After a few years of editing articles for this journal, it’s become apparent that the ranks of British officers sometimes confuse people. By “sometimes” I mean “often.” And not without reason. Although titles like colonel and captain are familiar to us all, the roles associated with these ranks, and the fact that an individual could have more than one rank, lead many a writer astray. So here’s a primer that should help sort things out.
The British army that served in American during the Revolution was composed primarily of infantry regiments. The full, or established, strength of infantry regiments varied during the course of the war, and actual strength was almost invariably different from the established strength, but a good rule of thumb is to think of a regiment as consisting of about 500 soldiers. There were exceptions, but this is a good overall guideline. Regiments were typically divided into ten companies of equal size. In most regiments, each company had three officers, and the regiment also had five staff officers; this sounds simple enough, but there were a number of nuances.
In general, each company was commanded by a captain. Three of the company commanders, however, also held higher ranks in the regiment: the colonel, the lieutenant-colonel, and the major. These three officers were collectively called field officers. So a regiment of ten companies had three field officers and seven captains, each commanding one company. On regimental muster rolls we sometimes see the field officers referred to as, for example, “Major and Captain,” but in common parlance only the senior of the two ranks was used. Companies were generally referred to by the name of the commanding officer, for example, “Captain Handfield’s company” or “Lt. Col. Campbell’s company”, but the field officers’ companies might be referred to only by the rank since there was only one of each field officer, for example, the major’s company.
The next company officer was the lieutenant. This was true in all companies but one. The colonel’s company had a specialized rank called captain-lieutenant. Although the colonel was the commander of the regiment, he usually also held other roles (more on that later), so he was seldom present with the regiment. This meant that the next officer of this company, normally a lieutenant, was almost invariably in sole charge of the company. To acknowledge this, his rank was called captain-lieutenant. For a long time this rank had the authority of a captain but the pay of a lieutenant, but in the early 1770s it had been declared equal to captain. It nonetheless retained the title of captain-lieutenant, and there was only one officer of this rank in a regiment. The colonel’s company was always referred to by the name of the colonel, rather than of the captain-lieutenant.
The third officer in most companies was an ensign, the lowest-ranking commissioned officer in the army. Eight of the regiment’s companies had ensigns, but a few regiments used a different name for this rank. The Royal Artillery used the term 2nd Lieutenant instead of Ensign. Three infantry regiments, the 7th, 21st and 23rd, had originally been created as fusilier regiments with the role of protecting the artillery. By the time of the American Revolution these regiments were functionally identical to other infantry regiments, but they retained the honorific of Fusiliers (spelled a variety of ways during the period) and maintained the tradition of calling their youngest officers 2nd lieutenants instead of ensigns. There was no difference in these ranks other than the name. Cavalry regiments used yet another name, cornet; same rank, different name.
Because fusilier regiments had the rank of 2nd lieutenant, the senior lieutenant in each of their companies was sometimes called a 1st lieutenant. But “1st lieutenant” and “lieutenant” were identical ranks, even though the terminology was slightly different. Most companies in an infantry regiment, therefore, contained a captain, a lieutenant and an ensign, whereas most companies in the 7th, 21st and 23rd regiments contained a captain, a 1st lieutenant and a 2nd lieutenant. Functionally they were the same even though the names of the ranks were different.
Two companies in each regiment were composed only of experienced men fit for especially active campaigning: the grenadier company and the light infantry company, collectively called flank companies. Called upon to be at the forefront in battle, these companies were no place for inexperienced officers. Instead of having ensigns, each of these companies had another lieutenant; in other words, a flank company had a captain and two lieutenants instead of a captain, a lieutenant and an ensign. The flank company lieutenants were not differentiated by “1st” and “2nd,” though; they were both simply lieutenants, even in a fusilier regiment.
To summarize, infantry regiments typically had thirty company officers, nominally distributed among their ten companies like this:
Colonel (seldom present), Captain-Lieutenant, Ensign
Lieutenant-Colonel, Lieutenant, Ensign
Major, Lieutenant, Ensign
Captain, two Lieutenants
Light Infantry Company:
Captain, two Lieutenants
Captains’ Companies (5):
Captain, Lieutenant, Ensign
A few regiments were structured differently, with four officers per company, but that was rare enough that we’ll leave it out of this discussion.
