One big problem throughout military history has been identifying who’s in charge.
From the earliest days of warfare to the present, special rank badges meant survival. In the heat of battle, knowing who to listen to was as important as the fighting skills soldiers and sailors developed. They had to know at a glance whose shouted orders to obey.
In the earliest times, rank was not an issue. “Do what Grog says” was enough so long as everyone knew Grog. As armies and navies started growing, however, that kind of intimacy wasn’t possible. The badge of rank, therefore, became important. Today’s Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard rank insignia are the result of thousands of years of tradition.
Through the ages, the badge of ranks have included such symbols as feathers, sashes, stripes and showy uniforms. Even carrying different weapons has signified rank. The badges of rank have been worn on hats, shoulders and around the waist and chest.
The American military adapted most of its rank insignia from the British. Before the Revolutionary War, Americans drilled with militia outfits based on the British tradition. Sailors followed the example of the most successful navy of the time — the Royal Navy.
So, the Continental Army had privates, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, colonels, generals, and several now-obsolete ranks like coronet, subaltern and ensign. One thing the Army didn’t have was enough money to buy uniforms.
To solve this, Gen. George Washington wrote, “As the Continental Army has unfortunately no uniforms, and consequently many inconveniences must arise from not being able to distinguish the commissioned officers from the privates, it is desired that some badge of distinction be immediately provided; for instance that the field officers may have red or pink colored cockades in their hats, the captains yellow or buff, and the subalterns green.”
Even during the war, rank insignia evolved. In 1780, regulations prescribed two stars for major generals and one star for brigadiers worn on shoulder boards, or epaulettes.
The use of most English ranks carried on even after the United States won the war. The Army and Marine Corps used comparable ranks, especially after 1840. The Navy took a different route.
The rank structure and insignia continued to evolve. Second lieutenants replaced the Army’s coronets, ensigns and subalterns, but they had no distinctive insignia until Congress gave them “butterbars” in 1917. Colonels received the eagle in 1832. From 1836, majors and lieutenant colonels were denoted by oak leave; captains by double silver bars — “railroad tracks”; and first lieutenants, single silver bars.
In the Navy, captain was the highest rank until Congress created flag officers in 1857 — before then, designating someone an admiral in the republic had been deemed too royal for the United States. Until 1857, the Navy had three grades of captain roughly equivalent to the Army’s brigadier general, colonel and lieutenant colonel. Adding to the confusion, all Navy ship commanders are called “captain” regardless of rank.
With the onset of the Civil War, the highest grade captains became commodores and rear admirals and wore one-star and two- star epaulettes, respectively. The lowest became commanders with oak leaves while captains in the middle remained equal to Army colonels and wore eagles.
At the same time, the Navy adopted a sleeve-stripe system that became so complex that when David Glasgow Farragut became the service’s first full admiral in 1866, the stripes on his sleeves extended from cuff to elbow. The smaller sleeve stripes used today were introduced in 1869.
Chevrons are V-shaped stripes whose use in the military go back to at least the 12th century. It was a badge of honor and used in heraldry. The British and French used chevrons — from the French word for “roof” — to signify length of service.
Chevrons officially denoted rank in the U.S. military for the first time in 1817, when cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., wore them on their sleeves. From West Point, chevrons spread to the Army and Marine Corps. The difference then was chevrons were worn points down until 1902, when Army and Marine Corps enlisted personnel switched to the present points up configuration.
Navy and Coast Guard petty officers trace their insignia heritage to the British. Petty officers were assistants to the officers aboard ship. The title wasn’t a permanent rank and the men served at the captain’s pleasure. Petty officers lost their rank when the crew was paid off at the end of a voyage.
In 1841, Navy petty officers received their first rank insignia — an eagle perched on an anchor. Ratings — job skills — were incorporated into the insignia in 1866. In 1885, the Navy designated three classes of petty officers — first, second and third. They added chevrons to designate the new ranks. The rank of chief petty officer was established in 1894.
During World War II, the Army adopted technician grades. Technicians of a given grade earned the same pay and wore the same insignia as equivalent noncommissioned officers except for a small “T” centered under the chevrons. Technicians, despite the stripes, had no command authority over troops. This evolved into the specialist ranks, pay grades E-4 to E-7. The last vestige today survives plainly as “specialist,” pay grade E-4. When there were such people as specialists 7, they wore the current eagle symbol surmounted by three curved gold bars — often called “bird umbrellas.”
When the Air Force became a separate service in 1947, it kept the Army officer insignia and names, but adopted different enlisted ranks and insignia.
Warrant officers went through several iterations before the services arrived at today’s configuration. The Navy had warrant officers from the start — they were specialists who saw to the care and running of the ship. The Army and Marines did not have warrants until the 20th century. Rank insignia for warrants last changed with the addition of chief warrant officer 5. The Air Force stopped appointing warrant officers in the 1950s and has none on active duty today.
Other interesting rank tidbits include:
o Ensigns started with the Army but ended with the Navy. The rank of Army ensign was long gone by the time the rank of Navy ensign was established in 1862. Ensigns received gold bars in 1922, some five years after equivalent Army second lieutenants received theirs.
o “Lieutenant” comes from the French “lieu” meaning “place” and “tenant” meaning “holding.” Literally, lieutenants are place holders.
o While majors outrank lieutenants, lieutenant generals outrank major generals. This comes from British tradition: Generals were appointed for campaigns and often called “captain generals.” Their assistants were, naturally, “lieutenant generals.” At the same time, the chief administrative officer was the “sergeant major general.” Somewhere along the way, “sergeant” was dropped.
o Gold is worth more than silver, but silver outranks gold. This is because the Army decreed in 1832 that infantry colonels would wear gold eagles on an epaulette of silver and all other colonels would wear silver eagles on gold. When majors and lieutenant colonels received the leaves, this tradition could not continue. So silver leaves represented lieutenant colonels and gold, majors. The case of lieutenants is different: First lieutenants had been wearing silver bars for 80 years before second lieutenants had any bars at all.
o Colonel is pronounced “kernal” because the British adopted the French spelling “colonel” but Spanish pronuniciation “coronel” and then corrupted the pronunciation.
o While rank insignia are important, sometimes it isn’t smart to wear them. When the rifled musket made its appearance in the Civil War, sharpshooters looked for officers. Officers soon learned to take off their rank insignia as they approached the battle line.
o The Air Force actually took a vote on their enlisted stripes. In 1948, then-Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg polled NCOs at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington and 55 percent of them chose the basic design still used today.
Visit the DoD “The United States Military Rank Insignia” web site