President Abraham Lincoln called his cabinet to the Executive Mansion on March 9, 1864, to witness something that had occurred only once before in the history of the republic. As soon as everyone had arrived, Lincoln presented Ulysses S. Grant with his commission as a lieutenant general. Only George Washington had risen to that rank in the U.S. Army before him. Grant was characteristically humble. ‘I accept the commission with gratitude for the high honor conferred, he told Lincoln. With the aid of the noble armies…it will be my earnest endeavor not to disappoint your expectations. I feel the full weight of the responsibilities now devolving upon 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 and men.
Grant’s recognition of the need for divine help showed he appreciated the difficulty of the task before him, because in addition to receiving the second lieutenant generalcy in U.S. history, he would also become the fifth general in chief in the history of the army. And throughout its 43-year existence, this difficult job had stressed and exasperated its occupants like few other jobs could.
There was a good reason why so few Americans had ever received the awesome power Grant now enjoyed. It was the same reason that had made Americans rejoice back in December 1783, when Washington tendered his resignation as commander in chief of the Continental army. The move had brought great relief to a generation that understood America was embarking on an experiment — the creation of a republic — that did not have a great track record in world history. For guidance, the nation looked primarily to the greatest republic of the past — Rome — knowing that it had fallen after a disgruntled army found an emperor to lead it.
The fear of a dictator remained powerful in America after the Revolution, and the people were unwilling to grant too much prestige to a military man. In European armies, general officers were commissioned at one of four grades: brigadier general, major general, lieutenant general, or general. The U.S. Congress, however, refused to authorize a rank higher than major general until 1798. That year, fears that France might invade the United States induced Congress to create a lieutenant generalcy, which President John Adams appointed Washington to fill. It quickly became evident that France had no intention of attacking on American soil, and when Washington died in December 1799, the rank died with him.
In the aftermath of the War of 1812, in which poorly coordinated and incompetently led American armies suffered humiliating battlefield defeats at the hands of the British, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun pushed through Congress a series of measures to reform the army. In 1821, to ensure better command efficiency, he decided that the single major general authorized by the reform package would be stationed in Washington and be designated general in chief or commanding general of the army.
Unfortunately, neither Calhoun nor Congress clearly outlined the general in chief’s powers and responsibilities. If the general in chief truly commanded the army and could act as he saw fit, he would infringe on the president’s role as commander in chief as written in the Constitution. If he did not, then the civilian leadership in Washington was free to ignore him, making his position in effect merely an honorary one. Because the legislation did not formally define the job, the duties, responsibilities, and authority of the general in chief depended on the character of the individual who held the office and on his informal relationships with the army and the nation’s political leaders.
The test subject for the newly created position was Jacob Brown, who was suited to the role of general in chief for several reasons. As the nation’s finest combat leader during the War of 1812, he was respected inside the army. He accepted the independence of the general staff that managed the army’s administrative, technical, and logistical functions and was accountable by law only to the secretary of war. He modestly defined his position as that of advisor to the civilian leadership. And he enjoyed an excellent relationship with Calhoun and Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. With all this working to his advantage, during his seven years in office Brown was able to allay the anxieties of those who opposed centralization of authority — whether real or symbolic — in a single military man. In so doing, he established a firm foundation for the office of general in chief.
Brown was unable, however, to do anything about a feud over seniority that developed between the army’s highest-ranking brigadier generals: Winfield Scott and Edmund P. Gaines. By the time of Brown’s death in February 1828, the rivalry had become so bitter that a disgusted Adams promoted Colonel Alexander Macomb over both Scott and Gaines to major general and appointed him general in chief. After Macomb’s death in June 1841, President John Tyler appointed Scott to the position. The office of general in chief received its first major test during the Mexican War. President James K. Polk had no intention of watching Scott win any laurels in the war. Polk was a partisan Democrat, and Scott had pursued the Whig presidential nomination in 1840 and 1844. Besides, Polk just plain despised him. So he decided to keep control of the war firmly in his own hands. He went to Congress and undertook a secret campaign to resurrect the rank of lieutenant general, intending to appoint Senator Thomas Hart Benton to the post. Benton’s only experience with the military consisted of service as a colonel in the War of 1812 and as chairman of the Senate military affairs committee, but he was a staunch Polk ally and stalwart Democratic partisan.
