Most of us are basically familiar with US Army rank titles. We’ve heard the common rank names in passing in movies, television shows, and books. Many of us have at least a basic understanding on their order of seniority, lowest to highest: private, corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, major, colonel, and general. As writers we want to “get it right” using the correct terms and assigning soldiers’ ranks to their appropriate duty positions.
Soldiers do not progress through enlisted ranks and then up through officer ranks. With a very few exceptions enlisted men remain enlisted through their careers. Officers were commissioned by Congress and officially recognized as officers and gentlemen by act of Congress. Some chuckle at this archaic sounding phrase, but it is a fact. Military law allows an officer to be court-martialed for “ungentlemanly conduct,” while an enlisted man cannot. Virtually all Regular Army officers were graduates of the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York since 1802. They undertook four years of military science and engineering.
In the state militias, which provided most of the army’s fighting forces during the Civil War; officers were appointed by the state governors and recognized by Congress. (The state militias would become the National Guard in 1903.) Often the appointed regimental commander, a colonel, selected and appointed his officers. In many units, especially early in the war, company grade officers were elected by the members of the company. They knew these men as the companies were raised within towns and counties and the natural leaders were chosen. Militia officer’s basically learned their duties under the tutorage of Regular Army officers and experienced militia officers—“on the job training.”
Enlisted men were privates, corporals, and various sergeant grades. Privates could be addressed as “Trooper” in the cavalry, “Gunner” in the artillery, and “Solder” in general.
Privates wore no identifying insignia, only a bear sleeve. There was no private first class rank at the time—later identified by a single chevron.
Corporals and sergeants were designated “noncommissioned officers” or NCOs, or more informally, “noncoms.” NCOs received their authority to give orders from their commissioned officers who received their authority from Congress—thus, “noncommissioned officers.” In a way they could be compared to foremen. It is often said that NCOs ran the Army and made it work.
“Corporal” is derived from the medieval Italian capo corporale (head of a body), which was originally an officer’s assigned bodyguard. “Sergeant” is derived from the Anglo-French serjant—a servant, valet, court official, or soldier and the Latin servientem—servant, vassal, or soldier.
Corporals were addressed as “Corporals” and sometimes “corp” or “two-stripers.” Sergeants, regardless of their full title, were simply a “Sergeant” or informally as “Sarg” or “three-striper.” “First sergeants” though were often addressed as such. They could also be called the “first shirt, “top sergeant” or “top-kick”—for kicking butt—or simply “Top.”
1872 NCO rank chevrons. The Hospital Steward wore a gold edged green band bearing a gold Caduceus symbol (snakes entwined on a staff). They were rated as NCOs. The service strip worn above the left sleeve’s cuff represented five years’ Regular Army service. They were of the branch color and outlined in red for wartime service—“blood strip.” The chevrons, bars, and devices were in the branch color and the center backing (black here) was dark blue.
NCOs were identified by two and three V-shaped chevrons—“stripes”—for corporals and sergeants, respectively. Chevrons had long been used in heraldry as a coat of arms symbol of protection or authority. In US practice chevrons were worn point-down. (From 1905 they were and still are displayed point-up. The British use point-down chevrons.) They were worn centered on the upper sleeves of shirts, jackets, and coats. They were of the soldier’s branch color, but are often thought of as being yellow. This is because most soldiers depicted in Western movies are cavalrymen and yellow was their branch color—the “John Ford cavalry uniform” depicted in most Western and even Civil War movies. That uniform was only vaguely similar to what was actually worn. Infantry wore light blue—changed to white in 1885, cavalry wore yellow—became more orange in 1887, and artillery wore red. Those branch colors by the way resulted in artillerymen and cavalrymen being called “red-legs” and “yellow-legs,” respectively, owing to their trousers stripes. (I have never heard of infantrymen being called “blue-legs.”) Early on some militia units wore black banking. Confederate NCOs’ duties and insignia were similar to the Union’s to include the traditional branch colors.
There were several more senior sergeant grades, all with three chevrons and additional identify marks. One of the most prominent was the “First Sergeant,” they top ranking NCO in company, troops, and batteries (all company-sized unis commanded by captains). The “Top” was responsible for troop accountability, administration, the daily morning report, enforcing discipline, and preparing guard and fatigue rosters. The “Top” held the most feared and respected position in the company. “First shirts” were identified by a lozenge or “diamond” device in the chevron’s “V.”
Another position found at company level in the artillery and cavalry—but not the infantry—was the Battery/Company Quartermaster’s Sergeant. He was identified by a connecting single horizontal bar or tie atop the chevrons. He was responsible for the company wagon and all unit property including tents, mess gear, unit manuals, ordnance items, provisions, tools, and spare uniforms. He was the second most senior NCO in the battery/company. In cavalry and artillery regiments was the Regimental Quartermaster’s Sergeant with similar, but broader duties. Infantry regiments, lacking company QM sergeants, possessed a Quartermaster’s Sergeant (“Regimental” was not included in their title) with assistants responsible for line company QM responsibilities to relieve the companies of the logistics burden and concentrate on fighting. They bore three horizontal tie bars atop the chevron.
The Sergeant-Major was the senior NCO in the regiment, but did not have command authority and often had less service time and combat experience than other NCOs. They did not have the power of today’s sergeants major as a unit’s “senior advisor on enlisted affairs.” They were identified by three arcs above their chevrons. Their appointment was based on education, writing ability, and bookkeeping. Sergeant-Major John Laird of the 6th US Cavalry wrote in 1865:
“A Sergeant-Major is a man that does all the writing for the regiment and keeps all the Regimental Books and papers. He keeps a correct account of all the men and notes all the wounded and killed in his morning report which is sent to the headquarters of the army. Also it is his duty while laying in camp to mount guards every morning and make out all details for picket and fatigue duties. This keeps me pretty busy but I have a man to assist me to do the writing. I have a man to take care of my horse and saddle him up when I need it.”
The “Ordnance Sergeant” was identified by three chevrons and a five-pointed star. They were responsible for the care of arms, ammunition, and other military stores on a post. In the Confederate Army Ordnance Sergeants were also assigned to regiments, brigades, divisions, and corps. After the Civil War the US Army adopted this system.
NCO chevrons. Top row left to right: infantry corporal, militia sergeant, cavalry first sergeant.
Bottom row left to right: infantry sergeant-major, cavalry regimental quartermaster’s sergeant, and artillery ordnance sergeant.