The rank of the "civil" or "staff" officers of the U.S. Navy went through many changes in the nineteenth century. Though surgeons, pursers and chaplains had been part of the service from the very beginning, it was not until 1841 that their status relative to other officer grades was set in naval regulations. There were many other adjustments made over the years as more senior grades were created, new categories of officers were established and relative rank was adjusted. It was not until late in the First World War that staff corps officers would begin to use the same rank titles as line officers.
In the middle years of the nineteenth century, disputes over staff ranks caused considerable controversy and strife within the navy. The line officers of course held the command positions in the service, and in an organization where promotion was slow to the point of stagnation they were very conscious of guarding their status, sometimes jealously. The staff corps, on the other hand, had under the bureau system of administration representatives in Washington to press their case with the Secretary of the Navy and Congress. The Civil War years brought the staff corps their greatest gains, and a sometimes acrimonious reaction from the line. The matter settled down finally when Congress legislated new relative ranks in 1871.
1841: The General Regulations for the Navy and Marine Corps of the United States, Article 4, sets the "assimilated" rank of "civil officers" (surgeons, pursers, chaplains, secretaries, passed assistant surgeons, assistant surgeons and professors of mathematics) in relation to "sea-officers."
1846: A General Order from the Secretary of the Navy dated August 31 established higher rank for Surgeons of the Fleet (senior medical officer of a squadron) and surgeons of twelve years seniority, who would now rank with commanders.
1847: A General Order of May 27 established comparable rank for pursers of 12 years seniority.
1854: The Naval Appropriations Act of August 5 gives the 1846 and 1847 orders on surgeons' and pursers' rank the force of law.
1859: A General Order of January 13 prescribed relative ranks for engineering officers. The Naval Appropriations Act of March 3 codified this order into law.
1860: The Naval Appropriations Act of June 22 changed the title of "purser" to "paymaster."
1861: With the navy engaged in the Civil War, Congress creates a new grade of assistant paymaster with "An Act to provide for the Appointment of Assistant Paymasters in the Navy," July 17.
1862: "An Act to establish and equalize the Grade of Line Officers of the United States Navy" of July 16 created the new line officer ranks of rear admiral, commodore, lieutenant commander and ensign. For a monthly timeline of the changes to officer ranks in the wartime period, please see U.S. Army and Navy Officer Ranks During the Civil War.
1863: A Navy Department General Order of March 13 divided officers into "line" and "staff," and realigned staff officers' relative ranks. Bureau chiefs would now rank with commodores while holding their office, senior staff officers were given the relative rank of captain, and other staff grades were increased relative to the line.
1869: The Attorney General determined that the order of 1863 was invalid because only Congress could establish the grades of the navy. The Secretary of the Navy's General Order 120 of April 1 reverted all staff officer relative ranks to those which had been established by legislation through 1861. Chaplains, naval constructors and professors of mathematics lost their relative rank.
1871: After considerable public controversy, the Naval Appropriations Act of March 3 restored staff relative ranks similar to those of 1863, with the exception of professors of mathematics.
1872: "An Act fixing the Rank of Professors of Mathematics in the United States Navy," May 31, restored relative ranks for those officers.
1881: The president, authorized by the 1871 act to establish relative ranks for civil engineers, did so in Navy Department General Order 263 of February 24.
1883: The Naval Appropriations Act of March 3 changed the title of "master" to "lieutenant (junior grade)."
1899: The Naval Personnel Act of March 3 made major changes to the navy's officers:
1912: The Naval Appropriations Act of August 22 authorized the appointment of assistant dental surgeons.
1916: The Naval Appropriations Act of August 29 authorized staff corps officers with the rank of rear admiral, in addition to the temporary rank for bureau chiefs. The act also ended the appointment of new officers in the Corps of Professors of Mathematics, allowing that branch to eventually die out. The last active professor of mathematics, Capt. Theodore W. Johnson, retired July 1, 1936.
1918: Navy Department General Order No. 418 of August 15 authorized staff corps officers the same titles as line officers. The full text of the order:
Applicable alike to regulars and reservists, the uniform of any given rank or rating in the Navy shall hereafter be identical in every respect throughout, except for the necessary distinguishing corps devices, and every officer in the Navy shall be designated and addressed by the title of his rank without any discrimination whatever.
