What’s in a Rank?

I am hearing more and more from people who believe that we should start referring to Confederate officers by the ranks they attained in the United States Army before the Civil War. This is part of a broader debate over language in relationship to the Civil War and specifically over the extent to which the Confederacy ought to be given legitimacy as an independent nation.

For example, rather than referring to the rank that Robert E. Lee attained as a Confederate general, it is being suggested that we should refer to him as a colonel in the United States Army. Rather than referring to Stonewall Jackson as a Lieutenant General, we would refer to him as a First Lieutenant or perhaps Brevet Major in the antebellum army. As you can see, it’s already beginning to get a little confusing.

And what about the scores of officers, who achieved military rank only as a result of enlisting in the Confederate army? Are they relegated to no rank at all? How should we compare ranks in the Confederate army with pre-war ranks in the U.S. Army?

The truth is that the military hierarchy in the Confederate army, with all its rules and regulations, functioned for four years. Promotions were secured based on battlefield performance and politics, court-martials took place to punish transgressors, and overall discipline was reinforced through this system.

We can certainly debate any number of questions surrounding language, such as how to refer to the war and the army (Union/United States/Federal), but let’s not go off the deep end. You are not going to get very far in understanding the military arm of the Confederacy if its military ranks are not acknowledged.

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21 comments… add one
  • London John Aug 7, 2021 @ 3:32

    Bit slow here; I just realised this suggestion is analogous to referring to the CSS Virginia as the Merrimack, which used to be standard practice.

  • David Doggett Jun 21, 2021 @ 13:48

    Whether we recognize Confederate ranks as legitimate has nothing to do with the legitimacy of ranks of the Union officers during the war. Their legitimate army, with its legitimate promotions continued right through the war. Even if the Confederacy was not a legitimate government or recognized nation, their army was real, albeit an insurgent insurrection, and had real ranks that were recognized by the men in that army. They had all formally resigned and broken their oaths to the army they held their previous ranks in. Whether formally or not, they were de facto stripped of all those earlier ranks. The ridiculous current beliefs that the South is illegally occupied is put to the lie by the formal surrenders of all the Confederate commanders from Lee in Virginia to Smith in Texas.

    • Steve Taylor Aug 30, 2021 @ 16:50

      Once resigned from the United States military, the oath to that branch of the military no longer obtained. If calling Lee, Jackson, the Johnstons, et al., “traitors” helps a person make it through the night, go for it, I guess.
      And how does the CSA represent an insurgency? Even a close reading of the United States Constitution will find no prohibition of a State’s secession. Certainly, there was a dispute on the issue, but a knee-jerk reaction that in 1860 a State undoubtedly could not leave the Union runs contrary to antebellum American political history. Northern States considered such a move from time to time in that period.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jun 8, 2021 @ 5:16

    I imagine some people won’t like this comparison but the idea of referring to Confederate soldiers and sailors only by their former US Army or US Navy ranks is something like telling me that a visitor’s tour of the Capitol on January 6 got a bit out of hand… in other words, I’m not actually seeing what my eyes tell me that I’m seeing. If I see a picture of Robert E. Lee in his general’s uniform, or read correspondence where he is referred to as such, I will refer to him as general.

    To me, it’s fascinating that the Confederacy was a rebellion that tried to form a Regular Army, a Navy, a Congress, and a nation and that we have documentation of this effort. I don’t have an issue with referring to Confederates by the ranks they achieved. But I have far more of an issue with people who think to this day that the Southern states remain illegally occupied by a foreign power. That kind of delusion is something to be far more concerned about.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 8, 2021 @ 7:34

      I am pretty much with you on this, Bryan. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Josh Jun 6, 2021 @ 15:25

    Whether the CSA was a “legitimate” nation or not, whether Confederates were traitors or not, whether Confederate military service was “honorable” or “respectable” – all these questions are irrelevant, or at least separate issues.

    The Confederate Army existed. It was organized with the men and the units. The men held those ranks and acted accordingly.

    You are under no obligation to HONOR or CELEBRATE Robert E. Lee for being a general who commanded an army. On the contrary, you may CONDEMN him if you so chose. However, you cannot change or deny the FACTS that he was a general and he did command an army.

  • London John Jun 3, 2021 @ 15:22

    Where does this suggestion come from? It seems pretty silly. Among the many fatal objections is that not all confederate generals are familiar to the common reader, and while Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson will do, as will the names of most army commanders, we need to be told that eg Jubilation T. Cornpone was a major-general, or whatever. Accounts of the battles of the jacobite rebellion of 1745-6 can be confusing when the reader is expected to know what commands various jacobites identified only by name held.

  • MaryDee Jun 3, 2021 @ 12:17

    If we to are refer to Confederate officers by the rank they held when they left the U. S. Army, then we should refer to Union officers by the rank they held at the beginning of the war, such as Captain U.S. Grant (who was not even in the U. S. Army when the war began). In neither army would this practice lead to historical accuracy. This isn’t a case of honor but of historical function!

