A general officer is an officer of high military rank; in the uniformed services of the United States, general officers are commissioned officers above the field officer ranks, the highest of which is colonel in the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force and captain, in the Navy, Coast Guard, Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (PHSCC), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps (NOAACC).
General officer ranks currently used in the uniformed services are:
- One-star - Brigadier general in the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force and rear admiral (lower half) in the Navy, Coast Guard, PHSCC, and NOAACC
- Two-star - Major general in the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force and rear admiral in the Navy, Coast Guard, PHSCC, and NOAACC
- Three-star - Lieutenant general in the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force and vice admiral in the Navy, Coast Guard, PHSCC, and NOAACC
- Four-star - General in the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force and admiral in the Navy, Coast Guard, PHSCC, and NOAACC
Above these four general officer ranks are five-star ranks, but these are generally reserved for wartime use. Just nine Americans have held five-star ranks and no person currently holds that rank. They are the General of the Army (in the Army, equivalent to the foreign rank of field marshal), Fleet Admiral (in the Navy), and General of the Air Force (in the Air Force).
The very highest ranks, senior to the five stars ranks, are General of the Armies (in the Army) and Admiral of the Navy (in the Navy). These ranks are sometimes called six-star ranks, but holders of the ranks have never used six-star insignia. Only three people have ever held these ranks, which are sometimes considered to be the equivalent of the foreign ranks of generalissimo or grand marshal, and they have never been used at the same time as all other general officer ranks. The rank of General of the Armies have only been ever held by John Pershing and George Washington (promoted to this rank in 1976 as part of American Bicentennial celebrations). The rank of Admiral of the Navy has only been ever held by George Dewey. Proposals to bring back these ranks was made during World War II, with Douglas MacArthur and Chester W. Nimitz under consideration for appointment as General of the Armies and Admiral of the Navy, respectively, but this was never implemented.
Throughout much of the history of the United States, ranks above three stars were not used at all, or only used on a temporary basis. For much of history they were only used one at a time, with different titles used at different times for the same thing.
American Revolutionary War era
Henry Knox in the uniform of a major general During the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress appointed general officers to lead the Continental Army. They were usually distinguished community leaders and statesmen, and several had served as provincial officers in the British Army. While there were some general officers who were promoted to the grade from lower ranks, most held their ranks by initial appointment and then with such appointment at the pleasure of the Congress, to be expired or revoked at the end of a particular campaign.
George Washington With the exception of George Washington, the general officers at that point were brigadier generals or major generals. Their insignia was one or two stars worn on a golden epaulet. Washington was the highest ranking officer of the Continental Army, holding the title of "General and Commander in Chief" of the Continental Army. He wore three stars on his epaulets.
A year prior to his death, Washington was appointed by President John Adams to the rank of lieutenant general in the United States Army during the Quasi-War with France. Washington never exercised active authority under his new rank, however, and Adams made the appointment to frighten the French, with whom war seemed certain.
In an act of 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 proposed senior general officer rank was not bestowed, however. When George Washington died, he was listed as a lieutenant general on the rolls of the United States Army.
After the Revolutionary War, the tiny United States Army at first had no active duty General Officers. When it got General Officers again, the highest rank in the Army was Major General, and the senior Major General on the Army rolls was referred to as the Commanding General of the United States Army. The position was abolished at the start of the 20th century and replaced with that of Chief of Staff of the United States Army.
American Civil War era
Ulysses Grant in the uniform of a lieutenant general Stonewall Jackson wearing the generic insignia of a Confederate general officer The rank of lieutenant general remained inactive until Winfield Scott received a brevet promotion to the rank in 1855.
On March 13, 1861, General Order No. 6 said that the position of Major General Commanding the Army was entitled to wear three stars. In 1864 Ulysses S. Grant was appointed lieutenant general and took command of the Union forces. He used the three-star insignia formerly assigned to the position of Major General Commanding the Army.
The Confederate States Army used the rank of lieutenant general for its corps commanders prior to the U.S. Army's adoption of the term. The two ranks were not synonymous. Unlike the Union Army, the Confederate States Army promoted numerous officers to the ranks of Lieutenant General and General (18 and 7, respectively).
During the American Civil War all generals in the Confederate military, regardless of grade, wore an insignia of three stars in a row, placed in an open wreath, with the middle one being slightly larger. One exception to this was General Robert E. Lee, who chose to wear the insignia of the lower rank of a (full) colonel (three stars) even after he became overall commander of the Confederate armies in 1865. (Among other general officers wearing colonel's uniforms is Napoleon Bonaparte and the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II.)
In the 19th century, the rank of a U.S. general was also shown by the arrangement of buttons on the coat. This was a feature of the general dress uniform until the Army abandoned blue uniforms during World War I.