1919: The Pay Corps was renamed "Supply Corps" by the Naval Appropriations Act of July 11.
1940: The Construction Corps was abolished and its officers transferred to the line by an act of June 25.
1941: The Hospital Corps, normally composed of enlisted personnel and warrant officers, was allowed commissioned officers by "An Act Authorizing the temporary appointment or advancement of certain personnel of the Navy and Marine Corps," July 24.
1942: Relative ranks for the Nurse Corps were authorized by "An Act To prescribe the relative rank of members of the Navy Nurse Corps in relation to commissioned officers of the Navy, and for other purposes," July 3, 1942, in the following grades:
1944: Nurse Corps officers were given actual ranks and "line" titles by "An Act To grant military rank to certain members of the Navy Nurse Corps," Feb. 26, 1944.
|Medical Corps||Dental Corps|
|Pay Corps||Chaplain Corps|
|Engineer Corps||Construction Corps|
|Professors of Mathematics||Civil Engineer Corps|
|w.r.r.o.||=||with relative rank of|
|w.r.o.||=||with rank of|
|Rear Admiral||Surgeon-General*||Medical Director w.r.o. Rear Admiral||Rear Admiral, Medical Corps|
|Paymaster-General*||Pay Director w.r.o. Rear Admiral||Rear Admiral, Pay Corps|
|Chief Constructor*||Naval Constructor w.r.o. Rear Admiral||Rear Admiral, Construction Corps|
|Chief, Bureau of Yards and Docks*||Civil Engineer w.r.o. Rear Admiral||Rear Admiral, Civil Engineer Corps|
|Commodore||Chief, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery*||Surgeon-General*|
|Chief, Bureau of Provisions and Clothing*||Paymaster-General*|
|Chief, Bureau of Steam Engineering*||Engineer-in-Chief*|
|Chief, Bureau of Construction and Repair*||Chief Constructor*|
|Chief, Bureau of Yards and Docks*|
|Surgeon (15 years seniority)||Medical Director w.r.r.o. Captain||Medical Director w.r.o. Captain||Captain, Medical Corps|
|Paymaster (15 years seniority)||Pay Director w.r.r.o. Captain||Pay Director w.r.o. Captain||Captain, Pay Corps|
|Chaplain w.r.r.o. Captain||Chaplain w.r.o. Captain||Captain, Chaplain Corps|
|Chief Engineer (15 years seniority)||Chief Engineer w.r.r.o. Captain|
|Naval Constructor (20 years seniority)||Naval Constructor w.r.r.o. Captain||Naval Constructor w.r.o. Captain||Captain, Construction Corps|
|Professor of Mathematics w.r.r.o. Captain||Professor of Mathematics w.r.o. Captain||Captain, Corps of Professors of Mathematics|
|Civil Engineer w.r.r.o. Captain||Civil Engineer w.r.o. Captain||Captain, Civil Engineer Corps|
|Commander||Fleet Surgeon*||Fleet Surgeon*|
|Surgeon (12 years seniority)||Surgeon (5 years seniority)||Surgeon (12 years seniority)||Medical Inspector w.r.r.o. Commander||Medical Inspector w.r.o. Commander||Commander, Medical Corps|
|Purser (12 years seniority)||Paymaster (12 years seniority)||Paymaster (5 years seniority)||Paymaster (12 years seniority)||Pay Inspector w.r.r.o. Commander||Pay Inspector w.r.o. Commander||Commander, Pay Corps|
|Chaplain (12 years seniority)||Chaplain w.r.r.o. Commander||Chaplain w.r.o. Commander||Commander, Chaplain Corps|
|Chief Engineer (12 years seniority)||Chief Engineer (5 years seniority)||Chief Engineer (12 years seniority)||Chief Engineer w.r.r.o. Commander|
|Naval Constructor (12 years seniority)||Naval Constructor w.r.r.o. Commander||Naval Constructor w.r.o. Commander||Commander, Construction Corps|
|Professor of Mathematics (12 years seniority)||Professor of Mathematics w.r.r.o. Commander||Professor of Mathematics w.r.o. Commander||Commander, Corps of Professors of Mathematics|
|Civil Engineer w.r.r.o. Commander||Civil Engineer w.r.o. Commander||Commander, Civil Engineer Corps|
|Lieutenant Commander||Surgeon||Surgeon w.r.r.o. Lieut. Commander||Surgeon w.r.o. Lieut. Commander||Lieutenant Commander, Medical Corps|
