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The structure of U.S. ranks has its roots in British military traditions. At the start of the American Revolutionary War, uniforms, let alone insignia, were barely affordable and recognition of ranks in the field was problematic. To solve this, Gen. George Washington wrote:

"As the Continental Army has unfortunately no uniforms, and consequently many inconveniences must arise from not being able to distinguish the commissioned officers from the privates, it is desired that some badge of distinction be immediately provided; for instance that the field officers may have red or pink colored cockades in their hats, the captains yellow or buff, and the subalterns green."

From 1780, regulations prescribed two stars for major generals and one star for brigadier generals, worn on epaulettes.

The period of 1821 to 1832 witnessed a brief period of using chevrons to identify officer grades, a practice that is still observed at West Point for cadet officers.

Colonels received their eagle in 1832, and four years later lieutenant colonels were using oak leaves and captains and first lieutenants their respective double and single bars. Both majors and second lieutenants had no specific insignia. A major would have been recognizable as he would have worn the more elaborate epaulette fringes of a senior field officer but without insignia. The color of insignia was gold on silver epaulettes in the infantry and vice versa in the other branches until 1851 when insignia became universally silver on gold for senior officers and gold for the bars of captains and first lieutenants. The reason for the choice of silver eagles over gold ones is thought to be one of economy; there were more cavalry and artillery colonels than infantry so it was cheaper to replace the numerically fewer gold ones.

From 1872 the majors received oak leaves in gold to distinguish them from the silver of lieutenant colonels and the bars of both captains and lieutenants became silver. In a similar fashion, 1917 saw the introduction of a single gold bar for second lieutenants. These changes created the curious situation (in terms of heraldic tradition) of silver outranking gold. One after-the-fact explanation suggested by some NCOs is that the more-malleable gold suggests that the bearer is being "molded" for his or her responsibilities -- as a field officer (second lieutenant) or staff officer (major). However, this explanation may be more clever than correct, for while the insignia for second lieutenant and major are gold colored they are actually made of brass (except that the gold bars used to "pin on" a Second Lieutenant at the US Military Academy are, by tradition, 14kt gold), and brass is a base metal while silver is a precious metal. The rank order thus does not actually conflict with heraldic tradition.

The rank of General of the Armies is the most senior rank in the United States Army. It has only been held by two officers: George Washington and John J. Pershing. No insignia was prescribed for Washington when he was posthumously awarded the rank in 1976. Pershing, who received the rank in 1919 before that of General of the Army was created during World War II, was allowed to choose his own insignia. He chose to use four gold stars. While conjectural designs for the rank using six silver stars were proposed when the promotion of Douglas MacArthur to the rank was considered, no design has been authorized to date.

The Congress created the rank of General of the Armies for George Washington, although there is no record he ever accepted the honor. In 1976, Congressman Mario Biaggi of New York submitted a House Resolution granting Washington the promotion. The promotion was effective on July 4th, 1976, the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. Although Pershing accepted the rank in 1919 and had a date of rank that preceded Washington's, the new law specified that no other officer of the United States Army should ever outrank Washington. Hence, effective date of rank non-withstanding, Washington was permanently made superior to all other officers of the United States Army, past, present, or future.

United States Army officer rank insignia

This chart represents U.S. Army officer rank insignia.

US DoD Pay Grade O-1 O-2 O-3 O-4 O-5 O-6 O-7 O-8 O-9 O-10 Special¹ Special
Insignia US-OF1B.svg US-OF1A.svg US-O3 insignia.svg US-O4 insignia.svg US-O5 insignia.svg US-O6 insignia.svg US-O7 insignia.svg US-O8 insignia.svg US-O9 insignia.svg US-O10 insignia.svg US-O11 insignia.svg
Pershing's insignia
Conjectural Design for General of the Armies
Title Second Lieutenant First Lieutenant Captain Major Lieutenant Colonel Colonel Brigadier General Major General Lieutenant General General General of the Army General of the Armies
Abbreviation 2LT 1LT CPT MAJ LTC COL BG MG LTG GEN GA
NATO Code OF-1 OF-2 OF-3 OF-4 OF-5 OF-6 OF-7 OF-8 OF-9 OF-10
¹ Conferred only in times of Congressionally declared war to selected Generals.

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