Jul 25

Farragut and Grant: The First “Four-stars”

Wednesday, July 25, 2018 11:13 AM

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On July 25, 1866 David Glasgow Farragut became the first four-star Admiral in this nation’s history. Concurrently, the Army promoted Ulysses S. Grant to the rank of “General of the Army,” which was also a four-star rank. Up until this point the nation had nine Rear Admirals and one Vice Admiral, as well as Brigadier, Major, and Lieutenant Generals. Upon Farragut’s promotion David Porter was promoted to Vice Admiral. Except for the various five-star officers of World War II and Korea, and Pershing’s “General of the Armies” rank, four-star officers are the most senior leadership in the armed forces since their inception.

At the time of Farragut's promotion to Admiral, the sleeve insignia for Admirals was not standardized. They often added extra stripes in order to show their seniority and prominence before a formal insignia system was established later on. (Photo: Library of Congress)

At the time of Farragut’s promotion to Admiral, the sleeve insignia for Admirals was not standardized and they often added extra stripes in order to show their seniority and prominence before a formal insignia system was established later on. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Since 1866 there have been 225 active duty four-star Admirals in the Navy and 215 active duty four-star Generals in the Army. The youngest Admiral ever was Admiral Elmo”Bud” Zumwalt at age 49. Zumwalt’s tour as Chief of Naval Operations paved the way for a variety of changes in Naval policy, from cultural and racial issues to the organization of the entire Navy. His “Z-grams” provided a personal insight into his thought process as he strove to drive innovation at all levels. As a testament to his impact, the Navy named the newest class of (controversial) destroyers in his honor, the first was christened the USS Zumwalt DDG-1000.

Admiral Zumwalt during his term as Chief of Naval Operations. (Photo: History.navy.mil)

Admiral Zumwalt during his term as Chief of Naval Operations. (Photo: history.navy.mil)

Two four-star Generals went on to be President (Grant and Eisenhower). Washington was a General, but his insignia only included three stars and was in the Continental Army. In total there have been 12 Generals, from one to five stars, elected President, while there has yet to be an Admiral of any rank to hold the office.

A portrait of General Washington during the Revolutionary War. Despite his three-star insignia, his rank was equivalent to a four-star General. (Photo: mountvernon.org)

A portrait of General Washington during the Revolutionary War. Despite his three-star insignia, his rank was equivalent to a four-star General. (Photo: mountvernon.org)

There are currently 39 active duty four-star officers in the five branches of the armed forces. Many of these officers hold positions within the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as the top officers in their respective branch, and a variety of other senior leadership roles throughout the military. The Public Health Service also has a four-star officer at its head, as does the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, although NOAA does not currently have anyone who fills that position.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., currently serves the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is one of the four current active four-star Generals in the Marine Corps. (Photo: department of Defense)

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., currently serves the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is one of the four current active four-star Generals in the Marine Corps. (Photo: Department of Defense)

John J. Pershing’s “General of the Armies” rank was equivalent to a six-star General; however, the insignia authorized for use was a gold iteration of the usual four-star rank. He is the only person to hold this specific rank while on active duty (it was posthumously awarded to George Washington in 1976). George Dewey was also given an equivalent six-star rank for his service at Manila Bay, but his insignia added two anchors to the four-star Admiral rank.

Portrait of John J. Pershing with a gold four-star rank while he served as General of the Armies during World War I. (Photo: History.com)

Portrait of John J. Pershing with a gold four-star rank while he served as the head of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. (Photo: History.com)

While there have been multiple proposals to establish a permanent five-star rank in order to better associate with foreign military officers of that equivalent rank, the four-star officer continues to be the highest sustained rank in the U.S. Armed Forces. Despite this longstanding tradition, future engagements may one day render it a subordinate rank to a perpetual five stars.