Before putting Ulysses S. Grant’s name forward for promotion to lieutenant general, Abraham Lincoln had to first find out whether Grant had any presidential ambitions—not an unreasonable concern in an army filled with politicians and political aspirants. With the presidential election coming later in the year, and with no end of the war in sight, Lincoln worried about his vulnerability. He didn’t need his winningest general as his political opponent.
Of course, Grant would hardly say so outright if he did, so Lincoln had to surreptitiously poke around. He found his surrogate in former U.S. Rep. Isaac N. Morris of Illinois. Morris was the son of the late U.S. Sen. Thomas Morris of Ohio and a friend of Grant’s father, Jesse. Morris wrote to Grant on December 29, 1863, to pose the question. Lost among the voluminous correspondence he received, Grant didn’t see the letter until January 18. “I receive many such letters,” Grant explained in his January 20 response, “but I do not answer. Yours however, is written in such a kindly spirit, and as you ask for an answer confidentially, I will not withhold it. . . .
I am not a politician, never was and hope to be, and could not write a political letter. My only desire is to serve the country in her present trials. To do this efficiently it is necessary to have the confidence of the Army and the people. I know no way to better to secure this end than by a faithful performance of my duties. . . . In your letter you say that I have it in my power to be the next President! This is the last thing in the world I desire. I would regard such a consummation as being highly unfortunate for myself if not for the country. Through Providence I have attained to more than I ever hoped, and with the position I now hold in the Regular Army, if allowed to retain it will be more than satisfied. I certainly shall never shape a sentiment, or the expression of a thought with the view of being a candidate for office. I scarcely know the inducement that could be held out to me to accept office, and unhesitatingly say that I infinitely prefer my present position to that of any civil office within the gift of the people.
Grant asked Morris to keep the letter private and confidential. However, the answer did make its way back to Lincoln, and it was just what the president needed to hear. Congress moved on the legislation required to officially create the rank, which Lincoln signed into law on Leap Day, February 29, and sent Grant’s name forward for consideration that same day.
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The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant: January 1-May 31, 1864. Vol. 10. John Y. Simon, ed. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University press, 1982. Pg. 53.