.

But hold on just a minute.  If you are to learn anything about the "truth" it is that truth can be manipulated.

By doing some further research, you will find out that Grant bought a slave and set him free.  Does that mean that Grant "owned" slaves?  Of course it does.  From the moment a slave is bought, you own him until the moment you officially set him free, which will take at least a few days, or so I imagine.  It's true, Grant owned slaves.  Or one slave, anyway.  And you will also find out that this slave helped Grant build a log cabin, before being set free.  And that later on Grant hired him again on salary as a free man.  And you will also find out that Grant's wife inherited slaves, and that Grant did not set them free until the end of the war. From there you can dig deeper and deeper and never find the truth.

On the other hand, you can research Robert E. Lee's statement about slavery ("as an institution")  being evil.  And then find out that Lee had slaves and whipped them, and sold their children to break up the family units.  And that although Lee knew that slavery was evil, he also "knew" it was ordained by God, and God would forgive the evil (but necessary) deeds of the slave owners.  And that Lee hated abolitionists a lot more than he hated whipping his slave women.  And again the further you dig, the harder it becomes to root out the truth.

For every argument there is a counter argument.  For every interpretation, there is another interpretation.

Be careful when seeking the truth, it's easy to get lost and never find your way home.


The Book on Amazon  "The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History" claims Grant owned slaves.

Book Review of "The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History" by right wing Christians

Wikipedia article on Grant

Another bash at Grant vs Lee, with lots of interesting comments at the end.

General Lee's views on slavery in a letter (The whole letter is on this page, not just a cherry picked quote)

Picture: The house built by Grant and his slave from this page.


  1. It's especially problematic looking at these issues from the perspective of the 21st Century. The social situation in the 18th and 19th centuries was completely different, and one must make some allowances for that, too.

    Arguing from simplified premises such as, 'The Civil War was fought over slavery' is also problematic. The causes of that war were complex and included a range of economic, political and cultural factors leading to Secession.

    But slavery itself was a contentious issue right from the formation of the U.S. ... compromises had to be made, and Article V of the Constitution was a major concession to the Southern planters. 'Founding fathers' as supposedly enlightened as Thomas Jefferson owned many slaves (and had their own offspring by them).

    But, 'bottom line' ... on any issue as contentious and controversial as this, you're right ... there will be tendency to 'spin' the 'facts' to one's own purpose. 'Truth' can be an elusive thing.

  2. I have read that Grant (or Sherman) didn't free his/their slaves until the passage of the 13th Amendment, whereas Lee freed his (inherited) slaves in 1862, long before it was mandated and while the Confederacy was doing well defending itself from Lincoln's 'War Against the States', also known as 'The War of Northern Aggression'. Lee also wrote that if he could avert the coming war, by freeing all of the slaves with the stroke of a pen, that he would gladly do so, but that it wouldn't avert the coming conflict.

    Yes there were slaves in the South, owned by wealthy men, but there were also slaves in the North, owned by well to do people, as slavery was Legal all through out the Union and it's Territories, until after Lincoln's 'War to Enslave the States' ended and the 13th Amendment freed them all. (btw; all of the Democrats voted Against the 13th Amendment and most of them voted Against the 14th, as well).

    Lincoln's penning of the 'Emancipation Proclamation' was a ploy to keep the European Nations from siding with the South, as they had already outlawed slavery long before. It Only freed the slaves in the, so called, 'Rebellious States' (they were within their Constitutional Rights to peacefully secede from a Union which they had voluntarily joined), leaving those still enslaved in the Northern States as well as in the Territories, until the 13th was passed.

    Lincoln, far from being the 'Great man' that Revisionist History portrays him to be, was an admitted racist and bigot who would have been appalled at the passage of the 13 and 14th Amendments. He wrote that he would neither strive to save slavery, as an institution, nor to end it, but was willing to accept half measures. His only desire was that the Union not break apart on his watch. (Legacy anyone?) He had plans to ship all of the newly freed blacks down to the jungles of Central America, that only ended with his assassination. His first Secretary of the Interior wanted to put them on Reservations similar to the Native Americans.

    The truth can be stranger than fiction and our mostly revisionist history of our past doesn't allow for honest conversations about it.

    "Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it." ~ George Santayana