|Passed Assistant Surgeon w.r.o. Lieut. Commander|
|Dental Surgeon w.r.o. Lieut. Commander||Lieutenant Commander, Dental Corps|
|Paymaster||Paymaster w.r.r.o. Lieut. Commander||Paymaster w.r.o. Lieut. Commander||Lieutenant Commander, Pay Corps|
|Passed Assistant Paymaster w.r.o. Lieut. Commander|
|Chaplain||Chaplain w.r.r.o. Lieut. Commander||Chaplain w.r.o. Lieut. Commander||Lieutenant Commander, Chaplain Corps|
|Chief Engineer||Chief Engineer w.r.r.o. Lieut. Commander|
|Naval Constructor||Naval Constructor w.r.r.o. Lieut. Commander||Naval Constructor w.r.o. Lieut. Commander||Lieutenant Commander, Construction Corps|
|Professor of Mathematics||Professor of Mathematics w.r.r.o. Lieut. Commander||Professor of Mathematics w.r.o. Lieut. Commander||Lieutenant Commander, Corps of Professors of Mathematics|
|Civil Engineer w.r.r.o. Lieut. Commander||Civil Engineer w.r.o. Lieut. Commander||Lieutenant Commander, Civil Engineer Corps|
|Lieutenant||Surgeon||Surgeon||Surgeon w.r.r.o. Lieutenant||Surgeon w.r.o. Lieutenant|
|Passed Assistant Surgeon||Passed Assistant Surgeon w.r.r.o. Lieutenant||Passed Assistant Surgeon w.r.o. Lieutenant||Lieutenant, Medical Corps|
|Dental Surgeon w.r.o. Lieutenant||Lieutenant, Dental Corps|
|Purser||Paymaster||Paymaster||Paymaster w.r.r.o. Lieutenant||Paymaster w.r.o. Lieutenant||Lieutenant, Pay Corps|
|Passed Assistant Paymaster w.r.r.o. Lieutenant||Passed Assistant Paymaster w.r.o. Lieutenant|
|Chaplain||Chaplain||Chaplain w.r.r.o. Lieutenant||Chaplain w.r.o. Lieutenant||Lieutenant, Chaplain Corps|
|Chief Engineer||Chief Engineer||Chief Engineer w.r.r.o. Lieutenant|
|First Assistant Engineer w.r.r.o. Lieut.||Passed Assistant Engineer w.r.r.o. Lieutenant|
|Naval Constructor w.r.r.o. Lieutenant||Naval Constructor w.r.o. Lieutenant||Lieutenant, Construction Corps|
|Assistant Naval Constructor w.r.r.o. Lieutenant||Assistant Naval Constructor w.r.o. Lieutenant|
|Professor of Mathematics w.r.r.o. Lieutenant||Professor of Mathematics w.r.o. Lieutenant||Lieutenant, Corps of Professors of Mathematics|
|Civil Engineer w.r.r.o. Lieutenant||Civil Engineer w.r.o. Lieutenant||Lieutenant, Civil Engineer Corps|
|next after Lieutenant||Passed Assistant Surgeon||Passed Assistant Surgeon|
|First Assistant Engineer||First Assistant Engineer|
|Passed Assistant Surgeon w.r.r.o. Master||Passed Assistant Surgeon w.r.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)||Passed Assistant Surgeon w.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)||Lieutenant (j.g.), Medical Corps|
|Assistant Surgeon||Assistant Surgeon w.r.r.o. Master||Assistant Surgeon w.r.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)||Assistant Surgeon w.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)|
|Dental Surgeon w.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)||Lieutenant (j.g.), Dental Corps|
|Assistant Dental Surgeon w.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)|
|Passed Assistant Paymaster w.r.r.o. Master||Passed Assistant Paymaster w.r.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)||Passed Assistant Paymaster w.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)||Lieutenant (j.g.), Pay Corps|
|Assistant Paymaster||Assistant Paymaster w.r.r.o. Master||Assistant Paymaster w.r.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)||Assistant Paymaster w.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)|
|Chaplain w.r.r.o. Master||Chaplain w.r.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)||Chaplain w.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)||Lieutenant (j.g.), Chaplain Corps|
|First Assistant Engineer||Second Assistant Engineer w.r.r.o. Master||Assistant Engineer w.r.r.o. Master||Assistant Engineer w.r.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)|
