How many U.S. Army five-star generals have there been and who were they?
The temporary grade of "General of the Army" (five-star) was provided for by Public Law 482, 78th Congress, approved December 14, 1944, and became permanent on March 23, 1946, under provisions of Public Law 333, 79th Congress.
Five-Star Generals and Dates of Rank:
General of the Army Henry H. Arnold: December 21, 1944
(Redesignated General of the Air Force pursuant to Public Law 58, 81st Congress, approved May 7, 1949)
The grade of General of the Armies of the United States is associated with two officers in our history, George Washington and John J. Pershing, although only General Pershing actually held it.
After Washington's death, an Act of May 14, 1800, specifically authorized President Adams to suspend any further appointment to the office of General of the Armies of the United States, "having reference to economy and the good of the service." Although the office was not expressly referred to in any of the actions taken to reduce or disband forces that had been raised in contemplation of war with France, it ceased when it was not mentioned in the Act of March 16, 1802, which determined the peacetime military establishment.
Congress enacted legislation authorizing the grade of General of the Army on July 25, 1866, and on that date the new grade was conferred on Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The grade was recognized and continued in various acts until the Act of July 15, 1870, which contained the requirement that "the offices of general and lieutenant general shall continue until a vacancy shall exist in the same, and no longer, and when such vacancy shall occur in either of said offices shall become inoperative, and shall, by virtue of this act, from thence forward be held to be repealed."
William T. Sherman, Grant's successor as Commanding General of the Army, was appointed as General of the Army on March 4, 1869, and upon his retirement in February 1884 was placed on the retired list as General of the Army. Under the provisions of the Act of March 3, 1885, authorizing the appointment of a "general of the Army on the retired list," this grade was also conferred on General Grant shortly before his death on July 23, 1885. The title ceased to exist as a grade of military rank at Sherman's death on February 14, 1891.
Sherman's successor was Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan, who could not be promoted to General of the Army because of the 1870 law. Congress, however, enacted legislation on June 1, 1888, shortly before Sheridan's death, that discontinued the grade of lieutenant general and merged it with that of General of the Army. The grade of General of the Army was conferred on Sheridan and was discontinued when he died, while still on active duty on August 5, 1888.
War Department General Orders No. 75, September 5, 1866, prescribed that the insignia for the newly authorized General of the Army grade would be four stars. General Grant wore this insignia, as did General Sherman until War Department General Orders No. 92, October 26, 1872, changed the insignia to two silver stars with the arms of the United States in gold between them. General Sherman, and later General Sheridan, wore the new insignia.
Congress revived the grade of General of the Armies of the United States by Public Law 45, approved September 3, 1919, to honor General John J. Pershing for his wartime service. He retired with that rank on September 13, 1924, and held it until his death on July 15, 1948. No other officer held this specific title until 1976, when President Ford posthumously appointed George Washington General of the Armies of the United States and specified that he would rank first among all officers of the Army, past and present.
When General Pershing was appointed General of the Armies, he continued to wear the four stars that he, as well as Generals Tasker H. Bliss and Peyton C. March, had adopted under the provisions of then current uniform regulations, which permitted them to prescribe the insignia denoting their grade. Army Regulations 600-35, Personnel: The Prescribed Uniform, October 12, 1921, and all subsequent editions during General Pershing's lifetime, made no mention of insignia for General of the Armies but prescribed that generals would wear four stars. General Pershing at no time wore more than four stars.
Following the establishment of the General of the Army grade on December 14, 1944, Army Regulations 600-35 were changed to prescribe that Generals of the Army would wear five stars. Although General Pershing continued to wear only four, he remained preeminent among all Army personnel, by virtue of Congressional action and Army Regulations governing rank and precedence, until his death on July 15, 1948.
Sources: United States Code, 1946 Edition, Volume Four, Title 50; The Army Almanac (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Company, 1959); Department of the Army, Official Army Register, Volume I (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1951); Raymond Oliver, "Why is the Colonel Called Kernel," (McClellan, AFB: Office of History, Sacramento Air Logistics Center, August 1983); William Gardner Bell, Commanding Generals and Chiefs of Staff, 1775-1987 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1987).