George Washington – The Most Highly Ranked American General
While speaking about Ulysses S. Grant and his brilliant leadership of United States forces during the Civil War, I was asked if he was the most highly ranked American General of all time. I told my questioner that I would have to do some research to fully answer the question. What I discovered was that an act of Congress made George Washington the mostly highly ranked American General. What surprised me was that the President who named George Washington the most highly ranked American General was Gerald Ford in 1976!
Some of this will seem arcane to those of us who are not military experts, but I found it quite fascinating. When Gen. John J. Pershing led American troops in World War I, he reported directly to the president and was given the rank “General of the Armies.” The use of the word “Armies” as opposed to the singular “Army” was deliberate. Late in George Washington’s life, Congress had approved the title General of the Armies for him. While he never officially received the specific role, it was clear that it was designed to recognize his command of all our Armed Forces, as opposed to just the Army. Pershing and Washington are the only two men to receive this specific title.
During the Civil War, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was given command over the Armed Forces to a degree almost as broad as George Washington had been given. His specific rank after the war was General of the Army. Several others, including Gen. Sheridan and Gen. Sherman, eventually held this rank as well. They were considered to four-star generals.
During World War II, the rank “General of the Army” was revived and granted to Gen. Eisenhower. Gen. George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, ‘Hap’ Arnold And Omar Bradley also received this ring. They were considered five-star generals.
Thus, at the time of his death, Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing was, technically, the highest-ranked United States general of all time. However the story does not end there.
There had always been a bit of controversy regarding the actual rank held by Gen. George Washington. When he was appointed by the second Continental Congress, they said:
“We, reposing special trust and confidence in your patriotism, valor, conduct, and fidelity, do, by these presents, constitute and appoint you to be General and Commander in chief, of the army of the United Colonies, and of all the forces now raised, or to be raised, by them, and of all others who shall voluntarily offer their service, and join the said Army for the Defense of American liberty, and for repelling every hostile invasion thereof.”
Although they did not use the specific title, it is clear that their intent was to place George Washington in a rank above any other officer. The terminology changed over the years. Military historians engaged in vigorous debate about the subject of whether to consider George Washington the mostly highly ranked American General.
At the time of our Bicentennial, Pres. Gerald Ford signed an act that not only named George Washington the mostly highly ranked American General but also specified that “no officer of the United States Army should outrank Lieutenant General George Washington on the Army list.”
If the USA Army ever names a six-star general, Washington automatically receives a 7th star.
That sounds right to me.
General Grant saved the Union. General Pershing cobbled together an Army that helped advance the hopes of democracy. Generals Marshall and Eisenhower led the USA Army that defeated Nazism, fascism and a military dictatorship in World War II. But without Washington, they’d have had nothing to fight for.
The Declaration of Independence was a bold and brilliant act, acting as the purpose statement of America. But without General George Washington’s inspired leadership, crossing the Delaware at the Battle of Trenton, the Declaration of Independence, Paul Revere’s ride, and Bunker Hill would all be obscure anecdotes to a little-known failed rebellion. Everything we are as a nation is possible due to the brave Continental Army and George Washington the most highly ranked American General
(Editor’s note: I admit at the outset that I am not a military historian, nor am I a veteran. I am the very proud son of a World War II veteran and have enormous respect for all of the men and women who have worn the uniform of the USA. I am writing for a general interest audience; if you are interested in a more detailed analysis of the subject, I suggest additional research.)