Cleveland Civil War Roundtable

It was a real pleasure Wednesday night to be a guest at the monthly dinner of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable. I’d like to single out Mike Wells, the outgoing president of the group, for making me feel so welcome.

Unlike my own hometown Civil War Roundtable on the West Coast, which meets in the community room of a branch public library (and please don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly commodious spot), the “digs” of the CCWRT are high luxury indeed. Chandeliers, wainscoting, a proper stage, beaux arts appointments galore. ccwrt_grant_and_lee_captionedThe Civil War program aside, the meeting at Judson Manor , a repurposed luxury hotel, was a stirring and inspiring peek into the history of Cleveland’s University Circle area, which seems to boast as many elite cultural institutions as the grand districts of any major city but with about 1/5 the foot traffic. (Seriously, I’m starting to think that Cleveland is like a “Moneyball” city if you’re considering culture instead of prowess on the field of sporting competition. Cleveland offers a surprising amount of overlooked “cultural value” which you can access at a low practical cost.)

Anyway — the CCWRT was presenting a truly compelling program that night. In what I thought was a pretty decent survey of Reconstruction history, I never came across the fact that some years after the “late unpleasantness” Robert E. Lee traveled to Washington, D.C. for a meeting in the Oval Office with his old battlefield opponent, U.S. Grant. Who, of course, was then President of the United States.

The particulars of what Grant and Lee spoke about is lost to history. But, as I learned, during the 15-minute meeting (Lee was just one member of a small delegation from Virginia) it was likely that discussion of Reconstruction policies affecting the Old Dominion were on the table. As brief as this meeting may have been, it boggles my mind to think about what Lee and Grant must have been thinking and feeling — though not necessarily saying — during that one known postwar encounter.

The CCWRT presented an original one-act play about this meeting, and did a bang-up job. The gentleman portraying Lee made an interesting speculation that Lee would have felt that McClellan, not Grant, was the most talented Union general he faced. His argument was that while Grant essentially overwhelmed the Confederate forces with sheer numbers and brute force, McClellan, in 1862, ably maneuvered and positions his corps to force the CSA forces from positions close to Washington all the way back to Richmond, VA, with comparably less bloodshed. The military side is not my strong point, but I’ll have to think about that. I don’t know that some 15,000+ Union Casualties at the Seven Days Battles and so on qualify as relatively bloodless.

Another provocative thing that turned up during the CCWRT event was this 1975 Congressional Joint Resolution, signed by President Gerald Ford, to posthumously restore the American citizenship of Robert E. Lee, which had been effectively stripped by Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1868. (Congress did the same for Jefferson Davis in 1978).

For some reason I’m really piqued by this. Watch this space. When I have time, I’m going to research to see how seriously these efforts were debated in Congress and what was said on both sides of the argument.

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