Two centuries after famed American soldier and statesman Ulysses S. Grant was born at Point Pleasant, Ohio, he may finally be up for a promotion.
At a time when political divisions have polarized many in America, Democratic and Republican politicians have joined hands in bipartisan legislation to advance Grant’s promotion to the rank of general of the armies of the United States. The Ulysses S. Grant Bicentennial Recognition Act, introduced by U.S. senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Roy Blunt (R-MO), passed unanimously in the Senate. The legislation has paved the way for President Joe Biden to raise Grant’s rank above that of a five-star general — an honor held thus far only by George Washington and Gen. John J. Pershing.
“I hope it will be a moment to recognize Grant. It will be a statement by the country that he’s important and that his service deserves to be valued,” said Frank Scaturro, president of the Grant Monument Association and advocate for the proposal, in an interview with Military History. “He’s not perfect, but nobody’s perfect.”
Why Would Grant Be Promoted Now?
The title “general of the armies of the United States” was an honorary title intended for former president George Washington in 1799. Washington spent the Revolutionary War on the pay grade of major general, but was distinguished as “general of the army” or simply as “General Washington” as commander of the Continental Army.
The United States did not have anyone above the rank of major general until March 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln appointed Grant to the rank of lieutenant general in command of all armies that comprised the Union Army. When Pershing was put in charge of the American Expeditionary Forces, he got a fourth star and after World War I was rewarded with the revived honorary title of “general of the armies” on September 8, 1919. The Army introduced the rank of five-star general in 1944, and thus the rank of “general of the armies” has sometimes been thought of as “a six-star general.”
In 1976, Congress elevated Washington to the same rank as Pershing upon the bicentennial of the nation’s founding. Although he is due the same honor, some argue, Grant has been left out.
“When you look at it against the backdrop of other people who have served in a similar capacity, where is he in the national memory? Where is he in the national consciousness?” Scaturro asked. “I don’t think he is recognized in collective memory because there are still remnants of the Lost Cause myth. Its legacy cast a long shadow.”
Did the Lost Cause Myth Hurt Grant’s Legacy?
Overcoming many personal struggles during his life, Grant was held in high esteem by many of his contemporaries and achieved an exceptional level of popularity among the American public.
“In Grant’s own time, he was seen as an equal of any of the greats,” Scaturro said. “He had this preeminence that matched Washington and Lincoln. He was the most famous soldier in the world without any doubt at the time of his world tour and at the time of his death.”
Yet Grant’s reputation after the war became mired in controversy, primarily due to criticism of his generalship and accounts of his presidency. After researching Grant for many years, Scaturro — also the author of the 1998 biography “President Grant Reconsidered” — said that some of Grant’s contemporary critics had political motivations for ruining his place in history.
“There was was a huge enthusiasm for reconciliation between Union and Confederate veterans in the decades after the war — part of bringing the country back together,” Scaturro said. “But it went a bit too far. It got to the point that there was a whole literary and cultural school known as the myth of the Lost Cause, which diminished and demeaned those who fought for the Union and the Union cause and elevated the Confederacy.”
The myth “was already taking root during Grant’s final years,” according to Scaturro. While figures such as Robert E. Lee were romanticized, Grant and other Unionists were “vilified.” He also said influential Northeasterners disapproved of Grant’s Western background and different approach to politics.
“A lot of the accounts of his presidency read like shallow Gilded Age character sketches,” Scaturro said. “They have very little to do with what Grant was actually doing as president. What I came to realize over the years is that much of what we consider polemics even today is not particularly new.”
As Grant faded from public consciousness, the damage to his reputation was reflected by the neglect of his tomb. From the 1970s to the early 1990s, Grant’s tomb was derelict.
“It was desecrated left and right. It was in terrible shape,” said Scaturro.
When Might Grant Actually Be Promoted?
Supporters of the proposal had hoped that the legislation would be passed in time for the bicentennial of Grant’s birthday on April 27, 2022, but that date has now passed. However, it could still move forward.
“The date has passed as of today, and this bill is not yet law,” Scaturro said on April 29. “But I don’t think that’s a problem, because, first of all, this promotion is honorific, and also in the case of the precedent of George Washington, it didn’t happen until months after the effective date. The bill that authorized Washington’s promotion did not pass Congress until Oct. 11, 1976. Believe it or not, the Army did not process the promotion until March of 1978! So we have time.”
Law requires that Congress propose legislation for the honorary promotion, while the president holds the authority to approve of the honorary position and appoint Grant to it. As part of the legislative process, Congress requests that the Department of Defense participate in the promotion review.
A Bipartisan Wish to Recognize Good Leadership
At a time when lawmakers scarcely seem able to agree on anything, elected representatives at opposite ends of the political spectrum have found common ground in wishing to recognize Grant’s personal integrity, leadership ability and commitment to advancing the cause of equal rights.
“Grant’s exemplary leadership on the battlefield could only be overshadowed by his commitment to a more just nation for all Americans during the Reconstruction Era,” said Sen. Brown in a video statement published by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.
In addition to political leaders, Scaturro revealed that other prominent figures in the military history community including Gen. David Petraeus (Ret.), West Point historian Ty Seidule and Pulitzer-Prize winning author Ron Chernow number among the proposal’s supporters.
“As important as the condition and status of Grant’s tomb is, the most important monument to him is really in our national memory,” Scaturro said.