156 Years Later, Ulysses S. Grant Could Get One Last Promotion

General Ulysses S. Grant at Cold Harbor.
General Ulysses S. Grant at Cold Harbor (Edgar Guy Fowx photo courtesy of Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

A soldier with broken time as a result of his love of bourbon whiskey could soon become the third man to hold the rank of General of the Armies.

The proposed fiscal 2023 James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act would let President Joe Biden posthumously promote Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who retired with the rank of General of the Army, to General of the Armies -- a rank only held by Gen. George Washington, posthumously, and Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing of World War I fame.

Grant became the country's first four-star general in 1866. For the past year, members of Congress have worked to promote the general to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth on April 27, 1822.

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On the House side, Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., led a bipartisan effort to promote the former president, while on the Senate side, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, led the charge.

The lawmakers wrote Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in April asking that he review Grant's military record and report to Congress his thoughts on the merits of a posthumous promotion.

"Ulysses S. Grant was an incredible leader who proved himself to be one of the most influential military commanders America has ever seen," Wagner said in an April press release marking Grant's birthday this year. "His leadership held our nation together at a perilous time in history."

An Ohio native, Grant, whose ancestors fought in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, received a nomination to West Point in 1839 and graduated in 1843 as a second lieutenant, assigned to the infantry. He first saw combat in 1846 against Mexico near what is now Brownsville, Texas, and excelled throughout the Mexican-American War as a quartermaster and in combat.

Promoted to captain in 1853, Grant was assigned to California, where, away from his family, he began to drink -- reportedly favoring Old Crow bourbon -- and was reprimanded on several occasions, leading to his eventual resignation.

After the first shots of the Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861, however, Grant requested to be recommissioned. He served as a military aide to the governor of Illinois and established 10 regiments in the Illinois militia, earning a promotion to colonel and a command. The rest is history: the first major Union victory in Cape Girardeau, Missouri; wins at Shiloh, Chattanooga and Vicksburg; but also disastrous losses at Cold Harbor and Petersburg, Virginia.

After accepting Confederate Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, Grant remained in the Army, eventually entering politics and ascending to the presidency in 1869. While his administration had its share of scandals, and he made a series of poor choices in domestic and foreign policy, Grant also was known for instituting laws that provided rights for Black Americans, as well as policies that sought to destroy groups including the Ku Klux Klan.

After two terms, plagued by dissent and opposition, Grant elected not to run for a third term, although he later would try again. He died of cancer at age 63 in 1885.

Grant traditionally has ranked as one of the worst American presidents, but his reputation has improved in the past several decades in part due to a reexamination by biographers that cast new light on his military leadership style and victories, accomplishments as a leader and his abilities to settle disputes.

UCLA Professor Emeritus Joan Waugh is among the historians who has delved into Grant's personality and legacy. Her book, "U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth," is considered one of the top retrospectives of Grant's life.

"I am hoping that [the bill] passes," Waugh said in an email to Military.com. "I agree with Prof. Anne Marshall's [executive director of the Grant Presidential Library] assessment of this delayed promotion as not only recognizing his generalship but also his leadership in trying to secure civil rights for the freed people during Reconstruction."

The House passed the defense policy bill Thursday, and the Senate is expected to approve the measure in the coming weeks. It will be up to Biden to determine whether to grant Grant a new rank.

It took Washington 195 years to be promoted posthumously to the rank of General of the Armies; his promotion was formalized on March 13, 1978, and backdated to July 4, 1976, to commemorate the Bicentennial.

If Grant is promoted, he will have beat the nation's first military leader and president by nearly 40 years.

"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. I'm proud to recognize President Grant's many accomplishments with this resolution as we plan a bicentennial celebration honoring his service 200 years after his birth in Point Pleasant, Ohio," Brown said in a press release in September introducing the legislation.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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