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United States military seniority is the method by which the United States Armed Forces determines precedence among commissioned officers, in particular those who hold the same rank. Seniority is used to determine assignments, tactical commands, promotions and general courtesy. To a lesser extent, historical seniority is used to recognize status of honor given to early United States military leaders such as inaugural holders of certain ranks or those officers who served as leadership during major wars and armed conflicts.

Modern-day seniority[edit | edit source]

The modern-day seniority system of the United States commissioned officer corps operates on two different levels. For officers of different ranks, seniority is simply determined by who holds the highest rank. For instance, Army colonel is senior to captain and captain senior to lieutenant. Seniority extends across services as for instance major in the Army is senior to captain in the Air Force while commander in the United States Navy is senior to both. For officers in the same rank or paygrade, seniority is determined by the dates on whom assumed their rank first.[1] If officers of the same grade have the same date of rank, then seniority is determined in order by the officer's previous rank's date and so forth.[1] If all promotion dates of ranks are the same, seniority is then determined on order of: previous active duty grade relative seniority (if applicable),[1] total active commissioned service,[1] and finally, total federal commissioned service or date of appointment as a commissioned officer.[1] The secretaries of each service may establish further seniority rules if applicable.[1]

A type of "positional seniority" exists for military officers who hold top leadership positions of the armed forces. For instance, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is considered the senior most officer of the entire United States military, even though it is possible that contemporaries of the same rank may have earlier dates of rank or time in service. Likewise, heads of various armed service branches are considered senior most within their service; unified commanders are also considered senior most in their respective regions yet not necessarily to each other.

The regular United States military hierarchy is as follows:

When compared to each other, seniority among the service heads is determined by date of when the officer assumed office. Externally, the standing of each service head is determined by the date of the creation of the position as follows.

The officers in charge of the Unified Combatant Commands are considered "operational officers" while the standard military hierarchy is administrative. For instance, the Chief of Naval Operations, who would most likely be senior to a naval admiral in command of the United States Pacific Command, would not be able to issue direct orders to said commander since operational chain of command is separate from regular administrative military hierarchy.[2] Military seniority, within itself, would not be affected.

Tactical and operational seniority[edit | edit source]

Tactical seniority, also known as "battlefield seniority", is the manner in which a senior officer in command of a given tactical situation is determined. For instance, within the United States Navy, groups of ships performing exercises together will have one ship designated as the tactical senior unit. The commander of said ship is the senior tactical officer and may in fact be junior in rank to the other officers of the tactical group. For multi-national exercises, such as the Sharem event in South Korea, ships of foreign nations are sometimes given tactical seniority and thus may issue routine movement orders to United States vessels. Actual combat would fall under the Task Force system, in which a United States admiral, with clear seniority, would take command over all vessels.

Groups of Army units, especially in active combat, may be placed under tactical command of any officer, regardless of rank seniority, for completion of a single mission. During World War II, the term "mixed unit" was commonly used to denote military formations created from several other smaller units, most often "on the spot", due to operational confusion and the need for a single battlefield commander to take authority over all units physically present. Army Air Force bomber groups operated on a similar principle, in that tactical command could pass to officers who were not necessarily the senior most present, given the specific needs of the mission or casualties during the mission itself.

Operational seniority refers to the ability to issue long range orders to U.S. forces, such as deployments, general orders, and other administrative matters. Operational seniority is never granted to non-U.S. officers and usually stems from such major offices as the Bureau of Naval Personnel or the Army Personnel Branch.

Historical seniority[edit | edit source]

Historical seniority loosely indicates the general significance of various generals and flag officers within the scope of the history of the United States. Historical seniority is typically only bestowed to those officers who were the inaugural holders of ranks or for those who served as the senior most military officer during a major armed conflict.

The only case where historical seniority has been legally established by the United States Congress are for the two "super ranks" of the armed forces of the United States, these being the ranks General of the Armies and Admiral of the Navy. By clear precedent, the holders of these two ranks (three persons in all) are senior to all other officers of the United States military, past and present. By special Congressional edict, George Washington is considered the senior most officer of all time meaning he may never be lesser in seniority to any other military officer, although Washington technically shares the same rank with John Pershing.

The office of general was discontinued after the Civil War, but revived in 1919 by the title of "General of the Armies of the United States" when General John J. Pershing was appointed to that office on 3 September 1919; accepted the appointment on 8 September 1919, was retired with that rank on 13 September 1924, and held it until his death on 15 July 1948. No other officer has occupied this office on active duty. General Pershing held the grade of General of the Armies of the United States under the provisions of the Act of U.S. Congress of 3 September 1919 (Public Law 45). Washington was posthumously appointed General of the Armies of the United States under s:Public Law 94-479. Under s:Order 31-3, the effective promotion date was on 4 July 1976. Congress specified that no officer of the United States Army should outrank Lieutenant General George Washington on the Army list. While promoted to a lieutenant general only a year before his death, he was the most senior officer and the only lieutenant general in the army. The same is true of Ulysses S. Grant, who was the second person to permanently hold this rank. (Winfield Scott was a brevet lieutenant general for his service in the Mexican–American War.) Washington was referred to as "commander in chief" of the Continental Army, a title that since the adoption of the Constitution has been reserved for the (civilian) President.