On July 25, 1866, the U.S. Congress established the rank of "General of the Army of the United States" for Ulysses S. Grant. When appointed General of the Army, Grant wore the rank insignia of four stars and coat buttons arranged in three groups of four.
Unlike the 1944 rank with a similar title, the 1866 rank of General of the Army was a four-star rank. Although unlike modern four-star Generals, only one officer could hold the 1866 1888 rank of General of the Army at any time.
After Grant retired to become President of the United States, he was succeeded as General of the Army by William T. Sherman, effective March 4, 1869. In 1872, Sherman ordered the insignia changed to two stars with the arms of the United States in between.
By an Act of June 1, 1888, the grade of lieutenant general was discontinued and merged with that of General of the Army, which was then conferred upon Philip H. Sheridan. (The cover of Sheridan's autobiography was decorated with four stars within a rectangle evocative of the four-star shoulder strap worn by Grant.) The rank of general of the Army ceased to exist upon the death of Sheridan on August 5, 1888 and the highest rank of the United States Army was again the two-star major general rank. The Army had a few more Lieutenant Generals throughout parts of the period from 1895 to 1909.
|General of the Army shoulder strap insignia, 1866 1872 (Grant and Sherman).
||General of the Army shoulder strap insignia, 1872 1888 (Sherman and Sheridan).
World War I era
General John Pershing wearing his four gold stars
Three-star Lieutenant Generals and four-star Generals were reauthorized temporarily for World War I. Tasker H. Bliss (December 31, 1853 – November 9, 1930) and John J. Pershing (September 13, 1860 – July 15, 1948) were promoted to General in October 1917. Peyton C. March was promoted to General in May 1918. Hunter Liggett and Robert Lee Bullard were promoted to Lieutenant General on October 16, 1918. On September 3, 1919 granted Pershing the rank of "General of the Armies of the United States" in recognition of his performance as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force. After the war, in 1920, the Lieutenant Generals and Generals reverted to their permanent ranks of Major General, except for Pershing. Pershing retired from the United States Army on September 13, 1924, and retained his rank of General of the Armies of the United States until his death in 1948. Pershing wore four gold stars during his tenure as General of the Armies, but was later considered a five or six-star general as the result of the re-creation of the General of the Army rank in 1944. Generals were reauthorized in 1929, starting with Charles Pelot Summerall.
World War II era
Lieutenant Generals were reauthorized on August 5, 1939.
During World War II most American Generals held temporary or theater appointments in the Army of the United States.
Until the Second World War, the highest Marine Corps general rank was that of Major General, with Thomas Holcomb becoming the first three-star Marine general and Alexander Vandegrift becoming the first four-star Marine general (both on active duty) in history. Vandegrift's rank was awarded after becoming the Commandant of the Marine Corps.
The second version of General of the Army, colloquially known as a "Five-star General" was created by Pub.L. 78-482 passed on 14 December 1944, first as a temporary rank, then made permanent 23 March 1946 by an act of the 79th Congress. It was created to give the most senior American commanders parity of rank with their British counterparts holding the rank of field marshal. The acts also created a comparable rank of Fleet Admiral for the Navy. This second General of the Army rank is not considered comparable to the American Civil War era version.
The insignia for General of the Army, as created in 1944, consisted of five stars in a pentagonal pattern, with points touching. The five officers who have held the 1944 version of General of the Army were:
||George C. Marshall
||16 December 1944
||18 December 1944
||Dwight D. Eisenhower
||20 December 1944
||Henry H. Arnold
||21 December 1944
||20 September 1950
The timing of the first four appointments was coordinated with the appointment of the U.S. Navy's five-star Fleet Admirals (on 15, 17, and 19 December 1944) to establish both a clear order of seniority and a near-equivalence between the services.
A historical rumor suggests that the title 'General of the Army' was used instead of the 'Field Marshal' so that George Marshall would not be known as "Marshal Marshall". Most military sources agree that it is more likely that the rank was named after its 19th-century counterpart and was so named because the rank of Field Marshal was considered by the U.S. military to be a European rank.
Dwight Eisenhower resigned his Army commission on May 31, 1952 to run for president. After serving two terms, his successor, John F. Kennedy, signed on March 23, 1961 which returned Eisenhower to Active Duty of Regular Army in grade of General of the Army dated back to December 1944. This rank is today commemorated on the signs denoting Interstate Highways as part of the Eisenhower Interstate System, which display five silver stars on a light blue background.
Official abbreviations below are used in the U.S. Army only. The U.S. Air Force does not abbreviate general officer ranks in signature blocks, but "Brig Gen," "Maj Gen," and "Lt Gen" (without abbreviating periods) are commonly used.