Polk failed to win congressional support for his plan, however, and Scott soon put an end to any talk of his replacement by conducting a brilliant campaign against Mexico City that inspired the Duke of Wellington to proclaim him the greatest living soldier. In recognition of Scott’s accomplishments, Congress passed a bill in February 1855 reviving the rank of lieutenant general, although in deference to Washington, the rank was awarded to Scott by brevet only.
In command of the Union army at the outset of the Civil War, Scott devised a plan to coil forces around the Confederacy and strangle it. Known as the Anaconda Plan, it eventually became part of the strategy that would win the war.
Nonetheless, it quickly became evident in 1861 that Scott lacked the physical vigor and political skill necessary to command the army in this situation. By the fall, he had been reduced to a mere figurehead all but ignored by energetic subordinate commanders and savvy politicians.
The situation changed in November 1861 with the appointment of George B. McClellan to replace Scott (though McClellan’s rank remained major general). At no time in its history would the office of general in chief have more power than it did during McClellan’s first weeks in the position. With Secretary of War Simon Cameron’s acquiescence and Lincoln’s encouragement, McClellan immediately asserted control over strategic and operational planning. He was no mere advisor to the president. Possessing the full support of his civilian superiors and the respect of his uniformed subordinates, he truly commanded the army.
Initially, McClellan was confident he would eventually win a third star — the lieutenant general’s star — but his power soon sharply declined. When he fell ill with typhoid fever in December 1861, Lincoln began to fear what might happen if McClellan were gone. So in January 1862 Lincoln reasserted his authority over the military and put Edwin M. Stanton in place of Cameron at the head of the war department. Stanton entered office suspicious of professional soldiers and, aided by public impatience with the lack of progress in the war, encouraged Lincoln’s desire to take back authority over the military. When McClellan recovered from his illness, he found his civilian superiors interfering in areas that had been his exclusive responsibility, such as operational planning and personnel assignments.
Finally, on March 11, 1862, Lincoln removed McClellan from his post. For the next few months Lincoln and Stanton attempted to direct the Union war effort without the aid of a general in chief only to find themselves in way over their heads. So, on July 11, 1862, Lincoln decided to resurrect the office of general in chief and appoint Major General Henry W. Halleck to the post. Halleck had a record of success in the West, which Lincoln hoped would make the army respect him, and Lincoln correctly suspected that Halleck would second his desire to evacuate the Virginia Peninsula, where McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had stalled after a feeble campaign to threaten Richmond.
Halleck was everything Lincoln had hoped for. The fact that Major Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman admired Halleck ensured that he would not have problems in his dealings in the western theater. Lincoln was even more pleased with Halleck’s ability to speak with authority to officers in the eastern theater, his willingness to issue orders for the withdrawal from the Peninsula, and his ability to make those orders stick despite McClellan’s bitter protests.
During the Second Bull Run Campaign late in the summer of 1862, however, Halleck lost whatever chance he had to be a truly powerful general in chief when he let McClellan bully him. By the end of the year, Halleck’s role was reduced to simply a military adviser of the Secretary of War and the President. Lincoln found the situation completely satisfactory. By 1863 he had shed the insecurity over his grasp of military affairs that had led him to defer so much to McClellan. Lincoln was determined to be commander in chief in fact as well as in title. What he wanted from his general in chief was advice and translation of presidential wishes into military orders. This was exactly what Halleck gave him.
Although the Union war effort made considerable progress in 1863, few gave Halleck much credit. Moreover, Halleck accepted that part of his job was to be a lightning rod for the president; when things went wrong, he frequently got blamed. The Army of the Potomac commanders despised him. Relations between Major General Joseph Hooker and Halleck were so bad that Lincoln often dealt directly with Hooker. Major General George Meade became so exasperated with Halleck that he demanded in vain to be removed from command. Even in the West, where Halleck retained great authority with Grant and Sherman, his role was not appreciated. By 1864 all these troubles boiled down to an overwhelming sense throughout the North that the army needed a new general in chief.
Meanwhile, the idea of resurrecting the rank of lieutenant general was introduced to Congress on December 7, 1863, by Representative Elihu B. Washburne, who represented Grant’s home district in Illinois. Although Washburne was a Republican and a stalwart Lincoln supporter, Lincoln did not welcome the initiative. Lincoln was fully satisfied with Halleck and recognized that a new man, especially one holding a rank held only by the Father of His Country, was unlikely to conceive of his role the way Halleck did. More important, Lincoln was reluctant to see further honors bestowed on a man whom some in the North were touting as a presidential candidate for 1864. Congressmen, too, had fears about resurrecting the rank. Worried that Lincoln might give the third star to Halleck, the House passed an amendment to Washburne’s bill specifically designating Grant for the post (though the Senate prevented its attachment to the bill’s final version).
