March 9, 1864 – Ulysses S. Grant formally received his commission as lieutenant general and set about taking command of all Federal armies.
The official ceremony to bestow Grant with his new commission began at 1 p.m. at the White House. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and current General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck escorted Grant into the room. The small audience there included the rest of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet and his secretary John Nicolay, Grant’s 13-year-old son Fred, and his chief of staff John Rawlins.
Lincoln handed the official document bearing the commission of lieutenant general to Grant and then read the brief speech, of which he had given a copy to Grant the night before:
“General Grant, the nation’s appreciative 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 With this high honor 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 here speak for the nation, goes my own hearty personal concurrence.”
Grant delivered his speech next, which was even shorter than Lincoln’s:
“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.”
Nicolay noted that Grant seemed “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.” Referring to the two points that Lincoln had asked Grant to make (i.e., prevent jealousy among new subordinates and encourage the Army of the Potomac), Nicolay wrote “that in what he said, while it was brief and to the point, he had either forgotten or disregarded entirely the President’s hints to him the night previous.”
Lincoln did not seem to notice or care that Grant had ignored his suggestions. He was too hopeful that he had finally found the man who would destroy the Confederacy once and for all. There was reason for such hope–Grant had won more major victories than any other Federal commander, including capturing Confederate armies at Fort Donelson and Vicksburg. Also, Grant’s promotion relieved the pressure on Lincoln to produce a military victory, as it would take time for the new commander to develop a strategy.
Even better, after ensuring that Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase would not challenge him for the presidency in the upcoming election, Lincoln neutralized another potential political rival by ensuring that Grant would not run (even though Grant, unlike Chase, never suggested he might do so). Except for some Radicals, most Republicans now acknowledged that their party would renominate Lincoln to seek a second term.
In fact, Grant disdained politics altogether. Before coming to Washington, he had assured his close friend Major General William T. Sherman that he despised the capital and would “accept no appointment which will require me to make that city my head-quarters.” Sherman replied, “Halleck is better qualified than you to stand the buffets of intrigue and politics.” Now that Grant was the new general-in-chief, Halleck was “promoted” to chief of staff, his main job to provide administrative support to Grant.
After the ceremony, Lincoln and Grant privately discussed future strategy. Lincoln explained “that he had never professed to be a military man or to know how campaigns should be conducted, and never wanted to interfere in them.” He had only gotten involved in military matters because of “procrastination on the part of commanders, and the pressure from the people at the North and Congress.”
The president assured Grant that “all he wanted or had ever wanted was some one who would take the responsibility and act, and call on him for all the assistance needed, pledging himself to use all the power of the government in rendering such assistance.” Lincoln told Grant that he specifically wanted him to capture Richmond. When Grant said he could do it if he had enough troops, Lincoln assured him that he would have them.
At 4 p.m., Stanton brought Grant to Mathew Brady’s Portrait Gallery at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street to be photographed for the occasion. A skylight accidentally shattered above Grant, raining glass upon him. Panicked, Stanton told Brady, “Not a word about this, Brady, not a word… It would be impossible to convince the people that this was not an attempt at assassination!”
That night, Grant left Washington for Brandy Station, to meet with Major General George G. Meade for the first time since the Mexican War, and the Army of the Potomac for the first time ever.
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