The five star officers of World War II are technically considered the most senior officers in U.S. history (with the exception of the two "super ranks" previously mentioned), yet are often considered historically junior to the military leaders of the 19th century, especially the inaugural holders of senior military ranks. Most historical seniority lists also omit three star officers, with some rare exceptions (such as Winfield Scott), and typically avoid comparing two star ranks and below, which are permanent ranks held by hundreds of officers over the past two centuries. In these cases, standard methods of seniority are utilized. Since 1981, the highest rank held by any officer in the U.S. armed forces is four stars, or a pay grade of "O-10". Modern-day admirals and generals are typically not considered in lists of historical seniority, except for extreme cases such as leaders of wars or other wide scale armed conflicts.

Historical seniority list[edit | edit source]

The officers listed below are generally accepted in military history circles as the top twenty five officers of all time in United States military history[3][4]

Seniority Order Rank Order Officer Service Highest rank Date of rank Historical significance
1 1 George Washington U.S. Army General of the Armies 4 Jul 1976 Declared by a Congressional Act in 1976 to be the senior most United States officer of all time. Held the rank of lieutenant general in the United States Army during his lifetime, as well as a special rank of "General and Commander-in-Chief" of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
2 1 John Pershing U.S. Army General of the Armies 3 Sep 1919 Only person to hold the rank of General of the Armies on active duty. Recognized unofficially as a six-star general during World War II after a press conference by Henry L. Stimson.
3 1 George Dewey U.S. Navy Admiral of the Navy 2 Mar 1899 Inaugural and sole holder of rank.
4 4 Winfield Scott U.S. Army Lieutenant general 29 Mar 1847 Second person in American history to hold the rank of lieutenant general after George Washington. Senior officer of the U.S. military during the Mexican–American War as well as the opening months of the American Civil War
5 3 Ulysses S. Grant U.S. Army General of the Army 25 Jul 1866 Inaugural holder of the rank, which was a 19th-century equivalent to a modern-day four-star general (this differed from the 20th century rank of the same name which was clearly a five star position).
6 3 David G. Farragut U.S. Navy Admiral 25 Jul 1866 Inaugural holder of the rank, granted by Congress due to services rendered as senior officer of the navy during the American Civil War.
7 3 William T. Sherman U.S. Army General of the Army 4 Mar 1869 Second holder of the rank "General of the Army". Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan wore four stars and held ranks equivalent to current four-star (O-10) generals and admirals, one step higher than the Civil War era rank of lieutenant general. This special version of the title General of the Army of the United States, Act of US Congress July 25, 1866, indicated that Congress intended only one person to have it at a time.
8 3 David D. Porter U.S. Navy Admiral 25 Jul 1866 Second person in the history of the United States Navy to hold the rank of admiral.
9 4 Stephen C. Rowan U.S. Navy Vice admiral 1 Aug 1870 Longest serving officer in the history of the United States Navy with 63 years of service and retirement at the age of 80.
10 3 Philip H. Sheridan U.S. Army General of the Army 1 Jun 1888 Final person in U.S. Army history to hold the Civil War era rank "General of the Army". The rank was discontinued upon Sheridan's death and was not reactivated until World War II, then as a five star position.
11 4 John Schofield U.S. Army Lieutenant general 5 Feb 1895 First Commanding General of the United States Army following the disestablishment of the rank General of the Army and first peacetime promotion to the permanent rank of lieutenant general.
12 4 Nelson A. Miles U.S. Army Lieutenant general 6 Jun 1900 Last Commanding General of the United States Army. Succeeded by Samuel Baldwin Marks Young who became the first Chief of Staff. From this point on the Chief of Staff was by default considered the most senior officer of the United States Army.
13 3 Tasker Bliss U.S. Army General 6 Oct 1917 Second person promoted to the four star rank of General in the 20th century (the other was John Pershing) for service in the National Army during the First World War.
14 2 William D. Leahy U.S. Navy Fleet Admiral 15 Dec 1944 First five star officer appointed during the Second World War
15 2 George C. Marshall U.S. Army General of the Army 16 Dec 1944 Second officer promoted to five stars. The initial promotion of these officers was spaced over a period of one week so as to match the original seniority held by the officers at the four star level.
16 2 Ernest J. King U.S. Navy Fleet Admiral 17 Dec 1944 Third officer promoted to five star rank
17 2 Douglas MacArthur U.S. Army General of the Army 18 Dec 1944 Fourth officer to hold five star rank and second within the United States Army (after George Marshall). MacArthur was further considered for promotion to the "six star" position of General of the Armies, both during and following the Second World War.
18 2 Chester W. Nimitz U.S. Navy Fleet Admiral 19 Dec 1944 Fifth officer to hold five star rank and the third within the United States Navy. Served as the first post-World War II Chief of Naval Operations
19 2 Dwight D. Eisenhower U.S. Army General of the Army 20 Dec 1944 Later served as President of the United States. Required to resign his commission as a five star officer during his term; five star rank was reinstated after leaving office by president John F. Kennedy
20 2 Henry H. Arnold U.S. Army General of the Army 21 Dec 1944 Last of the initial five star appointments during the Second World War.
U.S. Air Force General of the Air Force 7 May 1949 Five star rank was converted to that of General of the Air Force in 1949. No other officer has held the Air Force five star version since Arnold.
21 2 William F. Halsey U.S. Navy Fleet Admiral 11 Dec 1945 First of two post World War II promotions to five star rank (the other being Omar Bradley)
22 2 Omar Bradley U.S. Army General of the Army 20 Sep 1950 Most recent officer in U.S. history to be promoted to five star rank
23 3 Raymond Spruance U.S. Navy Admiral 4 Feb 1944 A close contender for the rank of Fleet Admiral, his promotion was consistently blocked by Congressman Carl Vinson, but he was granted the full pay of an admiral on the retirement list in July 1948. The Spruance-class destroyer is named in his honor.
24 3 George Patton U.S. Army General 14 Apr 1945 Generally regarded as the most successful U.S. combat commander of the European theatre of World War II. A possible contender for the rank of General of the Army, he was killed in an automotive accident in 1945 before any such consideration[5]
25 3 Matthew Ridgway U.S. Army General 11 May 1951 Replaced Douglas MacArthur as senior officer during the Korean War, after MacArthur was relieved by Harry S. Truman. Later served as Chief of Staff of the United States Army.