As Congress debated the bill, Lincoln kept silent. Grant, however, shrewdly took opportunities to make comments such as, Nobody could induce me to think of being a presidential candidate…, particularly so long as there is a possibility of having Mr. Lincoln reelected. By the end of February 1864, Lincoln had the assurances he wanted and decided to support the bill fully. After it passed with comfortable majorities in both the House and the Senate, Lincoln signed it into law on February 29 and submitted Grant’s name to Congress as his choice to fill the post.
The law reviving the lieutenant generalcy did not answer the enduring questions of exactly what authority the general in chief had over the army and what his relationship was with the civilian officials responsible for running the war. So, as was the case with all his predecessors, Grant’s power as general in chief would largely depend on the personal relationships he could forge with his subordinates and superiors.
Within the army, Grant’s personality, rank, and record of success immediately enabled him to exercise much greater power than Halleck had. He possessed the full trust of his two principal field commanders — Sherman and Meade — who not only respected his rank and office, but also had full confidence in his character and military judgment. There would be none of the grudging acceptance of orders or attempts to circumvent the general in chief’s authority that had plagued Halleck. Grant understood, on the other hand, that he would not have the unquestioned authority McClellan had briefly enjoyed. His plans would win approval only when they matched Lincoln’s own thinking, a fact that had been impressed upon Grant before his promotion. In January 1864, he had suggested putting 60,000 men from the Army of the Potomac on boats and sending them to North Carolina to conduct a massive raid on Confederate communications. But Halleck had rejected the proposal and impressed upon Grant that no plan that involved taking significant forces away from the line between Washington and Richmond had any chance of winning approval.
Recognizing that Halleck’s views were Lincoln’s, Grant did not bring up the North Carolina scheme again. Instead, he complied with Lincoln’s wish that the Army of the Potomac make General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia its target. Grant, however, was shrewd enough to see Major General Benjamin Butler’s political need for an important command as a way to win approval for a campaign against Richmond using the James River; Lincoln and Halleck had long resisted such action, but Lincoln was up for reelection this year, and a jilted Butler could use his strong political connections to hurt Lincoln’s campaign. So, Grant’s plan for simultaneous advances by all the Union armies received Lincoln’s full approval.
Grant did not enjoy complete liberty in managing the war, but neither was he stuck in the role of mere advisor to the president. He understood that his promotion brought with it the expectation that he would exercise his office in the field (Northerners would have been outraged if he had sat at a desk in the capital) and solve the previously unsolvable problem of Robert E. Lee. Out in the field, Grant realized, he would be more or less free to command as he saw fit. At the same time, he made a point of gratifying Lincoln by keeping Halleck in the advisory role he had been playing since 1862. The move was a fine example of the skillful maneuvering that enabled Grant to establish a good relationship with Lincoln. Other examples of Grant’s political savvy included his accepting Lincoln’s insistence that politically influential men such as Butler and Major Generals Franz Sigel and Nathaniel Banks receive important commands, listening respectfully to Lincoln’s suggestions, and making Lincoln feel welcome whenever he visited headquarters — even finding a place for Lincoln’s son Robert on his staff.
Besides maintaining a good relationship with Lincoln, Grant also worked well with Stanton. In contrast with the way Stanton had treated McClellan two years earlier, he did all he could to strengthen Grant’s hand. The lieutenant general bill, for example, did not change the fact that the staff officers who tended to the army’s administrative, financial, logistical, and technical needs reported directly to the war department rather than to the general in chief. After Grant took office, however, Stanton made a point of telling the members of the general staff that they were expected to follow Grant’s wishes.
Thanks in large part to his superior ability to coddle his superiors and get the most out of his underlings, when Grant took the field in May 1864, he had the full support of everyone necessary to help him overcome the obstacles that Lee and the rest of the Confederacy placed in his path. With the elevation of Grant to general in chief and lieutenant general, the Union had finally found the man who could win the Civil War.
This article written by Ethan Rafuse and originally appeared in the April 2004 issue of Civil War Times magazine.
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