By Edward Epstein
Tuesday, December 20, 2022
President Abraham Lincoln's favorite general, Ulysses S. Grant, is about to get a promotion, 138 years after his death.
The $858 billion National Defense Authorization Act, which received final congressional approval, last week, contains a provision authorizing President Joe Biden to name Grant as a General of the Armies, a title held by only World War I commander John J. Pershing and George Washington. Biden is expected to sign the vast legislation, which passed both houses of Congress by big margins, even though it bars the Pentagon from continuing its Covid vaccine mandate for all personnel.
Lincoln ended his long, frustrating search for an aggressive, winning general to take command of all U.S. forces in the fight against secessionist Confederates on March 10, 1864 when, under a congressionally-passed provision, he nominated Grant as lieutenant general in charge of all Union forces. Lincoln had grown to admire Grant, the victor in such western theater battles as Shiloh and Vicksburg.
After Grant successfully completed his siege of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River in early July 1863 -- about the same time as the Battle of Gettysburg -- Lincoln wrote Grant an admiring letter. "I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country," he said.
Grant biographer Ron Chernow says the letter showed that Lincoln valued Grant's generalship. "This lovely letter forged a bond between the two men that only grew stronger. With Grant, Lincoln no longer had to second-guess maneuvers or play the armchair general," Chernow wrote.
After his nomination as commanding general, Grant came east to Washington to meet Lincoln and assume command. The two men hit it off, but Grant didn't linger in the capital, instead assuming command in the field.
Lincoln Group member Michelle Krowl, who is the Civil War manuscript specialist at the Library of Congress, says the library's records of the books President Lincoln borrowed from the Library of Congress show his confidence in Grant. Early in his presidency, Lincoln took out a host of books on military strategy and tactics from the library. As he went through several unsuccessful generals as Union commanders, he held on to those books. But Krowl says the records show Lincoln returned the books only weeks after Grant assumed overall command of U.S. forces.
Grant was made General of the Army in July 1866, after Lincoln's death and vacated that commission upon assuming the presidency on March 4, 1869.
The impetus for the move to raise Grant's rank was this year's bicentennial of his birth. The cause was spearheaded by the U.S. Grant Association and the Grant Memorial Association. The legislation was originally proposed by two Republicans from Missouri, Rep. Ann Wagner and Sen. Roy Blunt, and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, where grant was born in 1822.
"He rose through the ranks of the Army with incredible speed due to his tenacity, grit, and unwavering resolve to keep our nation united. The brave soldiers under his command achieved numerous victories and suffered painful defeats; but Grant kept marching and kept fighting, because he knew failure was not an option," Wagner said in a statement. "Without Grant's leadership and perseverance, the very fabric of our nation may have been lost."
Pershing was named General of the Armies in 1919 and Washington posthumously in 1976, to mark the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence.
Others who have held the rank of General of the Army include two more Civil War leaders, William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan. From the World War II era, George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Henry "Hap" Arnold and Omar Bradley held the title. Arnold is also the only man to hold the title of General of the Air Force.
The naval equivalent is Fleet Admiral, held by four men from World War II, William Leahy, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz and William Halsey.
The defense authorization bill doesn't require Biden to raise Grant's rank -- it merely authorizes him to do so. The White House hasn't said if Biden will sign the bill, although that is expected, or if he will make Grant a General of the Armies, but it's hard to see why he wouldn't.
National Park Service photo.