U.S. ARMY GENERAL OFFICER SHOULDER STRAPS

The practice of indicating rank on the shoulders of a general’s uniform dates back to the Revolutionary War, when General and Commander in Chief George Washington issued an order in 1980 that Brigadier Generals and Major Generals should wear one and two stars respectively on the epaulets of their uniforms. As the highest-ranking officer at the time, Washington was the only general who wore three stars.

A year after the end of his Presidency, Washington was appointed by President John Adams to new rank in the Army: Lieutenant General. Although Washington never served in a military capacity in this rank, its addition to the Army officer hierarchy apparently did not sit well with Congress. In March, 1799, Congress specified that the highest-ranking Army officer would be the “General of the Armies of the United States,” simultaneously abolishing the title of Lieutenant General and leaving the maximum number of stars that a General could wear at three.

On February 15, 1855, Congress reinstated the rank of Lieutenant General, conferring it by brevet to Major General Winfield Scott. Things became a little more confused when the Army established a three-star rank of Major General Commanding the Army in 1861, followed by the promotion of Ulysses S. Grant to Lieutenant General in 1864; Grant wore three stars, despite the fact that he had not been named to the Major General Commanding the Army position. When Grant was named General of the Army of the United States, he became the first General to wear four stars.

The on-again, off-again nature of three- and four-star ranks continued when Grant’s successor as General of the Army, William T. Sherman, altered the insignia to just two stars, but with the Coat of Arms of the United States between them. He was succeeded by Philip Sheridan, who promptly reinstated Grant’s four-star insignia.

In 1944, the Army re-established the General of the Army rank, but made it a five-star position. Only five generals have ever held the rank: George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, Henry “Hap” Arnold, and Omar Bradley. Although Bradley was the last living general to hold the five-star rank, in 1976 Congress posthumously appointed George Washington to the rank of General of the Armies of the United States, a five-star position that ensure no officer will ever have a higher rank than his.

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