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Grant is the One!

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

As the war dragged on, Abraham Lincoln, frustrated by the performance of the Union army, continued his search for a general who would “fight battles and win victories.” Generals had come and moved on—among them: McDowell, Pope, Burnside, McClellan, Halleck, and Hooker. These commanders had not delivered the desired victories to bring the war to an end. Meade had won at Gettysburg but had not pursued the Confederates back into Virginia—another chance perhaps to end the war—lost.

Would this be the year Lincoln found the right general, the one who would fight?

As the war entered the new year, 1864, hope came from the west. Major General Ulysses S. Grant recently had gained national attention with a series of victories outside the Eastern Theater, particularly at Vicksburg and Chattanooga.

Grant had described his philosophy of war succinctly:

The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving.

This philosophy certainly seemed to dovetail the approach Lincoln sought.

On December 14, 1863, Representative Elihu B. Washburne of Illinois introduced H.R. 26, a bill to revive the rank of Lieutenant General—the highest rank in the Army of the United States. The bill authorized the President "to appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, a lieutenant-general, to be selected among those officers in the military service of the United States, not below the grade of major general, most distinguished for courage, skill, and ability... to command the army of the United States."

Historian William S. McFeely wrote that “Grant spent the winter of 1864 in Nashville, waiting out the efforts of his townsman Elihu Washburne to guide through Congress the act reviving the rank of lieutenant general.” Grant was the one expected to receive this promotion. After all, Washburne was a long-time champion of Grant and often had advocated for his military promotions and defended him against his critics. And, most importantly, Grant was a fighter who had won critical victories.

For a war-weary nation, another optimistic sign emerged. Congress was behind Grant and, in fact, proposed that “thanks” be extended to him. Harper’s Weekly (February 6, 1864 edition) covered this proposal under a headline entitled “Thanks to Grant.” The thanks proposed:

Be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the thanks of Congress be and they hereby are presented to Major General Ulysses S. Grant, and through him to the officers and soldiers who have fought under his command during the rebellion, for their gallantry and good conduct in the battles in which they have been engaged, and that the President of the United States be requested to cause a GOLD MEDAL to be stuck with suitable emblems, devices and inscriptions, to be presented to Major-General Grant.

The article included the following annotation: "Passed without opposition in both Houses. Approved by the President and the Country."

Harper’s Weekly emphasized the importance of this event by depicting the honor on the front page of that February 6 edition. The artwork by Thomas Nast (shown above) portrays Lady Liberty, symbolizing the nation, pinning the gold medal on Grant. The publication sensed a change in the fortunes of war, a shift to the Union, and attributed this change to the success of Grant. The image is entitled “Thanks to Grant” and reflects the thoughts of a grateful nation.

By the way, that Grant medal is currently in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution. An image of the medal is shown here. A box of gold and ebony houses the medal, which was gifted to the institution by Mrs. Julia Dent Grant and William Vanderbilt.

H.R. 26 passed both houses of Congress in February 1864, and Lincoln signed it into law on February 29, 1864. That same day, he sent the Senate his nomination of Grant to be Lieutenant General of the Army. Note that Lincoln took these actions on Leap Year Day! He made good use of the year's extra day.

(Photo credit: National Archives)

The Senate confirmed Grant's nomination on March 2, 1864. Only two men, George Washington and Winfield Scott, had held the rank of Lieutenant General before Grant, and Scott's was a brevet, or honorary, appointment. Lincoln had found the general he had sought.

Grant indeed was the one!

On March 4, 1864, Grant penned the following to Sherman:


The bill reviving the grade of lieutenant-general in the army has become law, and my name has been sent to the Senate. I now receive orders to report at Washington immediately, in person, which indicates either a confirmation or the likelihood of a confirmation.

And report in person he did.


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