The History of Navy Rank: The Officer Corps

By Nicholas Roland, Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command

To outsiders, especially members of the non-maritime services, the U.S. Navy’s unique rank structure can be confusing. The history of Navy ranks is equally complicated, and includes an assortment of ranks that no longer exist and some that have disappeared, reappeared, and disappeared again! In this part of a three-part series, we look at the evolution of the Navy’s commissioned officer ranks. The other posts in the series discuss warrant officer ranks and enlisted rates and ratings.

When the U.S. Navy’s predecessor, the Continental Navy, was established in 1775, the first set of Navy regulations stipulated the commissioned offices of captain and lieutenant. When the United States Navy was created by Congress in 1794, the legislation again provided for the ranks of captain and lieutenant “who shall be appointed and commissioned in like manner as other officers of the United States are.” In 1799, master commandant was authorized as a rank between lieutenant and captain. Although master commandant was changed to commander in 1837, this simple rank system survived intact until the Civil War.

In the early republic and the antebellum period, Congress was very resistant to the creation of a large peacetime Navy. This manifested itself in several ways, one of the most notable being a marked reluctance to establish ranks above captain. The outbreak of the Civil War necessitated a massive buildup of the Navy and an expanded rank structure to effectively organize the wartime service, and in 1862 Congress authorized thirteen rear admirals. This legislation also created several new ranks and established the following precedence, in descending order: rear admiral, commodore, captain, commander, lieutenant commander, lieutenant, master, and ensign. Two years later, David Glasgow Farragut was appointed the Navy’s first vice admiral.

In 1866, Farragut became the Navy’s first admiral and David Dixon Porter was promoted to vice admiral. When Farragut died in 1870, Porter was promoted to admiral and Irish-born Stephen C. Rowan was promoted to vice admiral. Following the deaths of Dixon and Rowan, Congress would not appoint another admiral or vice admiral until 1915, to the consternation of senior Navy officers who had to interact with higher-ranking counterparts in other nation’s navies. One interesting exception to the Congressional aversion to senior flag officer ranks was the promotion of Spanish-American War hero George Dewey to the rank of admiral of the Navy in 1903. Dewey held this rank until his death in 1917, the only officer in Navy history be so recognized. Still, Dewey’s promotion was more in line with the tradition of rewarding superlative rank to individual officers with distinguished wartime service than a change in Congress’s willingness to expand ranks above rear admiral.

Several other changes to officer ranks took place between the Civil War and the First World War. Master was replaced with lieutenant (junior grade) in 1883 and a brief experiment with a junior ensign grade took place in the same year. Ensign (junior grade) replaced a position held by Naval Academy graduates, who were required after 1873 to do two years of sea duty following their four years at Annapolis before they could receive their commissions. Ensign (junior grade) was eliminated the following year, and Naval Academy graduates would again have to wait two years before commissioning. The current system whereby midshipmen commission as ensigns upon graduation, first established during the Civil War, was finally revived in 1912. Commodore was eliminated in 1899 and replaced with a lower pay grade of rear admiral equivalent to a brigadier general, although officers of both rear admiral grades continued to wear the same insignia.

In 1915, as American involvement in the First World War loomed on the horizon, admiral and vice admiral billets were created for officers assigned as the commanders and seconds-in-command of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Asiatic fleets. Another admiral billet was authorized in 1916 with the creation of the Chief of Naval Operations position. The Navy has continued the admiral and vice admiral rank since this time.

With America’s entry into the Second World War, the Navy again had a need to expand and alter the rank system at the higher echelons of the service. Congress reauthorized the rank of commodore in April 1943, and in December 1944, Congress approved the five-star fleet admiral rank. William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, and Chester W. Nimitz were promoted to the grade at that time, and the fourth fleet admiral, William H. Halsey, was promoted in December 1945. The Navy has not had a five-star fleet admiral since Leahy left active duty in 1949. Promotions to commodore were phased out by legislation in 1947, and by 1950 no commodores remained on active duty. Nonetheless, commodores would reappear in Navy history. The absence of commodore after the Second World War left the Navy with rear admirals of upper- and lower-half grades. Confusingly, rear admirals of both grades wore two-star flag officer insignia.

With the passage of the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (effective in 1981), O-7 officers were designated commodore admirals in an attempt to mirror the other services’ one-star brigadier general rank. The move drew criticism within the Navy, including that of Rear Admiral (Ret.) John D.H. Kane Jr., then director of what is now the Naval History and Heritage Command. Kane wrote to the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Personnel) to register his “horror” at the new rank, arguing that it “offends any sense of historical propriety.” The following year the 0-7 rank was changed to commodore, but in 1986 commodore again disappeared as a rank, replaced with rear admiral (lower half). The Navy had long used the title of commodore for a captain in command of multiple ships, and although it is not a rank anymore, the title is still used for senior captains in command of surface and submarine squadrons, air wings and groups, Seabee regiments, and similar commands. Navy officer ranks have not changed since 1986.

Two major trends can be seen in the history of the Navy’s officer rank system. The first is the authorization of more ranks during major wars, when the Navy’s rapid expansion necessitated additional grades to command a myriad of new vessels and organizations of various sizes. The second trend is the evolution of the Navy into a large peacetime institution with a professional officer corps and an officer personnel management system. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Congress preferred an extremely small navy that was to be expanded only in time of war, and commissions were initially authorized to fill specific shipboard positions with little thought to the possibility of a career-length progression through the officer ranks. As the Navy slowly grew and professionalized over the course of the nineteenth century, additional ranks were created to enable more echelons of command, and a formal pathway (albeit usually an incredibly slow one) was established for a commissioned career in the Navy. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the greatest change in Navy officer ranks. With minor exceptions, the basic framework of the officer rank structure that we know today has remained stable for the past century.

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