The Confederate Four-Star Generals

The Confederate Congress had passed laws in March authorizing the president to nominate five army officers to the nation’s highest rank of brigadier general. On May 16, Congress amended the law “That the five general officers, provided by existing laws for the Confederate States, shall have the rank and denomination of general, instead of brigadier-general, which shall be the highest military grade known to the Confederate States…” On the last day of August, President Jefferson Davis appointed five brigadiers to full generals, subject to Senate approval:

  • Adjutant and Inspector General Samuel Cooper, retroactive from the date in which the law was enacted. Cooper had graduated from West Point in 1815 and was the adjutant general for the U.S. Army for nine years before resigning his commission as colonel in March. A native New Yorker, Cooper had married a Virginian and became devoted to the South. He would not have a field command; his responsibilities would be solely administrative in nature.
  • Albert Sidney Johnston, retroactive from May 30. Johnston graduated from West Point in 1826 and served in the armies of three nations: the United States, the Republic of Texas, and the Confederacy. He served in the Black Hawk War, the Texas war for independence, the Mexican-American War, and he led an expedition against Mormon resistance in Utah. He had resigned his commission as colonel in the U.S. Army in May.
  • Robert E. Lee, retroactive from June 14. Lee was the son of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee who had earned fame serving under George Washington in the War for Independence, and he graduated from West Point in 1829. Lee served in the U.S. Corps of Engineers and was brevetted for bravery in the Mexican-American War. He was the superintendent of the Military Academy and lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Texas Cavalry before resigning his commission to follow his native Virginia out of the Union.
  • Joseph E. Johnston, retroactive from July 4. Johnston graduated from West Point with Lee in 1829. He served with distinction in the Seminole and Mexican-American wars, and was a brigadier-general in the U.S. Army when he resigned his commission in April to follow his native Virginia out of the Union. He helped lead the Confederate army to its greatest victory to date at Bull Run.
  • Pierre G.T. Beauregard, retroactive from July 21. Beauregard graduated from West Point in 1838 and served as an engineer officer on General Winfield Scott’s staff during the Mexican-American War, where he was brevetted for gallantry. He served briefly as superintendent of the Military Academy before resigning his commission as captain in the U.S. Army in February. He presided over the Federal surrender of Fort Sumter before being transferred to northern Virginia, where he worked with J.E. Johnston to defeat the Federals at Bull Run.

A full general held a four-star rank, of which very few Americans had previously held. George Washington and Winfield Scott were the only two in the U.S. Army that held such a rank for an extended period of time, with Scott being only brevetted since the Army had no officers above the rank of major general.

Their seniority was based on the retroactive dates of their appointments. Of the top three, Davis was close friends with Cooper and A.S. Johnston, and Lee was his military advisor. J.E. Johnston was outraged that he ranked fourth because, according to Confederate law, the men should have been ranked according to the ranks they had held in the U.S. Army. This would have placed him at the top of the list since he was the only man among the five who had been a U.S. brigadier. Davis explained that Johnston had been a staff officer, not a line officer. But this did not explain why Cooper ranked first since he too had been a staff officer. This created animosity between Davis and Johnston that would last throughout the war and beyond.


  • Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
  • Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
  • Johnston, Joseph E., Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War. Sharpe Books, Kindle Edition, 2014.
  • Kallmann, John D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • Thomas, Emory M., The Confederate Nation. HarperCollins e-books, Kindle Edition, 1976.
  • Warner, Ezra J., Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

Leave a Reply