|Assistant Naval Constructor||Assistant Naval Constructor w.r.r.o. Master||Assistant Naval Constructor w.r.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)||Assistant Naval Constructor w.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)||Lieutenant (j.g.), Construction Corps|
|Civil Engineer w.r.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)||Civil Engineer w.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)|
|Assistant Civil Engineer w.r.o. Lieutenant (j.g.)||Lieutenant (j.g.), Civil Engineer Corps|
|next after Master||Assistant Surgeon||Assistant Surgeon|
|Assistant Paymaster||Assistant Paymaster|
|Second Assistant Engineer||Second Assistant Engineer|
|Passed Midshipman/Ensign||Assistant Surgeon||Assistant Surgeon w.r.r.o. Ensign|
|Assistant Paymaster w.r.r.o. Ensign||Assistant Paymaster w.r.o. Ensign||Ensign, Pay Corps|
|Second Assistant Engineer||Second Assistant Engineer w.r.r.o. Ensign||Assistant Engineer w.r.r.o. Ensign|
|Professor of Mathematics|
|Assistant Civil Engineer w.r.o. Ensign||Ensign, Civil Engineer Corps|
|Third Assistant Engineer|
For practical purposes, the order of August 1918 ended the use of the unique staff corps titles. Legally, though, they were still in force. No legislation had counteracted the Personnel Act of 1899 which stated "Neither shall this Act be construed as changing the titles of officers in the staff corps of the Navy." Congressional documents still referred to the old titles through the Second World War. So though a Navy supply officer might be universally known as "lieutenant," even in Navy correspondence, his name would still appear in the Navy Register under the heading "Passed Assistant Paymasters." This resulted in some odd situations: The name of the Pay Corps had been changed to Supply Corps in 1919, but its officers were still officially "pay directors," "pay inspectors," and "paymasters." And the Hospital Corps (in 1941) and Nurse Corps (in 1944) were using "line" rank titles completely, while personnel of the longer-established corps still had the old titles associated with them.
After World War I ended and the navy returned to peacetime size, the staff corps ranks stabilized into the following grades and titles:
|Medical Corps||Dental Corps||Supply Corps||Chaplain Corps||Construction Corps*||Civil Engineer Corps|
|Medical Director||Naval Constructor||Civil Engineer||with rank of Vice Admiral†|
|Dental Surgeon||Pay Director||Chaplain||with rank of Rear Admiral|
|with rank of Commodore‡|
|with rank of Captain|
|Medical Inspector||Pay Inspector||with rank of Commander|
|Surgeon||Paymaster||with rank of Lieutenant Commander|
|Passed Assistant Surgeon||Passed Assistant Dental Surgeon||Passed Assistant Paymaster||Assistant Naval Constructor||Assistant Civil Engineer||with rank of Lieutenant|
|Assistant Surgeon||Assistant Dental Surgeon||Assistant Paymaster||with rank of Lieutenant (j.g.)|
|with rank of Ensign|
|*Corps abolished in 1940.
†Naval Constructor with rank of Vice Admiral was on the Retired List only.
‡The rank of Commodore was used in the Medical Corps, Supply Corps, Civil Engineer Corps and Construction Corps (Retired List) between 1943 and 1948.
The following language of the Officer Personnel Act of August 7, 1947, finally put an end to the nineteenth century staff corps titles:
The grades above that of commissioned warrant officer in the line of the Navy established under permanent provisions of existing law or of titles I through IV of this Act are hereby similarly established in each of the staff corps of the Regular Navy and the Naval Reserve in lieu of existing grades above that of commissioned warrant officer in each staff corps.
NOTE: Acts of Congress referred to above can be read at Library of Congress: Statutes at Large.
All text and images © Justin T. Broderick, 2013-2020 unless otherwise indicated.