This Day in History: George Washington is posthumously promoted
On this day in 1978, George Washington is posthumously promoted. It had been more than two centuries since the American Revolution began. Washington’s new rank? General of the Armies of the United States.
Washington’s promotion was retroactively dated to July 4, 1976, the bicentennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Today, the rank is the highest in the United States military, and it has been held by only one other officer, John Pershing (WWI). Even Pershing, though, cannot hold a rank equal to Washington’s. Congress also resolved that “no officer of the United States Army should outrank Lieutenant General George Washington.”
Wait. Lieutenant General? What’s this business about Washington being ONLY a Lieutenant General?
There is actually a fair amount of confusion and disagreement about Washington’s rank during his lifetime. During the American Revolution, the highest rank in the Continental Army was Major General (although there was some discussion of appointing Lieutenant Generals as well). Thus, some historians claim that Washington could not have been more than a Major or Lieutenant General. Others disagree, citing the June 1775 resolution of the Continental Congress that appointed Washington “General and Commander in chief of the Army of the united Colonies.”
The resolution appears to make him a General, not a mere Major or Lieutenant General.
Events after the war confused matters further. Washington initially retired from the Army, but then he served as Commander-in-Chief while he was President. Later, during the John Adams administration, war seemed to be brewing with France. Adams named Washington to then then-highest rank in the United States Army: Lieutenant General (three stars). If war actually began, Washington was to be designated “General of the Armies of the United States.”
As it turned out, Washington never officially served in this capacity. The Quasi-War with France came to an end, and Adams was empowered to end all appointments to the position of General of the Armies. Lieutenant General was the highest rank in the U.S. Army for many decades afterwards.
After the Civil War, a four-star rank was created: General of the Army (singular). However, this grade ceased to exist after William T. Sherman’s death in 1891. After World War I, the rank of General of the Armies (plural) was reinstituted to honor John Pershing’s service in the war. It was still a four-star rank until 1944, when a General of the Army grade was created. Army regulations were then changed to provide that Generals of the Army should wear five stars.
The apparent intent was to ensure that “General of the Armies” outranks “General of the Army.” Pershing was then still the only man who’d held the General of the Armies position, but five other men have held the five-star General of the Army rank.
How did all these changes affect Washington’s status among our nation’s generals? By the 1970s, people were beginning to wonder. Surely no one should be allowed to outrank Washington! Something had to be done.
Thus it was that Congress finally passed a resolution to fix the situation, recognizing “General Washington’s unique contribution in the formation and leadership of the Army and the Nation.” The promotion was formalized on March 13, 1978.
Washington has been described as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” How appropriate to finally make him first in the military as well.
Ford administration records related to George Washington's promotion (digitized at the Ford presidential library HERE)
Public Law 94-479 (Oct. 11, 1976)
William M. Welsch, Clarifying Washington's Rank (Sept. 16, 2013)