Opinion: Columnists

Sunday Reflection: How the 'indispensable man' became America's only six-star general


Historian James Thomas Flexner referred to George Washington as "the indispensable man." Americans all know he was a general, but have you ever wondered what grade of general? How many stars did Gen. Washington have?

In today's Army, a one-star general is a brigadier; two stars is a major general; three stars is a lieutenant general; four stars is just plain general. During World War II, Congress created the five-star general, the modern rank of general of the Army.

There had been an earlier grade that was called general of the Army, and it was held by Gens. Grant, Sherman and Sheridan following the Civil War. But these men were not five-star generals.

Only five men have earned five stars and held the modern rank of general of the Army: George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, "Hap" Arnold and Omar N. Bradley.

Arnold remained a five-star general when the Air Force was established as a service separate from the Army, making him the only man who has been both general of the Army and general of the Air Force.

But what about Washington?

When the Continental Congress named Washington commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1775, he was commissioned a major general. There would be other major generals in the Continental Army, but as CINC, Washington outranked them.

Washington led the Army to victory and then resigned his commission in 1783. After he served as the first president, his successor, John, Adams promoted Washington to lieutenant general.

Washington remained listed on the Army rolls as a lieutenant general through most of the 20th century. This meant that all four-star and five-star generals outranked him.

It rattled some folks that anyone should outrank Washington. Public Law 94-479 was passed in 1976 and stated it was "fitting and proper that no officer of the United States Army should outrank Lieutenant General George Washington."

The law established "the grade of General of the Armies of the United States" and provided that this grade would have "rank and precedence over all other grades of the Army." Washington's promotion to this rank became effective on July 4, 1976.

As it happens, Gen. John J. Pershing had been given the title "general of the armies" after the First World War, but he remained a four-star general. Toward the end of the Second World War, Congress considered promoting Gen. MacArthur to general of the armies. At that time, the Army Institute of Heraldry designed an insignia for this rank that included six stars.

So, how many stars does Gen. Washington have? The law promoting Washington to general of the armies does not mention the number of stars associated with this rank, but the only extant insignia includes six stars.

On Feb. 13, 2013, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., introduced H.R. 681 "to provide that Washington's Birthday be observed on February 22, rather than the third Monday in February."

Wolf said, "President Washington exemplifies the best that America and Americans have to offer the world; principled leadership, personal bravery, a sense of duty and public service, patriotism, [a] recognition of our unique role in world history and a reverence for his Creator. His enduring service deserves to be remembered on his actual birthday."

Washington remains in the nation's memory, as he was in his own lifetime, the indispensable man, and as Wolf has noted, he is "the only six-star general in the nation's history."

Joseph W. Dooley is secretary general of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution and a member of the Army Historical Foundation.

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