So if you know just enough military history to be dangerous but not credible, you probably guessed MacArthur, or Bradley, or Marshall because you’re pretty sure you remember all them being 5-stars, right? And 5-stars only came about because of World War II, right?
Washington was the senior most officer of the Army until he died. Much later, in 1919, General John Pershing was appointed to the rank General of the Armies in recognition of his long service. He outranked all other four-stars at that point, but continued to wear four stars on his uniform because there was no regulation specifying anything else to wear.
But in 1976, President Gerald Ford decided to get involved. He posthumously appointed Washington to the office of General of the Armies, at which time it was declared explicitly that Washington would outrank all other officers.
So, just so we’re clear — None of those officers you heard about wearing 5 stars during World War II outranked Washington, and none of them outranked Pershing either. Law and regulations on precedence provided that Pershing was the ranking officer until his death in 1948.
So the real question is, right up until 1976, was there technically a period of time when Pershing was actually senior to Washington?
We read the Army’s official explanation on this, and we’re still not sure. Maybe ask a JAG, if for no other reason than to confuse them for awhile. If you can give us a chapter and verse answer please leave it in the comment section below.
For an almost painfully detailed treatment of this subject, you can visit the Army’s Center of Military History.