The rank of five-star general is the rarest title given out by the United States Army. A five-star general of the United States Army is a grade that came into effect on December 14, 1944. Those that have been appointed as five-star generals receive the title of “General of the Army,” so this grade is not given out lightly or frequently. Below, we’ll go over each of the five-star generals to ever be called “General of the Army” in the United States.
Five-Star Generals in United States History
There have been five military members to ascend to the title of five-star general U.S. history. In comparison, there have been 243 four-star generals. One confusing aspect of how the United States has doled out its titles is that there is a difference between General of the Army and General of the Armies. However, not every General of the Army is considered a five-star general.
Ulysses S. Grant
The first grade of General of the Army was given to Civil War hero Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant after Congress authorized the new title on July 25, 1866. His successor, William T. Sherman, was later appointed as General of the Army in 1869. But in 1870, a new law was enacted, which stated that the title would be repealed as soon as a successor was in place.
John J. Pershing
After his service in World War I, General John J. Pershing was given the rank of General of the Armies on September 3, 1919. He was the only officer at the time to ever receive that rank. However, he still only wore an insignia of four stars.
Here are the five generals to be deemed General of the Army:
- George C. Marshall – December 16, 1944
- Douglas MacArthur – December 18, 1944
- Dwight D. Eisenhower – December 20, 1944
- Henry H. Arnold – December 21, 1944
- Omar N. Bradley – September 20, 1950
George C. Marshall
George C. Marshall is one of the most important figures in American history. George Marshall was born on December 31, 1880, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. By the time he was 21, he had graduated from the Virginia Military Institute.
Marshall steadily advanced through the military ranks as an astute student of military leadership. In 1902, Marshall was given the title of second lieutenant and served with the 30th Infantry in the Philippines from 1902 to 1903. From 1903 to 1906, Marshall was stationed at For Reno in Oklahoma.
In 1907, Marshall was promoted to first lieutenant and went on to graduate from Infantry and Cavalry School at Fort Leavenworth. The following three years, Marshall served first as a student and then an instructor at the Staff College.
During World War I, Marshall served again in the Philippines from 1913 to 1916 and was promoted to captain in 1917. The following year saw him promoted to temporary major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel in August 1918, just months before the first world war ended. After the war, Marshall served as an aide to General John J. Pershing.
In the years leading up to World War II, Marshall was placed in command of the 8th Infantry at Fort Screven in 1933. Marshall became a brigadier general in 1936, and from 1936 to 1938, he commanded the 5th Infantry Brigade. As World War II approached, Marshall became the head of the War Plans Division, and when the war began in 1939, he was promoted to major general.
During the course of the war, Marshall was the Chief of Staff of the United States Army. He is credited with mastering grand strategy and is known as the principal military architect of the Allied victory. In 1944, the year that the rank of five-star general was created, Marshall was declared general of the army. But despite all of his accomplishments, Marshall’s greatest achievement happened post-war.
In 1948, as U.S. Secretary of State, George Marshall created the European Recovery Program, known as the Marshall Plan. Marshall went on to become Secretary of Defense from 1950 to 1951 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1953. He died on October 16, 1959.
Douglas MacArthur was born into a military family on January 26, 1880. By the time he was 23, he had graduated from the United States Military Academy and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Philippines from 1903 to 1904. The following three years saw him serve as an engineer officer and an aide to the commander of the Pacific Division. From 1906 to 1908, MacArthur was an aide to President Theodore Roosevelt.
While serving as a troop commander and Army Service Schools instructor, MacArthur was promoted to captain in 1911. In December 1915, during World War I, he was promoted to major, and by 1917, he was promoted to colonel. In 1918, the year the first World War ended, MacArthur was promoted to brigadier general and commanded the 84th Infantry Brigade.
Between the two world wars, MacArthur was promoted to major general in 1925. MacArthur then became Chief of Staff of the United States Army from 1930 to 1935 before resuming his role as a major general. Having spent much of his career in the Pacific, MacArthur became the military advisor to the government of the Philippines from 1935 to 1941. He retired from active service in 1937 but was recalled to duty in 1941.
During World War II, MacArthur was the Supreme Allied Commander and led American forces throughout the Pacific, where he received the Medal of Honor. By 1945 he became the Supreme Allied Commander in Japan, and by 1946, he received the permanent rank of General of the Army. Douglas MacArthur died on April 5, 1964.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
One of the greatest leaders in United States history was Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was born on October 14, 1890, in east Texas and joined the United States Military Academy in 1911. By 1917, Eisenhower had become a captain, and just a year later, he was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel. However, Eisenhower never left the United States during World War I, a fact that bitterly disappointed him. Instead, he trained troops that others would lead into battle.
When the first world war ended, Eisenhower was at Camp Colt, a tank corps training center at the sight of the Battle of Gettysburg. At the time, he had befriended George S. Patton, and the two dutifully studied tactics together. By 1920, Eisenhower had been promoted to major, a rank he held for the next 16 years.
In 1930, Eisenhower became a special assistant to General Douglas MacArthur and then his chief of staff. During the Great Depression, it was hard to justify military spending, and Eisenhower combatted this by drafting MacArthur’s speeches and lobbying Congress. When MacArthur went to the Philippines in 1935, he took Eisenhower with him.
Five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, General George C. Marshall called Eisenhower to Washington immediately. He posed a tactical question to Eisenhower, knowing its answer in advance, and waited to see how Eisenhower responded. A few hours later, Eisenhower had his answer, and Marshall agreed. Eisenhower soon after became the chief of the War Plans Division.
In 1942, Eisenhower was designated by Marshall as the Commanding General in Europe with headquarters in London. After commanding successful landings in Italy and Sicily and negotiating an Italian surrender, Eisenhower was named Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force for the invasion of Europe. His greatest wartime achievement was coordinating Operation Overlord for the invasion of Normandy.
After the war, Eisenhower became President of Columbia University before taking leave to be the supreme commander of NATO forces in 1951. By 1952, he was persuaded to run for president, which he won and served for two terms.
Henry H. Arnold
Henry H. Arnold technically was a five-star general at one point in 1944, but his title was designated General of the Air Force in 1949.
Omar N. Bradley
Omar Bradley graduated alongside Eisenhower in 1915 and similarly did not see action in World War I. But during World War II, Bradley was a senior officer where he achieved the title of General of the Army. Bradley was the first-ever Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and worked in the administrations of both Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
What About George Washington?
As the title of five-star general only came into effect during World War II, generals such as George Washington never had the opportunity to achieve this rank.
In fact, George Washington was only a major general during the Revolutionary War. It wasn’t until after his presidency that John Adams gave him the title of lieutenant general, worthy of three stars. On the U.S. bicentennial, Washington was posthumously given the title of six-star general, and he is the only person in history to hold that distinction.
The law that was passed in Washington D.C. read:
“Whereas it is considered fitting and proper that no officer of the United States Army should outrank Lieutenant General George Washington on the Army list. The President is authorized and requested to appoint George Washington posthumously to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States, such appointment to take effect on July 4, 1976.”
Technically, Washington did not receive the title of six-star general. But that didn’t stop newspapers from reporting it as such. George Washington and John J. Pershing remain the only two U.S. officers to hold the title of General of the Armies.