March 8, 1864 – Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Washington to accept his promotion to lieutenant general, making him commander of all Federal armies in the field.
As March began, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law reviving the army rank of lieutenant general. Only two men in U.S. history had ever held such a rank: George Washington and Winfield Scott (brevet only). The bill had been introduced by Congressman Elihu Washburne from Grant’s home district of Galena, Illinois, and those voting in favor clearly had Grant in mind for the post.
Lincoln had long been a Grant supporter, not only because of his success in the field, but also because he hailed from Lincoln’s home state. But this was an election year, and Lincoln was troubled by rumors that Grant had become so successful that he might run for president against him in the fall. Lincoln directed various aides to investigate these rumors, and when he was assured they were false, he put his complete support behind the measure.
Lincoln nominated Grant for the new post the next day, and the Senate quickly confirmed him. On the 3rd, Grant received orders at his Nashville headquarters from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to report to Washington immediately. Lincoln, who had never met Grant before, wanted to present the commission to him in person. Before leaving, Grant wrote his close friend, Major General William T. Sherman:
“The bill reviving the grade of lieutenant general in the army has become a law, and my name has been sent to the Senate for the place. I now receive orders to report to Washington immediately, in person, which indicates a confirmation or a likelihood of confirmation… What I want is to express my thanks to you and (James B.) McPherson as the men to whom, above all others, I feel indebted for whatever I have had of success…”
Sherman received the letter a few days later and thanked Grant on both his and McPherson’s behalf. He added:
“You do yourself injustice and us too much honor in assigning us so large a share of the merits which have led to your high advancement… My only points of doubt were as to your knowledge of grand strategy and of books of science and history, but I confess your common-sense seems to have supplied all this.”
Grant spent the next four days traveling to the capital with a small group that included his 13-year-old son Fred. Large crowds greeted Grant at every train stop, but nobody greeted him when his train arrived at Washington on Tuesday the 8th.
Grant and Fred entered the Willard Hotel unrecognized, and the clerk told them that he could only give them a small room in the attic. But when Grant signed the registry, “U.S. Grant and Son, Galena, Illinois,” the clerk quickly gave him Parlor 6, the same room that Lincoln had stayed in before his inauguration three years ago. A journalist in the hotel lobby wrote of Grant:
“He gets over the ground queerly. He does not march, nor quite walk, but pitches along as if the next step would bring him on his nose. But his face looks firm and hard, and his eye is clear and resolute, and he is certainly natural and clear of all appearance and self-consciousness.”
By the time Grant and his son unpacked and went downstairs to the dining room, everyone in the hotel knew who he was. The diners cheered him as he entered; Grant seemed uncomfortable with such attention as he acknowledged them with a bow. Word of Grant’s presence quickly reached the White House, where Lincoln sent a courier requesting that Grant come meet him that night.
Having lost the key to his trunk, Grant only had his traveling uniform to wear. But he did not want to decline a request from the commander-in-chief on his first day in town, so Grant put his son to bed and walked the two blocks to the White House. The weekly public reception was underway, and the president was greeting people in the Blue Room when Grant entered around 9:30 p.m.
Lincoln heard the commotion outside the room and deduced that Grant had arrived. He quickly identified the general from his photographs and walked over to greet him: “This is General Grant, is it?” Grant replied, “Yes it is.” Lincoln exclaimed, “Well, this is a great pleasure, I assure you.”
Lincoln introduced Grant to Secretary of State William H. Seward, who presented the general to First Lady Mary Lincoln and then led him into the larger East Room. The guests hurrying to meet Grant almost caused a stampede; Navy Secretary Gideon Welles called the scene “rowdy and unseemly.” Seward persuaded Grant to stand on a sofa, where he spent the next hour greeting the admiring throng.
Noting Grant’s reluctance to garner attention, a journalist reported, “The little, scared-looking man who stood on the crimson-covered sofa was the idol of the hour.” Another contended that the general “blushed like a schoolgirl.” And another remarked, “For once, at least, the President of the United States was not the chief figure in the picture.”
Later that night, Seward introduced Grant to Welles; Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was also present, but he had already met Grant last November. They brought Grant back into the Blue Room to see Lincoln once more. The president told him, “Tomorrow, at such time as you may arrange with the Secretary of War, I desire to make to you a formal presentation of your commission as Lieutenant-General.”
Lincoln explained that he would deliver a brief speech, and he wanted Grant to make one of his own that included two points: “First, to say something which shall prevent or obviate any jealousy of you from any of the other generals in the service, and secondly, something which shall put you on as good terms as possible with the Army of the Potomac.” Grant asked if he would be expected to oversee this army, and Lincoln said probably yes.
Grant returned to the Willard Hotel to write a speech that consisted of just a few sentences. The ceremony was scheduled for 1 p.m. the next day.
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 440; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 165-66; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 380-81, 383; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10457; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 962, 964-66; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 75-85, 96-125; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 404-07; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 614-16; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 22-26, 37; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 471-73