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May 5, 2021

General Ulysses S. Grant's Civil War Appointment: Owning a National Treasure

By Joe Engesser

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Rock Island Auction Company is humbled to present this pivotal piece of American History at our May 14th-16th Premier Auction, Ulysses S. Grant’s own copy of his Civil War appointment to major general in the United States Army. This is the only known general appointment of Grant to exist in private hands and represents an important step toward Grant's eventual promotion to General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States, a rank previously held by only George Washington.

Grant promoted by Lincoln. A document directly linked to the Union’s two greatest Civil War leaders.

This promotion to major general allowed Ulysses S. Grant to command the forces needed to achieve victory in his Vicksburg campaign and facilitated his numerous successes that followed, including the eventual defeat of Robert E. Lee and Grant’s ascent to the office of President three years later. Since the fall of the Confederacy, pundits and historians have hailed Grant as the winning general of the Civil War. In the words of The White House, Grant was “the symbol of Union victory.

Grant’s promotion gave him the forces needed to take Vicksburg, a fortified stronghold on the Mississippi, and the city’s loss split the Confederacy in two.

A Symbol of Union Victory

Rock Island Auction Company has sold items owned by American icons like Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt and Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, but Ulysses S. Grant’s commission to major general is a standout collector’s piece with immense historical value. This well-preserved original document, authorized by Abraham Lincoln during the height of the Civil War, symbolizes not just Grant’s monumental rise but a turning point in American military history and the nation’s future as a whole.

General Grant’s appointment to major general was the first step toward Lincoln naming him General-in-Chief of the United States Army.

“We all thought Richmond, protected as it was by our splendid fortifications and defended by our army of veterans, could not be taken. Yet Grant turned his face to our Capital, and never turned it away until we had surrendered. Now, I have carefully searched the military records of both ancient and modern history, and have never found Grant's superior as a general. I doubt that his superior can be found in all history.                    - Robert E. Lee

Famed southern sculpture Fredrick Volck’s 1863 bronze bust of Robert E. Lee on a black marble plinth.

Rise of an American Icon

Born in 1822, Ulysses S. Grant was the son of an Ohio tanner. On the family farm, he developed a high aptitude for taming and riding horses. Attending West Point, Grant became acquainted with many of the officers he would either serve with or fight against during the Civil War. His graduating Class of 1843 produced 15 Union generals and 3 Confederate generals out of 39 graduates, some of them also fighting in the Mexican-American War. Grant was shipped out to Texas in May 1844 as tensions with Mexico escalated, where he served as a lieutenant under Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor, another future president.

First Cyrus Alger & Co. Model 1835 12-pound Howitzer used in the Mexican-American War, where Grant, Lee, and many other future Civil War generals served.

Grant fought in almost every major battle of the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848, responsible for the logistics and transportation in a regiment of nearly 1,000 men. Twice cited for bravery by his superiors, Grant gained a great deal of combat experience and developed leadership qualities that would define his success during the Civil War. His quiet competence, unshakable calm, and a forward-thinking mindset helped him come out of the Mexican conflict with the rank of captain.

The Civil War

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant was working in his father’s leather store in Galena, Illinois, only about 90 miles away from Rock Island Auction Company. The North needed experienced officers, so Grant was appointed by the governor to command an unruly volunteer regiment. The former captain whipped the regiment into shape and by September 1861 he had risen to the rank of brigadier general.

A nation divided. Early 9-star Confederate national flag, likely dating from April-May 1861.

“If it is necessary that slavery should fall that the Republic may continue its existence, let slavery go,” Grant wrote to his father in the early phase of the war, clarifying his support for Lincoln’s cause despite not having voted for the president in the prior election. Grant’s desire to restore order and preserve the Union only strengthened as he led his regiment to control the Tennessee River in the war’s Western Theater, where he found success taking Fort Henry and besieging Fort Donelson.

The Civil War introduced industrialization to Napoleonic warfare, resulting in massive casualties on both sides.

Early in the war, the North struggled to find a unified strategy and lacked a commander with the will or logistical ability to take the fight to the Rebels, and the public was often shocked at the enormous casualties the new weapons of the period enabled. President Lincoln often clashed with his commanders over their defensive tactics, and became increasingly frustrated with General George B. McClellan, who the president viewed as cautious to a fault.

Historic, documented 1840 infantry officer's sword and scabbard with presentation inscription to George B. McClellan.

“Unconditional Surrender” Grant

On February 6, 1862, Union forces captured Fort Henry in Tennessee, opening up the important Mississippi River tributary. A virtually unknown brigadier general named Ulysses S. Grant took full advantage and moved immediately on to take Fort Donelson. Most of the Confederates troops that had fled Fort Henry had consolidated at Fort Donelson, making it the most formidable stronghold in the region. After a four-day siege, the Confederate commander, Brigadier General Simon Buckner, sent a note to Grant requesting terms of surrender. Grant refused the terms set by his adversarial counterpart and instead famously demanded, "No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." The fort fell the next day, and Grant captured more than 12,000 Confederate soldiers.

