U.S. Army and Navy Officer Ranks During the Civil War

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 officers 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 and in 1862 revised the officer ranks of the navy. 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 flag officer grades, 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 they had been given a rank reduction. For instance, a surgeon over 12 years seniority had previously ranked with a commander, but after the 1862 legislation, a commander would rank with a lieutenant colonel in the army, while the surgeon remained equal to a major. 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. Because Congress did not confirm these ranks through legislation, they were rescinded in 1869.

 


 

Army and Navy Relative Ranks, 1861-1865

Line Officers Medical Officers
Pay Officers Chaplains
Engineer Officers Naval Constructors
Professors of Mathematics

ARMY NAVY
1861 1862 1863 1864 1865
JFMAMJJASOND JFMAMJJASOND JFMAMJJASOND JFMAMJJASOND JFMAMJJASOND
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
  Fleet Surgeon*
  Surgeon (15 years seniority)
  Fleet Paymaster*
  Paymaster (15 years seniority)
  Fleet Engineer*
  Chief Engineer (15 years seniority)
  Naval Constructor (20 years seniority)
Lieutenant
Colonel
Captain Commander
  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)
Major Commander Lieutenant Commander
Fleet Surgeon* Surgeon
Surgeon (12 years seniority)
Paymaster (12 years seniority) Paymaster
  Chaplain
Chief Engineer (12 years seniority) Chief Engineer
  Naval Constructor
  Professor of Mathematics
JFMAMJJASOND JFMAMJJASOND JFMAMJJASOND JFMAMJJASOND JFMAMJJASOND
Captain Lieutenant
Surgeon Passed Assistant Surgeon
Paymaster
Chaplain  
Chief Engineer  
"Next after Lieutenant" (no army equivalent) Passed Assistant Surgeon  
First Assistant Engineer  
1st Lieutenant Master
  Assistant Surgeon
  Assistant Paymaster
  First Assistant Engineer
  Assistant Naval Constructor
"Next after Master" (no army equivalent) Assistant Surgeon  
Assistant Paymaster
Second Assistant Engineer  
2nd Lieutenant Passed Midshipman Ensign
  Second Assistant Engineer
Professor of Mathematics
No army equivalent Midshipman
  Clerk
Third Assistant Engineer
JFMAMJJASOND JFMAMJJASOND JFMAMJJASOND JFMAMJJASOND JFMAMJJASOND
1861 1862 1863 1864 1865

 

 

 


Comparable Army and Navy Staff Officer Grades and Titles in 1861 and 1863

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 pay and disbursement, and quartermasters who were responsible 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, further 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.

1861 1863
ARMY NAVY ARMY NAVY
Brigadier General Quartermaster General Surgeon General Quartermaster General Commissary General
of Subsistence
Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery* Chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing*
Colonel Surgeon General Assistant Quartermaster General Commissary General
of Subsistence
Paymaster General Assistant Surgeon General,
Medical Inspector General
Assistant Quartermaster General Assistant Commissary General of Subsistence Paymaster General Fleet Surgeon,*
Surgeon (15 years seniority)
Fleet Paymaster,*
Paymaster (15 years seniority)
Lieutenant Colonel Deputy Quartermaster General Assistant Commissary General of SubsistenceDeputy Paymaster General Medical Inspector Deputy Quartermaster General Deputy Paymaster General Surgeon (5 years seniority) Paymaster (5 years seniority)
Major Surgeon Quartermaster Commissary of
Subsistence
Paymaster Fleet Surgeon,*
Surgeon (12 years seniority)
Paymaster (12 years seniority) Surgeon Quartermaster Commissary of
Subsistence
Paymaster Surgeon Paymaster
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
2nd Lieutenant

 


 

 

 

 

 

 


All text and images © Justin T. Broderick, 2013-2020 unless otherwise indicated.