Grant Appointed Lieutenant-General in Washington

March 9, 1864 (Wednesday)

“General Grant,” began the President, “the nation’s appreciate of what you have done, and its reliance upon you for what remains to do in the existing great struggle, are now presented with this commission constituting you Lieutenant-General in the army of the United States.”

Everybody posed for the sketch artist.
Everybody posed for the sketch artist.

Lincoln had called General Ulysses S. Grant to Washington, and, following an incredibly awkward introduction the night previous, he was formally bestowing the rank held before by only George Washington. A small audience had assembled themselves at 1pm in the Cabinet chambers. The entire Cabinet was assembled – which was itself something of an anomaly. General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, whose job Grant would be echoing, stood beside Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War.

“With this high honor,” continued Lincoln, “devolves upon you, also, a corresponding responsibility. As the country herein trusts you, so, under God, it will sustain you. I scarcely need to add that with what I hear speak for the nation goes my own hearty personal concurrence.”

When they spoke the night before, Lincoln told Grant that he wanted him to prepare a sort of statement focusing upon the idea that some other officers might be jealous, as well as something about the Army of the Potomac. Grant returned to his shabby room at Willard’s Hotel, took out a lead pencil and hastily scrawled a few lines.

The totally still relevant Chief of Staff Henry Halleck
The totally still relevant Chief of Staff Henry Halleck

Across the night and morning, the scratches upon the flimsy piece of note paper looked less and less like actual words. He took out his piece and did his best to translate his own writing. According to John Nicolay, Lincoln’s personal secretary, Grant was “quite embarrassed by the occasion, and finding his own writing so very difficult to read, made a rather sorry and disjointed work of enunciating his reply.”

Nicolay also noticed “that in what he said, while it was brief and to the point, he had either forgotten or disregarded entirely the President’ hints to him the night previous.”

When all was sorted out, Grant’s little speech went something like this:

“Mr. President, I accept this commission with gratitude for the high honor conferred. With the aid of the noble armies that have fought on so many fields for our common country, it will be my earnest endeavor not to disappoint your expectation. I feel the full weight of the responsibilities now devolving on me, and I know that, if they are met, it will be due to those armies and, above all, to the favor of that Providence which leads both nations of men.”

Grant never gave a reason why he ignored the President’s request, and Lincoln seemed to mind not at all. More than likely, he was simply trying to avoid the politics inherent in such a position.

Politics, like Washington, was something Grant seriously wished to avoid (at least during wartime). Before leaving Nashville, he swore to William Tecumseh Sherman that he would “accept no appointment which will require me to make that city my head-quarters.” Sherman agreed. “Halleck is better qualified than you to stand the buffets of intrigue and politics.”

Grant, the President, and most of the Cabinet then fell into a conversation mostly centering upon the war and what General Sherman might do in the West. Grant asked Lincoln what was then expected of him. Lincoln replied that he expected him to take Richmond, and asked the general if he believed it could be done.

In a chilling bit of foreshadowing, Grant vowed that he could do it – but only if he had enough troops. Lincoln, in turn, vowed he would have as many as he needed.

Grant with three stars.
Grant with three stars.

There were still many things to be finalized in his old department, and Grant wanted soon to return. Before he left for the West, he wanted to see for himself the Army of the Potomac.

General George Meade, who now commanded that army was curious to see what this western general would do. “He may want some one else whom he knows better in command of his army,” wrote Meade to his wife on March 2nd). Rumor from the past summer following Gettysburg had it that Grant proposed Sherman for the post. A few days later (the 8th), he wrote to her again, still concerned that Grant “may desire to have his own man in command, particularly as I understand he is indoctrinated with the notion of the superiority of the Western armies, and that the failure of the Army of the Potomac to accomplish anything is due to their commanders.”

Even before Grant had arrived, Meade’s mind seemed to cling to the notion that Grant was there to either supersede him or dump him all together. With such prejudices holding court, Meade was informed that Grant would arrive the following day.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p663; Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume 8 by John George Nicolay and John Hay; Diary by Gideon Welles; With Lincoln in the White House by John Nicolay; Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant. []
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3 thoughts on “Grant Appointed Lieutenant-General in Washington

  1. If Gettysburg was the battle that lost the war for the South then this was the decision that won it for the North.

    1. But first, it would come close to losing the war. In Grant, the North finally had a commander who was willing to accept the massive casualties of an all-out offensive against Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. But the political backlash of those losses would have cost Lincoln his re-election if there hadn’t been victories elsewhere.

      1. Not necessarily. You must remember that the Troops in the field were allowed to vote in the 1864 election and they weren’t going home until the South was countered.

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