Brigadier General (BG)
||In the Army, BGs typically serves as Deputy Commander to the Commanding General of a division and assists in overseeing the planning and coordination of a mission. In an infantry brigade not attached to a division, a Brigadier General serves as the unit's commander, while a colonel serves as deputy commander. Similarly, Air Force, Brig Gens command large operational Wings with colonels serving as deputy commanders. Both services' BGs serve as senior primary staff officers of a Corps/Numbered Air Force or higher level staff. BG and its equivalents currently serve as the commandants and deans of the United States Service Academies.
Major General (MG)
||Typically commands division-sized units (10,000 to 16,000 soldiers). In the Army, major generals also serve as Branch Chiefs (i.e.: Infantry, Armor, Quartermaster, etc.), as well as commandants of Army service schools and commanding officers of Army Major Subordinate Commands - for example, the TACOM Life Cycle Management Command (TACOM) and the Army Intelligence and Security Command. In the Air Force, most major generals are deputies or senior staff members of major and joint commands, although a few command smaller Numbered Air Forces.
Lieutenant General (LTG)
||An Army or Marine Corps Lieutenant General typically commands a corps-sized unit (20,000 to 45,000 soldiers), while an Air Force Lieutenant General commands a large Numbered Air Force consisting of several wings. Additionally, Lieutenant Generals of all services serve as high-level staff officers at various major command headquarters and The Pentagon, often as the heads of their departments. The Superintendents of the United States Service Academies are currently LTGs.
||Commands all operations that fall within his geographical area. The Chiefs of Staff of the Army and Air Force as well as the Commandant of the Marine Corps are four-star Generals. Generals command major areas of responsibility and hold the highest of military positions in the Department of Defense. Air Force generals usually command Major Commands or Unified Commands. The Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are also four-star officers.
General of the Army (GA)/General of the Air Force
||This rank is only used in time of war where the commanding officer must be equal to or of higher rank than those commanding armies/air forces from other nations. The last officers to hold this rank served during and immediately following World War II. The Marine Corps does not have an equivalent to this rank.
(used by Pershing)
|General of the Armies
||This rank has not been used on an active duty military officer since General Pershing was promoted to the rank in 1919. General Pershing wore the four stars of a general but in gold instead of silver. George Washington was posthumously appointed General of the Armies of the United States during the American Bicentennial in 1976. A six-star variation was designed (shown to the left) when promotion to that rank of Douglas MacArthur for the invasion of Japan was being considered, but was never authorized.
After the close of the Second World War, Generals were normally promoted permanently to Brigadier General and Major General, with temporary promotions to Lieutenant and full General to fill senior positions as needed. In theory, a General would be expected to vacate their three- or four-star rank at the termination of their assignment, unless they were placed in an equal ranking billet. Douglas MacArthur, who served as four-star general and Army Chief of Staff, reverted to two stars after his CoS tour ended but chose to stay on active duty in the United States Army.
The practice of using Lieutenant and full General as a temporary rank continues to the current day, although the term temporary is in name only since most three- and four-star generals are expected to retain their rank regardless of their assignment. Such officers are also almost always granted permanent retirement rank, as well, in the last grade they held.
There have been no officers appointed to the rank of General of the Army since Omar Bradley and, in the 21st century U.S. military, further appointments are highly unlikely unless the United States were to become involved in a major war on the scale of World War II.
In the 1990s, the Defense Department gave some indication that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would possibly one day be a position worthy of the rank General of the Army, Fleet Admiral, or General of the Air Force as appropriate. This would be problematic in that with the appointment of United States Marine Corps Generals as Chairman, there is no current five-star USMC rank. Congressional sources indicated that there were no plans to promote any modern-day general officers to the rank of General of the Army.
The rank of General of the Army is still maintained as a rank of the U.S. military, and could again be bestowed pending approval of the United States Congress. The rank would carry a special pay grade just as the current ranks of officers do. Currently U.S. military policy is that General of the Army, General of the Air Force, and Fleet Admiral are ranks only to be used in time of war when the commanding officer must be equal to or of higher rank than those commanding armies from another nation.
After World War II, which saw the introduction of U.S. "five-star" officers who outranked Washington, both Congress and the President revisited the issue of Washington's rank. To maintain George Washington's proper position as the first Commanding General of the United States Army, he was appointed, posthumously, to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States by congressional joint resolution Public Law 94-479 January 19, 1976, approved by President Gerald R. Ford on October 11, 1976. The Department of the Army Order 31-3, issued on March 13, 1978 by Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander, Jr. had an effective appointment date of July 4, 1976. The rank ensures that no United States military officer outranks George Washington. 
- List of United States four-star officers
- List of United States Army four-star generals
- List of United States Navy four-star admirals
- List of United States Marine Corps four-star generals
- List of United States Air Force four-star generals
- List of United States Coast Guard four-star admirals
- List of United States military leaders by rank
- United States Army officer rank insignia
- United States Marine Corps officer rank insignia
- United States Air Force officer rank insignia
- Joint Force Air Component Commander
- Joint Force Land Component Commander
- Joint Force Maritime Component Commander
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