The conflict of the Civil War brought about changes to the officer ranks of the U.S. Navy that had gone unaddressed in peacetime. A number of wartime developments realigned the equivalence of army and navy officer ranks, and the ranks of staff corps officers within the navy. These changes are outlined month by month in the table below.
Naval officers had complained for decades about the lack of higher grades, flag officer ranks that would equate to general officers in the army. Legislation to that effect had been proposed several times, but never successfully. Though both army and navy regulations gave senior captains precedence equal to major generals or brigadier generals, in practice this was not always recognized. In 1857 Congress authorized the temporary rank of "flag officer" for captains commanding a squadron. In October 1861, President Lincoln issued an executive order that flag officers would rank with major generals.
The navy's "staff" or "civil" officers also had complaints: Their status was not established by regulation until the 1840s and by law in the 1850s, and then with "relative rank," so a surgeon would have a position and status corresponding to a lieutenant, but would not hold an actual lieutenant's rank, and would have no command authority. As surgeons, paymasters (supply officers) and engineers attained years and decades of service, they were bothered that they did not get recognition similar to that of line officers or of their counterparts in the army.
The relative ranks "next after lieutenant" and "next after master" were a result of aligning medical officer grades with line officer ranks in 1841, while keeping the highest relative rank for a surgeon at the level of commander, or major in the army. An officer ranking "next after lieutenant" would have status junior to all naval lieutenants or army captains, but senior to all masters or first lieutenants.
With the wartime emergence of the navy as an important part in the strategy of cutting off the South, Congress revisited the issue in the course of expanding the navy to wartime scale. With "An Act to established and equalize the Grade of Line Officers of the United States Navy," July 16, 1862, the navy was for the first time authorized the flag grades of rear admiral and commodore, and a naval line officer equivalent was established for every army officer rank.
Congress had been silent on the staff corps officers of the navy, however. Because their previous relative ranks had been based on the old line officer structure, some senior staff officers felt their status should be clarified with regard to the new line ranks. On March 13, 1863, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles issued a general order that realigned and generally increased the relative ranks of the staff corps, bringing them more into line with those of comparable officers in the army. This included giving bureau chiefs the temporary relative rank of commodore while so serving, and the granting of relative rank to naval constructors for the first time. Because Congress did not confirm these ranks through legislation, they were rescinded in 1869.
|Line Officers||Medical Officers|
|Engineer Officers||Naval Constructors|
|Professors of Mathematics|
|Lieutenant General||Vice Admiral|
|Major General||Flag Officer*||Rear Admiral|
|Captain (15 years seniorty)|
|Brigadier General||Captain (10 years seniority)||Commodore|
|Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery*|
|Chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing*|
|Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering*|
|Chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair*|
|Colonel||Captain (5 years seniority)||Captain|
|Surgeon (15 years seniority)|
|Paymaster (15 years seniority)|
|Chief Engineer (15 years seniority)|
|Naval Constructor (20 years seniority)|
|Surgeon (5 years seniority)|
|Paymaster (5 years seniority)|
|Chaplain (12 years seniority)|
|Chief Engineer (5 years seniority)|
|Naval Constructor (12 years seniority)|
|Professor of Mathematics (12 years seniority)|
|Surgeon (12 years seniority)|
|Paymaster (12 years seniority)||Paymaster|
|Chief Engineer (12 years seniority)||Chief Engineer|
|Professor of Mathematics|
|Surgeon||Passed Assistant Surgeon|
|"Next after Lieutenant" (no army equivalent)||Passed Assistant Surgeon|
|First Assistant Engineer|
|First Assistant Engineer|
|Assistant Naval Constructor|
|"Next after Master" (no army equivalent)||Assistant Surgeon|
|Second Assistant Engineer|
|2nd Lieutenant||Passed Midshipman||Ensign||Second Assistant Engineer|
|Professor of Mathematics|
|No army equivalent||Midshipman|
|Third Assistant Engineer|
Both the army and navy had officers with the title of "surgeon" and "paymaster." The army organized its materiel and financial functions into several departments with their own staff officers: Commissaries who handled food and provisions, paymasters for disbursement, and quartermasters for general supplies and equipment. In the navy, paymasters combined all those functions.
Unlike those of the navy, army officers of the staff departments held actual, not relative, rank and generally used line ranks in preference to their departmental titles. In the following table, it can be seen that navy officers were, overall, in a lower range of grades compared to their army counterparts in 1861. By 1863, higher grades had been created by legislation in some of the army departments, and Secretary Welles's order of March 13, 1863 gave a similar range to staff corps officers of the navy.
Only army grades are used for comparison in the following table due to changes in naval line grades during the period in question.
|Brigadier General||Quartermaster General||Surgeon General||Quartermaster General||Commissary General |
|Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery*||Chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing*|
|Colonel||Surgeon General||Assistant Quartermaster General||Commissary General |
|Paymaster General||Assistant Surgeon General, |
Medical Inspector General
|Assistant Quartermaster General||Assistant Commissary General of Subsistence||Paymaster General||Fleet Surgeon,* |
Surgeon (15 years seniority)
Paymaster (15 years seniority)
|Lieutenant Colonel||Deputy Quartermaster General||Assistant Commissary General of Subsistence||Deputy Paymaster General||Medical Inspector||Deputy Quartermaster General||Deputy Paymaster General||Surgeon (5 years seniority)||Paymaster (5 years seniority)|
|Major||Surgeon||Quartermaster||Commissary of |
|Paymaster||Fleet Surgeon,* |
Surgeon (12 years seniority)
|Paymaster (12 years seniority)||Surgeon||Quartermaster|| Commissary of |
|Captain||Assistant Surgeon (5 years seniority)||Assistant Quartermaster||Surgeon||Paymaster||Assistant Surgeon (5 years seniority)||Assistant Quartermaster||Passed Assistant Surgeon|
|Passed Assistant Surgeon|
|1st Lieutenant||Assistant Surgeon||Assistant Surgeon||Assistant Surgeon||Assistant Paymaster|
|Assistant Surgeon||Assistant Paymaster|
All text and images © Justin T. Broderick, 2013-2020 unless otherwise indicated.