General Ulysses S. Grant, photographed by Mathew Brady at City Point in Virginia, June 1864. Brady gained permission to travel among the Union troops only after his wife reached out to Grant’s wife, petitioning on his behalf. (Mathew Brady/National Portrait Gallery)
In 1988, Atlantic senior editor Jack Beatty— now a commentator for NPR’ s On Point and a Guggenheim Fellowship and American Book Award recipient—traveled to Virginia to retrace the final movements of the Union and Confederate armies. From Grant’ s personal breakdown during the Battle of the Wilderness to the grueling night marches by Lee’ s half-starved troops toward North Carolina, from the Union soldiers’ morbid practice of pinning “Here lies the body of ...” notes on their clothing in case of death to the famous meeting in the city of Petersburg between Grant and Lincoln (during which word arrived that Richmond had fallen), Beatty reconstructed the harrowing details of what he called “the last great campaign ever fought in the United States.”—Sage Stossel
In May of 1864, [the final campaign of the Civil War opened] when Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River, twenty miles west of Fredericksburg, to seek out Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia; it closed with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, a hundred and fifty miles to the southwest, one month short of a year later …
Grant was small and slight and famously unprepossessing. At forty-one he was a taciturn yet passionate man, who, just a few years before the war began, had been reduced to selling wood on a St. Louis street corner. The war was his big chance; an ordinary man rising to the occasion of his life, he made the most of it, becoming on the strength of his victories at Fort Donelson and Vicksburg the general-in-chief of all the Union armies. Lee, in Grant’s own words, was “six feet high and of faultless form,” aristocratic where Grant was plebeian, successful where Grant, in everything but war, had been a failure. At fifty-seven Lee was already suffering from the heart condition that would kill him six years later (his last words would be “Strike the tent”). Grant would live twenty-one more years, dying in agony from cancer of the throat, but not before he had secured his family’s future by finishing his last campaign, the writing of his two-volume Memoirs. Grant and Lee met three times: once in 1847, during the war against Mexico, once at Appomattox, and once at the White House, when Grant was President.