July 25, 1866 – Ulysses S. Grant Becomes the First Four-Star General in U.S. History

The General of the Armies of the United States, or more commonly referred to as General of the Armies (abbreviated as GAS), is the highest possible rank in the United States Army. The rank is informally equated to that of a six-star general and is currently one of the two highest possible operational ranks in the United States Armed Forces. Promotion to this rank requires congressional legislation, approval by the President, and an order from the Secretary of the Army.

George Washington

George Washington

The first mention of the rank “General of the Armies” was in an Act of the United States Congress on March 3, 1799. Congress provided:

That a Commander of the United States shall be appointed and commissioned by the style of General of the Armies of the United States and the present office and title of Lieutenant General shall thereafter be abolished.”

The rank of General of the Armies was intended for bestowal upon George Washington, who held the rank of “General and Commander-in-Chief” which was a grade senior to all American major generals and brigadier generals from the American Revolutionary War, but only entitled him to the three-star insignia of an Army lieutenant general. The United States at this point had no four-star general rank and would not until 1866. However, only a few months after the Congressional proposal, George Washington died on December 14, 1799.

After the close of the American Civil War, Congress again revisited the idea of a superior General rank to reward Ulysses S. Grant for saving the Union.

General U.S. Grant

General U.S. Grant

On this day in history, July 25, 1866, Congress enacted legislation authorizing the grade of General of the Army, and on that same date the new grade was conferred on Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The grade was recognized and continued in various acts until the Act of July 15, 1870, which contained the requirement that “the offices of general and lieutenant general shall continue until a vacancy shall exist in the same, and no longer, and when such vacancy shall occur in either of said offices shall become inoperative, and shall, by virtue of this act, from thence forward be held to be repealed.”

On September 3, 1919 Congress revived the grade of General of the Armies of the United States by Public Law 66-45 to honor General John J. Pershing for his service in World War I. He retired with that four-star rank on September 13, 1924, and held it until his death on July 15, 1948.

General John Pershing depicted with four gold stars on his epaulette

The rank of five-star general in the U.S. Army is also an honor bestowed upon very few: George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Henry “Hap” Arnold, and Omar Bradley. But as of 1976, George Washington trumps them all, and always will, with six stars.

On October 11, 1976, George Washington was posthumously promoted to General of the Armies of the United States. When Washington actually served in the army, he was a major general with two stars. After his presidency, John Adams promoted him to lieutenant general with three stars. It stayed that way for centuries, with every four- and five- star general who came afterward outranking him.

Washington’s promotion was authorized by a congressional joint resolution making the appointment retroactive to take effect on July 4, 1976, the nation’s bicentennial. The resolution further declared that no officer of the United States armed forces should ever outrank George Washington.

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