Besides the company officers, regiments had an adjutant, a quarter master, a surgeon, a surgeon’s mate, and a chaplain. The latter three were highly specialized and were normally filled by men explicitly trained in their disciplines (British regimental chaplains seldom accompanied their regiments on overseas service, but that’s another story). The offices of adjutant and quarter master, on the other hand, were usually held by the same type of men as company officers, but with some nuances.
Before the American Revolution began, the adjutancy was usually held by one of the regiment’s lieutenants – one man filling two roles in the regiment. Less often, this was also true of the quarter master. While the war was in progress, it became common practice to promote deserving sergeants to the adjutancy and quarter master roles.
That completes the suite of regimental officers, but only lays the groundwork for the confusing aspects of ranks and positions in the British army during the American Revolution. The army needed a host of officers to fill all sorts of wartime posts: brigadier generals, aides-de-camp, deputy judge advocates, adjutant generals, quartermaster generals, brigade majors, and so forth. Almost all of these posts were filled by regimental company officers, detached from their regiments, leaving fewer officers behind to manage each regiment’s affairs.
General officers provide the best example, because their case was typical of peace as well as war. Most regimental colonels were also general officers, and as such usually had little time for direct management of their regiments. Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage was appointed colonel of the 22nd Regiment of Foot in 1763, retained that rank throughout his service as commander in chief of British forces in America, and continued it thereafter; one man with more than one rank, general and colonel. William Howe was colonel of the 23rd Regiment of Foot in addition to being a major general, then a lieutenant general; John Burgoyne was colonel of the 16th Light Dragoons; Sir Henry Clinton was colonel of the 12th Regiment of Foot; Charles Cornwallis was colonel of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, and so on.
The rank of brigadier general, sometimes called just brigadier, was a temporary rank authorized only in wartime. For wartime operations, regiments were grouped into brigades, with each brigade consisting usually of two to four regiments. The brigade was commanded by a brigadier, who held the rank only in the theater of operations and only for the duration of the conflict. Most British brigadiers in America were regimental colonels or lieutenant colonels – mostly the latter, because colonels were usually also already more senior generals. A few examples in America were Brigadier General Francis Smith, who was lieutenant colonel of the 10th Regiment of Foot; Brigadier General James Agnew, who was the lieutenant colonel of the 44th Regiment of Foot; and Brigadier General Simon Fraser, lieutenant colonel of the 24th Regiment of Foot.
To handle administrative and other duties of a brigade, another staff officer was required, called the extra major of brigade. One of these men was appointed for each brigade, and the man who held the rank was usually a regimental company captain, not necessarily from a regiment in the brigade. The appointment was temporary, for the duration of the brigade’s existence, but the officer who held it was entitled to be addressed as major while he held the appointment. An example was the famous diarist Frederick Mackenzie, a captain in the 23rd Regiment of Foot; from 1776 through 1779 he served as extra major of brigade in a brigade consisting of the 22nd, 43rd, and 54th Regiments (for some periods it also included the 38th and 63rd Regiments) commanded by Brigadier General Francis Smith. Although Mackeznie’s regimental rank was captain, he was Major Mackenzie to the troops in his brigade.
This was the case with many British staff officers. When John Andre was caught and charged with spying, he was adjutant general to the British army in New York, but he was also a company captain in the 54th Regiment of Foot. So why was he called Major Andre? We’ll get to that …
Another temporary wartime formation was a battalion. This terminology is particularly confusing because the term battalion is used for several similar, but distinctly different, organizations. We noted above that British infantry regiments were composed of ten companies, including two flank companies. When the two flank companies were detached (more on that later), the remaining eight companies were referred to as the battalion (today we often call the individual companies battalion companies, but that phrase doesn’t appear often during the American Revolution). Sometimes the entire regiment, including the flank companies, was called a battalion. A few regiments were twice the size of other regiments; a noteworthy example was the 71st Regiment of Foot, Fraser’s Highlanders. Instead of having ten companies, the 71st had twenty, with two of every officer except the colonel. The 71st Regiment was divided into two battalions, called the 1st Battalion 71st Regiment and 2nd Battalion 71st Regiment. Decades after the American Revolution this structure became quite common, but in America only a very few regiments were organized in this manner.