“No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender.” The Confederates yielded the fort, and President Lincoln promoted Grant to major general.

In conjunction with the capture of Fort Henry, the Battle of Fort Donelson forced the South to give up southern Kentucky and much of Middle and West Tennessee. Together, they were the first major victories for the Union and significantly boosted Union morale, and also gave the North a new hero: “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Taking notice of Grant’s aggressive strategy, on February 20, 1862, Lincoln promoted Grant to the rank of major general.

A Rare Treasure

Grant would not physically receive his commission until months later. While camped outside Corinth three months after Lincoln approved his promotion, Grant sent a telegram to U.S. Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas asking for his appointment. “My commission as Major General has not yet reached me.” Once these words reached U.S. Adjutant General Thomas, an official commission was created on May 20th and sent to Grant in Corinth. “A copy of your commission was sent today,” read the responding May 22nd telegram. The commission likely arrived in Grant’s hands just before the Confederate city of Corinth fell on May 30, 1862.

“No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender.” The Confederates surrendered, and President Lincoln promoted Grant to major general.

As far as Civil War documents go, Grant’s personal copy of his promotion to major general is a pinnacle for any public or private collection. The document is folded, shows limited soiling, and is clearly legible, including the handwritten notations in the upper left corner signed by U.S. Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas stating when the commission was officially recorded, February 20, 1862. In the upper right-hand corner is a handwritten notation citing when this official appointment was released to Grant, May 20, 1862. An accompanying statement of provenance certifies, “This original Major General’s commission has, since its creation in 1862, been with Grant’s family. Mary Frances Grant was the sister of Ulysses S. Grant….Among the Grant family treasures she retained…was Grant’s Major General appointment.”

Grant became the Union’s greatest commander not because he relished the job, but because he shared Lincoln’s will to win.

Vicksburg and Beyond

Five days after the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the war, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The war was far from over though, and Grant set his sights on defeating the Confederates in the Western Theater. The key was Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi, called "the nail that holds the South's two halves together". Grant’s siege and capture of Vicksburg was a turning point in the Civil War, opening the heartland of the Confederacy to Federal troops and, along with the Union Naval blockade, effectively cutting the Confederacy in two.

“Unconditional Surrender Grant” at Vicksburg

In March of 1864, Lincoln appointed Grant General-in-Chief of the Union Armies, with 533,000 troops at his command. While he directed Sherman to drive through the South, Grant himself led the Army of the Potomac against Robert. E. Lee. After a hard campaign, Grant captured Petersburg and Richmond in early April 1865, forcing Jefferson Davis and his staff to abandon the Confederate capital and flee south on the last open railroad line. One week later at Appomattox Court House, Lee surrendered.

1865 historic commission of Godfrey Weitzel to Brevent Brigadier General, the man who formally accepted the surrender of Richmond, Virginia.

In four years, Grant had gone from a leather shop clerk to the most revered soldier in the Union. Grant’s reputation in the south, while certainly divisive, can perhaps be summed up best by Confederate sculpture Frederick Volck. In 1869, he sculpted a bust of Grant as he was set to take the office of President. Volck was grateful for how General Grant had treated General Lee and his men when surrendering at Appomattox, VA, and he hoped President Grant would help the southern people in the Reconstruction Period of Grant's term in office.

1869 bronze bust of President Grant, by Fredrick Volck.

A Collector’s Dream

Ulysses S. Grant's promotion to major general is one of the great appointments in American military history and a physical acknowledgment from President Lincoln of his faith in Grant’s will to fight. Grant’s ability to stay calm under pressure and use his logistical experience to plan far ahead of each individual battle was exactly what Lincoln was looking for, and it’s no surprise that the president hastily promoted Grant after his daring capture of Fort Donelson.

Rock Island Auction Company’s May 14th-16th Premier includes numerous rare and historic pieces from the Civil War.

The Civil War is an expansive topic, and it can feel overwhelming for a new collector looking to get started. In addition to Grant’s Civil War commission, Rock Island Auction Company’s May 14th-16th Premier includes a wide range of notable firearms  from the era. From a Colt 1847 Walker owned by a Confederate cavalry veteran to a pair of Colt revolvers presented to Tsar Alexander II during the war as a token of friendship with the United States, to Union hero Colonel Jacob G. Frick's presentation sword. And the May Premier also features Civil War-era cannons like this single known example of an 1863 Confederate Columbus Arsenal bronze 9-pounder. Each rifle and revolver and relic from the era has a unique story to tell, and there's nothing quite like the feeling of owning a physical piece of American history.

Grab rare historical items like Grant’s appointment and more at Rock Island Auction Company’s May Premier Auction!

As always, if there are any questions regarding consignment, registration, or future auctions, please contact Rock Island Auction Company. Our 2021 auction schedule is now posted on our website, so be sure to go through the listing and start making your plans to visit. All our events adhere to all COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions. We can’t wait to see you here.

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