General of the Armies Grant only third officer to hold the rank

In December, Congress included a passage in the NDAA that named Ulysses S. Grant as the third-ever General of the Armies.
Logan Nye Avatar
ulysses s grant
Ulysses S. Grant (National Portrait Gallery)

Look, I apologize. I try to keep up with cool military history developments so you don’t have to. But it’s been a hectic year and apparently I missed something big back in December: For only the third time ever, Congress authorized an award of the rank General of the Armies. Ulysses S. Grant joined George Washington and John Pershing in the smallest club of officers in history.

What is General of the Armies?

At the end of World War I, the world rejoiced that the largest conflict in modern history to that point was over. America, a late entry to the war, took a lot of the credit as it pushed a fresh population and robust industrial base into the conflict in 1917, decisively swinging it from stalemate into victory for the Allies. And at the head of the American Expeditionary Force sat John J. Pershing.

The American Congress, on behalf of a grateful nation, promoted him to a new rank created just for him in 1919: General of the Armies. Congress didn’t specify and insignia for this new rank, so Pershing made up his own: Four gold stars. Congress mandated that no other American officer outranked Pershing until after his death.

And then, eventually, they remembered that he technically outranked George Washington. Actually, George Washington was appointed as a three-star general by John Adams, but no one updated it for about 200 years. Then Congress passed a resolution asking Gerald Ford to also name Washington a General of the Armies. Ford did so and declared George Washington to outrank all current, past, and future Army ranks.

For nearly 50 years, Pershing and Washington were the only “six-star generals” (the rank insignia has never actually been specified).

ulysses s grant General of the Armies
Portrait by Mathew Brady, c. 1870–1880.

Grant wins the Civil War and, nearly 160 years later, gets the promotion

That changed with the passage of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. The bill included a passage promoting Grant to General of the Armies:

The President is authorized to appoint Ulysses S. Grant posthumously to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States, equal to the rank and precedence held by General John J. Pershing pursuant to the Act titled “An Act Relating to the creation of the office of General of the Armies of the United States”, approved September 3, 1919 (41 Stat. 283, ch. 56).

That’s a mouthful, but the “So what?” is that Grant and Pershing are exactly equal in rank and precedence, but Washington is a hair above them.

Neither the NDAA nor the Missouri and Ohio legislators who pushed for it said exactly why Grant was uniquely qualified for the rank, though they cited his influence and values while praising him.

Grant is most famous for giving Lincoln the aggressive, fighting leadership he wanted in the Civil War. Grant slowly built a name for himself in the American West during the Civil War as Lincoln tried over and over again to find the right senior commander. Lincoln finally selected Grant in 1863 and revived the rank of lieutenant general to make him the commander of Union forces.

In 1864 it looked likely that Lincoln would lose re-election to former general George B. McClellan who was running on a platform of negotiating an end to the war that allowed for secession. But Lincoln’s fighting general, Grant, delivered victories in 1864 that re-galvanized Northern voters. Of special impact was Grant’s trusted subordinate, William Tecumseh Sherman, who captured Atlanta.

Lincoln won the 1864 popular vote by 10 points, and Sherman and Grant became larger and larger celebrities as they prosecuted the Civil War to its final victories. Grant eventually ran for president himself and served from 1869 to 1877.