This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: There are good reasons to visit the new "Lee and Grant" exhibition at the Missouri History Museum, beyond the spectacular Civil War objects and artwork that will be on display, said museum president Robert Archibald.
That's not to dismiss the historical gems -- like Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's handwritten terms of surrender imposed on Gen. Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, or the coat and sword that Lee wore when he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House.
But the traveling exhibit, organized by the Virginia Historical Society, goes beyond the artifacts to delve into the differences -- and similarities -- between these two battlefield adversaries who were forced to make life-and-death decisions that would impact the nation for generations, Archibald said.
"In this exhibition, the real tension is between Ulysses S. Grant -- a not very flamboyant character, but a general who was willing to fight and who would later became president of the United States -- and Robert E. Lee who has become this mythic figure, love him or hate him,'' Archibald said.
Because both Lee and Grant lived for a time in St. Louis, the History Museum has added items from its own collections that will only be seen while the exhibit is here: a chess set belonging to Grant, household items, correspondence, maps and tools.
Lee worked on the Mississippi River in 1837 as an engineer with the U.S. Army and in the 1850s was commander of Jefferson Barracks.
After graduating from West Point in 1843, Grant was assigned to the Fourth Infantry Regiment at Jefferson Barracks. He married Julia Dent who lived at the nearby White Haven estate and worked, rather unsuccessfully, in farming and real estate in St. Louis.
Archibald said the exhibit also offers a reminder that the Civil War -- so often romanticized in American literature and movies -- was four years of bloody and brutal combat.
"I think it's hard for people these days to realize that 750,000 people died in a country of 30 million,'' Archibald said. "That's a huge, huge death toll. And it's more than the total of all the people killed in wars that America has engaged in since. It's just a horrendous slaughter of a magnitude that is hard for us to comprehend.''
Even 150 years later, Americans remain divided over the war, Archibald added, pointing to the continued debate over displaying Confederate flags, for example.
"And there are debates over racism and the legacy of slavery. And there are debates over whether the Civil War was really fought over slavery or was fought over something else. We still live in a racially polarized society,'' he said. "The Civil War was the great tragic culmination of this country's willingness to -- in the Constitution -- embrace slavery, despite the fact that the Declaration of Independence said, 'All men are created equal.' "