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.