Why Ulysses S. Grant Might Be Getting a Promotion Soon

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Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at his headquarters, Cold Harbor, Virginia. (Library of Congress)

With the Confederacy defeated, uncertainty looming along the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico, and sporadic fighting throughout the country's western frontier, Congress gave the Civil War hero and the Union Army's commander a much-deserved promotion.

In 2021, two members of Congress introduced legislation to give him another promotion. He would be elevated to the Army's current highest rank, historically held only by two others: General of the Armies.

At the end of the Civil War, Grant was already the highest-ranking officer in the Army at the time, a lieutenant general. He was the first to wear that rank since then-President John Adams promoted George Washington to lieutenant general to scare the French during the Quasi-War of 1798.

Congress saw fit to promote Grant, the most popular person in the country, once more in 1866. This time, he became the first U.S. Army officer to pin on four stars as General of the Army of the United States, a position created just for him (at the time).

Grant wears his four-star General of the Army rank in this Mathew Brady photo. (National Park Service)

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio endorsed legislation to promote Grant once more in October 2021. Even with the support of Congress and the president, the Army would have to make the promotion official, so the senators wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to review Grant's record.

They had hoped the measure would pass before Grant's 200th birthday, April 27, 2022. It didn't, but the hopes for the promotion are still alive.

Only one officer could hold the position of General of the Army, so when Grant retired, the position was taken up by Gen. William T. Sherman. After Sherman, Gen. Philip Sheridan wore the rank. When Sheridan died in 1888, the position was left vacant. Major general became the Army's highest rank once more.

Three- and four-star generals were reactivated for World War I, but all except for one of those officers reverted back to their major general ranks after the war's end (more on that later). In the buildup to World War II, lieutenant general and four-star general grades were reauthorized once more.

When lieutenant generals were reauthorized in 1939, they were intended to be temporary but would end up being permanent ranks in the Army and Navy. In 1944, the five-star General of the Army rank was revived as well, due to the needs of American officers to have ranks on par with Allied counterparts.

This time, the insignia was five stars, arranged in a pentagon. The rank was given to five Army officers and extended to four U.S. Navy officers (called fleet admirals). This latest General of the Army wasn't considered equivalent to the Civil War promotion, because it didn't elevate the holders above the rest of the Army.

Grant was so popular, fans made images of him well into the next century. This 1902 photo is actually a composite of three different photos. (Library of Congress)

Since then, only two other generals have worn a higher rank, along with the authority over the entire U.S. Army. After World War I, Gen. John J. Pershing was given a promotion to General of the Armies in 1919. He received his full pay and allowances even into retirement and even maintained an office at the War Department until his death. He was the only general to receive it while alive.

In 1976, Congress decided that America's bicentennial celebration should include a promotion for the first commander in chief, George Washington. Washington was officially promoted to General of the Armies of the United States in 1978, ensuring that he would always be the most senior commander in the U.S. military.

If the congressional effort passes and the Army gives the order, Grant would be the third person to receive it. As an Army officer, he brought the aggression necessary to win the Civil War and preserve the Union -- not a bad performance report. He would, however, still be subordinate to George Washington.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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Civil War Army Promotions