GEORGE WASHINGTON'S RANK


THIS IS A WORKING DRAFT PAGE
An article in the American Revolution Association Magazine (May 2009), "Washington's Indispensable, Yet Unknown Lieutenants" (pp.7-12) by William M. Welsch raises a very interesting observation on page 8:
"George Washington was a full general, being appointed "General and Commander in chief of the Army of the United Colonies:, according to his commission. There were no lieutenant generals in the Continental army, although on at least two occasions Washington unsuccessfully petitioned the Continental Congress for such a rank. There seems to be occasional confusion and disagreement over Washington's own rank, with some historians identifying him as a lieutenant general."
The observation that Washington was not a lieutenant general during the American War for Independence proved correct and required some adjustments to various weppages at this website. However, the observation opens an array of questions to which there does not appear to be ready answers. This particular page will be an attempt to address such open-ended observations.


PART ONE: Statement of the Known

The Second Continental Congress commissioned George Washington to be ‘General and Commander in Chief' of the Army of the United Colonies. No further attention was given to prescribing a distinctive insignia of rank at the time. Many in Congress perceived that the establishment of a military organization was only a temporary, but necessary evil, until the conflict was won. The simpler the senior command organization, the better. There were three levels of general rank in the Continental Army: Brigadier, Major, and Commander in Chief – in ascending order of rank and authority. In particular, it should be noted that for the duration of the 1775-1783 war there were no lieutenant generals in the Continental Army -- although, Washington unsuccessfully petitioned the Continental Congress for such a rank on at least two occasions.1
Some confusion exists in that after the American Revolution, in 1798, Washington was appointed lieutenant general (then the highest possible rank) in the United States Army by President John Adams. This was part of a mobilization anticipating a possible armed conflict with France. Further confusion exists when considering that the c. 1779 painting by Charles Wilson Peale of Washington shows the General wearing three stars on both epaulettes. In the eighteenth, and subsequent centuries, three stars generally reflected the rank of a ‘lieutenant general'. However, in Washington's case, regardless of what insignia of rank he wore, he was the senior most general in the American Continental Army with the official title of 'Commander in Chief'.
Charles Wilson Peale's oil-on-canvas portrait of Washington commemorating the victory at Princeton was executed late in the war. The artist was often around Washington and Charles Peale's work is considered accurate for the the proper uniform and appropriate physical feature of the American General around 1779-1783. It should be noted that the three stars shown on Washington's epaulettes do not represent rank insignia of a 'lieutenant general' at this period.

1. Washington proposed the rank of lieutenant general as a means for better managment of a growing army, and not for the position he held, which he obvioulsy perceived as senior to any lieutenant general rank that might have been adopted in the Continental Army. See Writings of Washington (Fitzpatrick edition): Vol. 7, pages 49 and 51, to the president of Congress, January 22, 1777; Vol. 10, pages 373 and 374, to the Committee of Congress, January 29, 1778; and Vol. 12, page 61, to Charles Lee, June 15, 1778.


PART TWO: Related Observations and Questions

A fine overview discussion of aspects affecting George Washington's rank during the American Revolution is Chapter 12 [pp. 241-244] from The Book of the Continental Soldier (1968) edited by Harold L. Peterson. The chapter was written by Detmar H. Finke and is titled: "Recognition of Rank and Valor Being a survey of insignia and colors." A partial text from Chapter 12 is posted at "Recognition of Rank and Valor."

(1) There was no concurrent or parallel description to distinguish Washington's rank in relationship to the rank of a ‘lieutenant general'. He was simply described as 'Commander-in-Chief' (of the Continental Army) with the full implication that he ranked above the major and brigadier generals being commissioned at the same time.

(2) There was an initiative to describe an ‘insignia of rank' for the general officers by distinctive colored [light blue for Washington, as ‘commander in chief', and pink for other generals] ribbon sashes worn across the chest. Eventually there was a decision to have major generals wear 2 stars and brigadier generals wear 1 star as insiginias of their respective ranks. There is no mention of a general's rank insignia with 3 stars during the 1775-1783 war.

EXTRACT from GENERAL ORDERS issued from Head Quarters, Cambridge, July 14, 1775.: ... "The General Officers and their Aids-de-Camp, will be distinguished in the following manner..... The Commander in Chief by a light blue Ribband, wore across his breast, between his Coat and Waistcoat. ... The Majors and Brigadiers General, by a Pink Ribband wore in the like manner. ... The Aids-de-Camp by a green ribband."
Washington noted in his personal expense memoranda, under date of July 10, 1775: "By a ribband to distinguish myself ¾."
EXTRACT from GENERAL ORDERS iuused Head Quarters, Short Hills, Sunday, June 18, 1780.: ... "As it is at all times of great importance both for the sake of appearance and for the regularity of service that the different military ranks should be distinguished from each other and more especially at present.
The Commander in Chief has thought proper to establish the following distinctions and strongly recommends it to all the Officers to endeavor to Conform to them as speedily as possible.
The Major Generals to wear a blue coat with Buff facings and lining, yellow buttons, white or buff under cloaths two Epaulets, with two stars upon each and a black and White Feather in the Hat.
The Brigadier Generals the same uniform as the Major Generals with the difference of one Star instead of two and a White feather."

(3) However, Washington is portrayed with 3 five-pointed stars on his epaulettes in some contemporary paintings, executed toward the end of the war. It needs to emphasized that the significance of this imagery is not explained by any written text. It appears that choice of the 3 stars was that of Washington, himself. The choice of 3 stars appears reasonable to reflect the status above the 2 stars of a major general -- an insignia already designated. The images are paintings by Charles Wilson and James Peale, and show Washington in his Continental uniform wearing 3 stars on both epaulettes. The Paintings are described as being executed from around.1779 through 1790.

(4). After his service in the American Revolution, in 1798, Washington was appointed lieutenant general in the United States Army (then the highest possible rank) by President John Adams. This was part of a mobilization anticipating a possible armed conflict with France. Though there is no evidence that Washington was ever assigned 'lieutenant-general' rank during the 1775-1783 war.

(5) There remains the question as to why five-pointed stars were chosen? Such questions also relate as to why such symbols were selected for the American Flag? The question can expand as to why the choice of 5 pointed stars versus the popular 6 pointed stars often used in the eighteenth century. It also appears that George Washington played an important – if not almost singular – role in the selection of rank insignia.


This working page will continue to be developed and attempt to explore the questions raised.



Return to webpage on "Brief Review of George Washington's Military Career".



Page created 7 August 2009; revised 2 September 2009.