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

Military commanders have always been popular and deemed a threat to political leaders, so such honors as bestowing four stars upon a general were not conferred lightly.

In fact, the U.S. Congress refused to authorize a rank higher than major general until 1798. That year, fears that France might invade the United States induced Congress to name George Washington General of the Armies. When Washington died in December 1799, the rank died with him.

George Washington

George Washington

After Washington’s death, an Act of May 14, 1800, specifically authorized President Adams to suspend any further appointment to the office of General of the Armies of the United States.

The idea of resurrecting the rank of lieutenant general was introduced to Congress on December 7, 1863, by Representative Elihu B. Washburne, who represented Grant’s home district in Illinois. Grant took pains to assure Lincoln that Grant had no political ambitions, and thus Lincoln lent his support to the bill. After it passed with comfortable majorities in both the House and the Senate, Lincoln signed it into law on February 29 and submitted Grant’s name to Congress as his choice to fill the post.

President Abraham Lincoln called his cabinet to the Executive Mansion on March 9, 1864, to witness his presentation of Ulysses S. Grant with his commission as a lieutenant general. Only George Washington had risen to that rank in the U.S. Army before him.

On this day in history, 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in either of said offices shall become inoperative, and shall, by virtue of this act, from thence forward be held to be repealed.”

General U.S. Grant

General U.S. Grant

William T. Sherman, Grant’s successor as Commanding General of the Army, was appointed as General of the Army on March 4, 1869, and upon his retirement in February 1884 was placed on the retired list as General of the Army.

Sherman’s successor was Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan, who could not be promoted to General of the Army because of the 1870 law. Congress, however, enacted legislation on June 1, 1888, shortly before Sheridan’s death, that discontinued the grade of lieutenant general and merged it with that of General of the Army. The grade of General of the Army was conferred on Sheridan and was discontinued when he died, while still on active duty on August 5, 1888.

Congress revived the grade of General of the Armies of the United States by Public Law 45, approved September 3, 1919, to honor General John J. Pershing for his wartime service. He retired with that rank on September 13, 1924, and held it until his death on July 15, 1948.

General John J. Pershing

No other officer held this specific title until 1976, when President Ford appointed George Washington posthumously as General of the Armies of the United States and specified that he would rank first among all officers of the Army, past and present.

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