The Rank Today
The rank of Brigadier General is the first of the General Officer ranks in the United States Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps. It possesses the Pay Grade of O-7. Brigadier General is the equivalent of Rear Admiral, Lower Half in the United States Navy and Coast Guard. The rank of Brigadier General is abbreviated as BG in the US Army and Brig. Gen. in the AF and Marines. It is the rank that comes after Colonel, but before Major General.
The rank is represented by a single, 5-point, silver star. On current Armed Forces uniforms, the star is worn in different places on different uniforms. For dress uniforms, the Army wears the insignia embroidered on black epaulets, blue for the Air Force. The Marine Corps wears the star on the collars of the dress uniform. On BDUs, the star is embroidered in black for Army, Marine Corps and dark blue for AF, then sewn to both collars.
Brigadier General's also receive a personal flag (something that they did not have as a Colonel). The flag was rectangular and solid blue for Air Force, and solid red for Army and Marines. Centered in the middle of the flag is a single, white, 5-point star representing their rank insignia. License plates with the same color/star scheme are affixed to any vehicle they regularly ride in (e.g.: their personal HMMWV or sedan).
History of the Rank
Historically, the title comes from the Latin briga, which became Brigade. The commander of a brigade was originally known as a Brigadier until it evolved into Brigadier General. The rank traces its origins in the United States back to George Washington and the Continental Army. Washington appointed his Major and Brigadier Generals after he was selected by the Continental Congress to be General of the Army. The insignia was originally colored ribbons and plumes to distinguish between various officer and general ranks, however in June of 1780, Washington ordered that Brigadier Generals should wear gold epaulets with one silver star. (Conversely, Major Generals were to have two silver stars). This makes this insignia the oldest in the tradition of the US Armed Forces.
The difference between Colonel and Brigadier General is much more significant than between any other ranks. It is one of the milestone steps in a military officer's career. When an officer becomes a General Officer, he or she loses their ties to their specialty, branch, or MOS. For example, an officer in the Army wears insignia appropriate to their branch, whether it be Infantry, Artillery, Signal Corps, et cetera. Upon becoming a General officer, they cease wearing this insignia. General Officer becomes their specialty, they are now a jack of all trades. Their leadership covers more area than simply a single discipline. They also must make modifications to their dress uniform, including a change of service cap visor decoration, added pant striping, and other items upon becoming a new General Officer.
A Brigadier General is entitled to the playing of the General's march with a single ruffle and flourish when travelling officially or at formal ceremonies. They are also entitled to a full-honor military funeral, including a caparisoned horse and 21 gun salute. The caparisoned horse also carries a single silver star on it's saddle blanket, representing the rank of the deceased Brigadier General.
As with each promotion, this is accompanied with a pay raise. Current, active duty O-7s make approximately $8,000/month base pay with the actual amount depending on years of service and any additional allocations, bonuses and allowances.
Sources:Department of Defense News - Insignia: http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Nov1999/n11221999_9911224.html