  • Cousin Eddie Jun 3, 2021 @ 11:54

    First timer here, though I go way back on AWCUSA and the soc spinoff. (Hello old friends!)

    This is through-the-looking-glass stuff. Since I’m not a Catholic (or even Christian, or even spiritual) I guess I’ll start referring to So-Called Pope Francis in order that no one consider me One Of Them.

    The CSA was a recognized belligerent and the generals on both sides generally recognized one another’s generalhood. That’s good enough for this historian.

    Cousin Eddie

    • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2021 @ 12:14

      Welcome and thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Patrick Young Jun 3, 2021 @ 9:03

    I don’t have much of an opinion on this, but we may want to look at how historians treat the titles given to officers and leaders of other insurgent forces elsewhere in the world. This way we avoid the trap of thinking that only Americans have civil wars!

    A recent example of the use of an insurgency’s military ranks involves the Zapatista rebels in Mexico. Their spokesman was and is referred to in the literature as Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. How do historians refer to the leaders of the various sides in the Russian Revolution, Spanish Civil War, etc. I am not sure, but a quick look at the literature would tell the tale.

    • Kent Jun 3, 2021 @ 10:04

      From a military perspective, rank is generally determined by the size of force under command. The modern US Army ranks and commands are as follows:

      Platoons are commanded by lieutenants
      Companies are commanded by captains or majors
      battalions are commanded by lieutenant colonels
      regiments are commanded by colonels
      brigades are commanded by brigadier generals (1-star)
      divisions are commanded by major generals 2-star)
      corps are commanded by lieutenant generals (3-star)
      field armies are commanded by generals (4-star)

      executive officers are usually a rank or two below the commander they are assisting.

      To the extent that we are discussing Confederate brigades, divisions, corps, etc. it seems legitimate to use the command ranks that would normally attach to units of those sizes. It is kind of silly to insist on talking about captains or majors commanding whole armies because their promotions weren’t legitimately issued by the army that they left.

    • London John Jun 12, 2021 @ 4:31

      Well, not as helpful as you might think, IMO. In the Spanish Civil War the rebels and traitors were already high-ranking officers in the Spanish Army, so are always referred to as “General”. Government and International Brigade commanders are referred to by their ranks. In the English Civil War the 2 parts of the legitimate government went to war with each other, so each had the right to award commissions, although commanders seem to be rarely referred to by their rank. The Indian commanders in the national uprising of 1857-8 seem to be mostly referred to by their Indian titles, if any, or simply by name. With regard to the officers of the formerly British-Indian army, I think British historians tend to refer to “former jemadar so-and-so” etc, however large their command. Not a good example to follow. But I don’t think the Indian side adopted British rank titles, although this might be worth looking into.

  • Kent Jun 2, 2021 @ 22:21

    Sounds kind of like referring to German officers by their rank in the pre-Nazi Regime German Army. Erwin Rommel wasn’t a Field Marshall. That was his Nazi rank. We should actually refer to him as a Lt. Colonel Rommel which was his highest Weimar Republic rank.

  • Al Mackey Jun 2, 2021 @ 18:35

    I get where you’re coming from, Kevin. The Supreme Court did rule the confederacy had no legitimacy, so the actions the confederacy took, including awarding military ranks, had no legitimacy. I don’t see it as a big problem to simply refer to these men by their names. Referring to Lee as “Former US Army Colonel Robert E. Lee” highlights US Army Colonel was the last legitimate rank he held and highlights the illegitimacy of the CSA, but we could just as easily refer to him as “Robert E. Lee” without any rank whatsoever.

  • John Parrish Jun 2, 2021 @ 15:51

    Started off to be a decent discussion… appears that Bryce has decided to take us off in this blogs usual direction.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2021 @ 15:57

      There’s really nothing controversial about what Bryce stated.

  • cagraham Jun 2, 2021 @ 4:57

    Paying attention to rank while in CS service is an analytical and diagnostic tool as well. Rank meant something to these people. Promotions mattered and the desire for one animated action from non-commissioned officers to Major Generals. The senior leadership of CS armies was so prickly about rank and seniority that it, at times, effected strategy and tactics. And as someone who spends time drilling down into the post-war memories stored away in obscure catalog records to get a clear vision about an artifact or story, I find that rank and dates of promotion matter to verification of a true historical record.

    None of that is exactly in alignment with your critique, but I think the key here is that you can take these things seriously without affirming claims of Confederate legitimacy.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2021 @ 5:15

      Hi Chris,

      It is exactly in line with this post. As you rightly point out, rank meant something to these people and it functioned as it does in every army. Thanks for taking the time to flesh out my own thinking on this issue. Really good point re: the connection between rank and strategy.

  • Bryce Jun 2, 2021 @ 4:52

    Having held rank in a traitorous army is no honor.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2021 @ 5:16

      Of course, I am not suggesting that it should be considered an honor.

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