History of U.S. Military Rank Insignia

The military rank insignia of the United States military has a long and proud history. Many of the ranks adopted by the United States military at the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775 are still in use today. The early military took a lot of inspiration from the British and French forces. Over time, the military rank insignia has come to represent American valor. These emblems, worn on the uniform to denote rank, help people identify military personnel’s rank and pay-grade at a glance.

Evolution of Military Insignia

There are general rules for ranks that can help those unfamiliar with ranks to get a broad idea. The US Military rank insignia has humble beginnings. Initially, while the Continental Army had militia with a rank structure based on British tradition, they lacked uniforms or the money to buy them. At the time, General George Washington proposed “badges of distinction” to separate enlisted men’s appearance from the commissioned officers. He recommended a color-coding system. This system changed as the Armed Forces were restructured. Colonels received their eagles in 1832, while majors and lieutenant colonels got their oak leaves in 1836, while captains were appointed double silver bars, and first lieutenants single silver bars. Second lieutenants didn’t receive their gold bars until 1917. Chevrons were officially introduced into the US military in 1817 when cadets at West Point wore them. They spread to the Army and Marine Corps. They were initially worn points-down until 1902, when they switched. When the Army Air Force became its own service in 1947, it retained the Army officer insignia and names, but the enlisted ranks were renamed and given new insignia.

Rank Insignia at Different Historical Flashpoints

During major military conflict times, the rapidly-expanding US military necessarily had to restructure itself to better coordinate large-scale operations. For example, before the Civil War, the US Navy’s highest rank was Flag Officer, which did not have a designated rank insignia. However, this changed several times during the war. Initially, in 1862, there were promotions for higher-grade Captains to Commodore and Rear Admiral ranks, with one-star and two-star epaulettes, equivalent in rank to the Army’s Brigadier Generals and Major Generals. These changes were in response to coordinating tactics with Army officers that tended to outrank even the most experienced Navy officers, as Captains were only equivalent to Colonels in seniority. The issue was that American naval warfare doctrine was shifting to include more fleet battles, such as the Battle of Port Royal, instead of single ship-on-ship conflicts. This system was amended again in 1865, with Vice Admirals becoming the new highest rank for naval officers, with three-star epaulettes, equivalent to Lieutenant Generals.

In World War II, again, the rapid expansion of the US Armed Forces (and the need to establish parity of rank with the States’ wartime allies) necessitated a restructuring of the rank system, especially after the Normandy Landings of June 1944 escalated the logistical complexities weighing on Army leadership. The Army’s previously-extant rank was reconfigured to be a five-star rank and a temporary position. The position of Fleet Admiral was similarly updated.


Tags: Armed Forces, Army Air Force, Marine Corps, Military Rank Insignia, President George Washington, Revolutionary War in 1775, Together We Served, United States Military


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