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Military Mustangs: 21 Generals Who Started At E-1

Chuck Yeager entered the Army Air Forces as a private in 1941, and retired a brigadier general in 1975. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Lawrence Crespo.

The military “mustangs” are service members who have risen from the ranks of the enlisted to become officers. 

Something of a left-handed compliment, the term connotes that unlike those from the service academies or colleges with ROTC programs, these soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen are a bit rough around the edges, kind of like wild horses.

Rarer yet is the commanding general or admiral who came from the ranks.

Yet some of the most notable flag officers in American military history did just that.


Military Mustangs

1. Samuel Chamberlain (1829 – 1908) 

Enlisting in the Army in 1847, he served during the Mexican-American War. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln nominated him for the honorary grade of brevet brigadier general.  

2. John Clem (1851-1937)

A drummer boy who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, he earned a commission in 1871 and retired in 1915 as a brigadier general.

3. Nathan Bedford Forrest (1822 – 1877)

Albeit controversial, he joined the Confederate Army as a soldier, and became one of the few officers — and probably the only military mustang — to be promoted to general without any prior military training.

4. Bennet Riley (1787 – 1853)

The Marylander joined the infantry in 1811 to fight in the War of 1812; a year later he earned a commission.  He also served in the Arikara War, the 2nd Seminole War, and the Mexican-American War before earning the rank of Brevet Major General.

5. Winfield Scott (1786 – 1865)

America’s highest-ranking general and commander of all federal troops at the start of the Civil War, the hero of the Mexican-American War enlisted at 21 as a corporal in the Virginia Militia in 1807.

6. Galusha Pennypacker (1841 – 1916)

Enlisting at 16 in the 9th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in 1861 as a quartermaster’s clerk, he soon earned a commission.  Four years later, he received the Medal of Honor and was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the youngest officer to hold the rank in the Army.

At age 20, he became the Army’s youngest brigadier general. Credit: Army Archives

7. Jeremy Boorda (1939 – 1996)

Boorda is the epitome of a military mustang. He is the first American sailor to have risen through the ranks from seaman to admiral to become the Chief of Naval Operations.

8. Robin Fontes  (1964 – present)

Enlisting in the Army Reserve in 1981, she graduated from West Point in 1986. In 2017, Major General Fontes became the highest-ranking female military officer to serve in Afghanistan since 2001.

9. John Foss (1933 – present)

Enlisting as an infantryman in 1950, he earned his commission from the United States Military Academy in 1956. After two tours in Vietnam, he eventually became a four-star general.

10. Tommy Franks (1945 – present)

After dropping out of college, he joined the Army in 1965 as a cryptologic analyst.  Two years later, he was commissioned, and in 1971 completed his college degree. A four-star general, he led the attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

11. Alfred Gray (1928 – present)

A retired Marine general who served as the 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1987 to 1991, he initially served as an enlisted Marine.

The 29 th Commandant of the Marine Corps began his career among the ranks. Credit: USMC.

12. Courtney Hodges (1887 – 1966)

A West Point drop out, he enlisted in the Army in 1906 as a private.  Two years later he earned his commission and served in World Wars I and II.  In 1945 he earned his fourth star.

13. George Kinnear II (1928 – 2015)

Retiring a four star admiral, he began his career in 1945 in the Navy as a seaman recruit.  Later that year he was selected for pilot training; he flew combat missions during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  He flew more different types of jet aircraft in combat than any other naval aviator.

14. James Mattis (1950 – present)

The 26th Secretary of Defense and retired general, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1969.  Commissioned in 1972 and after service in the Gulf War, he was promoted to brigadier general while serving in Afghanistan. He was promoted to general in 2007.

15. Lewis Puller (1898 – 1971)

The most decorated Marine in American history, he enlisted as a private in 1918. A year later, he was appointed the rank of second lieutenant, only to be reduced to the rank of corporal 10 days later. In 1924 he was recommissioned as a second lieutenant, and eventually rose to retire as a lieutenant general. Though all military mustangs are resilient, few know how to stick it out like Puller.

16. John Shalikashvili (1936 – 2011)

The first foreign-born soldier to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was drafted into the Army in 1958 as a private.  A year later he earned his commission. He served in every level of command from platoon to division and was promoted to general in 1992.

17. Clarence Shoop (1907 – 1968)

He enlisted in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in 1927.  After aviation training, he earned his commission in 1933. He flew in combat during World War II; afterwards, he became a test pilot.  While on active duty, he earned his first star; upon retirement he continued to serve in the Air National Guard, from which he retired as a major general.

A Guardsman, Shoop eventually rose to the rank of Major General. Credit: Wikipedia.

18. Larry Spencer (1954 – present)

In 1971 he walked into a recruiting office and enlisted in the Air Force.  After earning his degree, he earned a commission as a second lieutenant. An officer who understood budgets, he was promoted to general in 2012 and appointed as Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force. 

19. John Vessey Jr. (1922 – 2016)

Enlisting in the Minnesota Army National Guard in 1939 at the age of 16, he served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.  When promoted to general in 1976, he served as the 10th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1982 to 1985.  He was the last four-star World War II combat veteran on active duty, and with 46 years of service the longest serving soldier.

20. Larry Welch: (1934 – present)

A four-star Air Force general who served as the 12th Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, he enlisted in the Kansas National Guard in 1951.  Two years later he entered the aviation cadet program and earned his wings and commission. 

21. Charles Yeager (1923 – present)

Enlisting in the United States Army Air Forces as a private in 1941, he entered pilot training a year later and earned his wings and commission.  He served during World War II; in 1944 he became the first pilot in his group to make “ace in a day” by downing five enemy aircraft during a single mission. After the war he flew as a test pilot, and in 1947 he broke the sound barrier. Promoted to brigadier general in 1969, he retired in 1975.


Each of these general officers – all military mustangs –  served the nation well.

Just like the men and women who now serve in the ranks from which they came.

Read about 7 well-known military vets who were left-handed — one of whom was Gen. Patton.


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