Tuesday, September 15, 2009

John Matuszak: American legends meet again at Schumacher Gallery

One was a poor boy from Ohio who suffered numerous personal failures before answering Abraham Lincoln's call to arms, a decision that would propel him to national fame and the White House.

The other was a wealthy Virginian from one of America's first families, his father a Revolutionary War hero and his uncle a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

They were destined to meet on the battefields of the Civil War, the struggle that ultimately determined the fate of the nation, freedom for African Americans and the future of government "of the people, by the people, for the people."

Capital University's Schumacher Gallery has mounted "Grant and Lee," a traveling exhibit illustrating the lives of these legendary military figures. The gallery has also partnered with the Motts Military Museum to display additional historical artifacts related to the leaders and the war.

Cassandra Tellier, director of the Schumacher Gallery, has been impressed that these two men could stand on opposite sides of the irrepressible conflict and still be regarded as American heroes.

Motts, who has operated his museum in Groveport for 10 years, also noted that this was a unique aspect of the Civil War, that bitter enemies could feel deep respect for each other once the shooting stopped.

But they both acknowledged that issues that sparked the war - from states' rights to racial equality - still smolder in American life.

"The Civil War is still being fought," Tellier said.

The exhibit originated through the Virginia Historical Society, but Tellier thinks that a stop in Ohio is fitting considering the state's leading role during the war. Ohio sent 300,000 troops to the Union ranks, and provided key generals, five of whom later became U.S. presidents.

Brother Against Brother

While the personal backgrounds of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were poles apart, they did have some things in common.

They both attended West Point, with Lee achieving a stellar record while Grant excelled only in horsemanship. They both fought in the Mexican War.

They both owned slaves, inherited from family members. The Motts Museum has provided actual slave shackles, a reminder of the reality of human bondage.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lee was offered command of the Union armies, but could not consider raising his sword against his native Virginia, calling it "my country."

Grant, after lonely tours on the western frontier, had left the army and was working in his father's tannery, struggling to support his family. He returned to military service at the urging of his friend William T. Sherman.

After some early setbacks, Lee took over the Army of Northern Virginia and built a near-legendary reputation as he confounded a series of Union generals.

Grant made his mark in the west, earning the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.

While Lee's forces were locked in mortal combat at Gettysburg, Grant's men were besieging Vicksburg, the last stronghold on the Mississippi River.

The Schumacher displays a newspaper printed on the back of a piece of wallpaper, illustrating the privations suffered by the city's residents.The vagaries of combat are demonstrated by a Union and a Confederate belt buckle, both with a bullet that stuck in the plate rather that striking the wearer.

On July 4, 1863, the same day that Lee's defeated troops retreated from Gettysburg, Grant received the surrender of Vicksburg. This set the stage for the showdown between Grant and Lee, as Lincoln brought his fighting general east to command the entire Union army. Grant devised a strategy to use his superior forces to drive Lee out into the open and wear down his ranks. At the same time, he sent Sherman into Georgia to strike at the heartland of the South.

The strategy paid off on April 9, 1865, as Lee was compelled to surrender his starving and decimated army. The generals met in the living room of Wilmer McLean, who had hoped to escape the war after a cannon ball tore off his porch during the first battle of Bull Run. Lee, who initiated the meeting, was resplendent in his dress uniform. Grant, caught unprepared, wore his typical dirt-stained private's tunic with minimal insignia.

Grant dictated generous terms to his defeated foe, and when the beaten rebels filed away, they were saluted by the men in blue.

Lee went on to head Wahington University. He died in 1870. Grant was elected president in 1868 and served two scandal-plagued terms. But he did champion progressive policies, including fair treatment for Native Americans and the outlawing of the Ku Klux Klan.

After leaving the White House, Grant again found himself broke, and was dying from throat cancer. With the support of Mark Twain, he completed his memoirs shortly before his death, leaving his family with financial support and the nation with a literary treasure.

The Schumacher and the Motts Museum have brought to life an important part of American history. A children's section allows young people to discover this remarkable era on their own.

"Grant and Lee," made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will be open through Oct. 17. An opening reception, with historical re-enactors and the firing of the Statehouse cannon, will tak place Sept. 11 from 5-7 p.m.

The event is part of the Bexley Art Walk, with other area galleries open to patrons.

The Schumacher Gallery is located on the fourth floor of the Blackmore Library and is open from 1-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

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Design is copyright 2009. All rights reserved. Bexley Public Radio Foundation. Text is copyright 2009. All rights reserved. John Matuszak.

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