Alexander Vandegrift is also frequently included in historical seniority lists due to his status as the first Commandant of the Marine Corps to hold a four-star rank, as is Anna Mae Hays who was the first woman to be promoted to brigadier general in the history of the United States. Historical seniority is rarely referred to after the Korean War since modern military seniority systems had been well-established after the mid 20th century. Expanded seniority lists such as the one listed below do exist mostly in recognition of major military leaders of modern wars and conflicts.

Officer Service Highest rank Date of rank Historical significance
William Westmoreland U.S. Army General 1 Aug 1965 Senior most operational officer of the Vietnam War. Omitted from some historical lists, since Westmoreland served in the later 20th century when the regular military seniority system had already been well established.
Hyman G. Rickover U.S. Navy Admiral 3 Dec 1973 Head of the nuclear program of the United States Navy and one of the longest serving officers in United States military history.
Colin Powell U.S. Army General 4 Apr 1989 Served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War. Later considered for five star promotion; however, a Congressional bill was never passed. Later served as Secretary of State.
Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. U.S. Army General 1 Nov 1988 Senior commander of Operation Desert Storm. As with Colin Powell, was considered for five star rank but without result.
David Petraeus U.S. Army General 30 Jan 2007 Considered for five star rank due to his status as the leader of the military during the War on Terror, however due to later scandals after retirement no further effort was made on this proposal.
James Mattis U.S. Marine Corps General 7 Nov 2007 Leader of United States Central Command during the Iraq War. Led both the first and second Battles of Fallujah. Secretary of Defense under Donald Trump as of January 20, 2017.
Ann E. Dunwoody U.S. Army General 14 Nov 2008 First female four star officer in the history of the United States Armed Forces.
Janet C. Wolfenbarger U.S. Air Force General 5 Jun 2012 First female four star general in the history of the United States Air Force.
Michelle Howard U.S. Navy Admiral 1 Jul 2014 First female four star admiral in the history of the United States Navy.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 "Directives Division". http://www.dtic.mil/whs/directives/corres/pdf/131001p.pdf. 
  2. "About the Joint Chiefs of Staff". http://www.jcs.mil/About/. 
  3. Dept of the Army, U.S. Army Leadership Handbook: Skills, Tactics, and Techniques for Leading in Any Situation, Skyhorse Publishing; 1st edition (March 1, 2012)
  4. Hearn, Chester, Navy: An Illustrated History: The U.S. Navy from 1775 to the 21st Century, Zenith Press; 1st edition (May 15, 2007)
  5. Showalter, Dennis E., Patton And Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century, New York City: Berkley Books (2006), ISBN 978-0-425-20663-8

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