For this discussion of British ranks, however, the interesting battalions were the flank battalions. During the war in America, the specialized grenadier and light infantry companies were detached from their regiments and formed together into grenadier battalions and light infantry battalions. Being composed of companies, these battalions operated very much like regiments. Battalions were raised and disbanded during the war as needed, and the composition of a given battalion might change, but the flank battalions usually contained eight to twelve companies. In places where there were only a few flank companies, such as Rhode Island in 1778, a single flank battalion might be formed consisting of both grenadier and light infantry companies (Rhode Island had only two companies each from the 38th and 54th Regiments, formed into one small battalion).
Flank battalions needed commanders, so a regimental lieutenant colonel or major was appointed to that role. This officer retained his current rank, but was detached from his regiment to command the flank battalion. A major or captain was appointed as second in command.
The upshot of all these brigade, battalion and staff appointments was that many British infantry regiments suffered from a shortage of officers. For the most part there were men appointed to each position in the regiment, but many of those men were detached on some other duty. Take, for example, the 22nd Regiment of Foot in late 1780. The eight companies that formed the battalion of the regiment (since the two flank companies were detached) should have included twenty-four officers (three per company). But due to staff assignments and other causes, only fifteen were actually present, not even two per company, to handle the regiment’s day-to-day activities.
There’s more. As in many professions, career advancement was important and sometimes competitive. There were only so many regimental officer positions available, and once a man reached the rank of captain, the path upwards became quite narrow; remember that regiment had seven captains but only one major, so there was a lot of competition for that next step in rank (officers often changed regiments, but in the entire army the proportion of captains to majors was roughly the same as within an individual regiment). To accommodate deserving officers in this competitive environment, the War Office sometimes bestowed a brevet rank, that is, a rank in the army even though there was no opening in a regiment. For this reason, an officer could have an army rank of major but a regimental rank of captain. Such an officer was addressed as Major, but performed the function of a company captain – he was a major in a regiment, but not the regiment’s major. There were also lieutenant-colonels and colonels in this situation, holding an army rank that was above their regimental rank. Remember Major Andre? He was a captain in the 54th Regiment, but a major in the army, and he served in the role of deputy adjutant general.
As if there weren’t already enough special cases, a large detachment of the Foot Guards served in America. The Foot Guards were household troops, administered differently than the rest of the army; each of the three regiments of Foot Guards was considerably larger than a regular army infantry regiment. For service in America, volunteers from each of the three Foot Guards regiments were formed into a brigade consisting of two battalions, each with five companies. Following a long-standing tradition, some officers in the Foot Guards held army ranks that were higher than their regimental ranks; Foot Guards captains were lieutenant-colonels in the army, and Foot Guards lieutenants were majors in the army. In the Brigade of Guards, then, companies were commanded by officers addressed as lieutenant-colonel, reflecting their army rank.
All of the information above applies to infantry regiments of the British regular army, unless otherwise specified. Cavalry regiments were similar in terms of officer ranks, except that they had cornets instead of ensigns, and most cavalry regiments were organized into six troops instead of ten companies (the term “troop” described a component of a cavalry regiment, while “troops” was the general term for a quantity of soldiers). The Royal Artillery, Engineers, and Marines used the same titles for ranks, but were organized differently than the infantry. Loyalist regiments generally included the same ranks as British regular regiments and the same caveats of staff positions, battalions and what have you. American regiments were organized in a variety of ways, depending upon the year and the state that raised them, so the number of companies and the number of officers in each company varied. The German, French and Spanish armies followed their own practices.
What does it all mean? It means that rank can be a confusing thing, and that an officer’s rank alone often didn’t describe his role. As if this weren’t confusing enough, there was no way to distinguish a British regimental officer’s rank by looking at his uniform. But that’s another story.
For further reading:
- J. A. Houlding, Fit for Service: The Training of the British Army 1715-1795. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1981.
- Edward R. Curtis, The British Army in the American Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1926.
- Steven M. Baule and Stephen Gilbert, British Army Officers Who Served in the American Revolution. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2004.