Monday, May 05, 2003


When the Marine Corps was reactivated in 1798, the American Navy consisted of a handful of frigates under orders to patrol the Atlantic seaboard. During the second war with England, Marines served aboard Yankee frigates in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Following the war, the Navy was charged with the protection of American interests througout the world.

Many of these vessels had no Marine officer. Instead, a sergeant was responsible for the conduct of the ship's detachment. Thus, a sergeant serving on a sloop-of-war off Java drew the same pay as a sergeant in the Washington barracks, but his responsibilities were many times greater. To remedy this situation, the Marine Corps in 1833 created the grade of orderly sergeant. Thirty "orderly sergeants and 1st sergeants of guards at sea" were to be paid $16 per month, the same amount as the drum major and fife major. The 41 "other sergeants" received $13 per month.

1834 saw an important step in the evolution of the modern first sergeant when three orderly sergeants were employed as clerks at Headquarters. One noncommissioned officer was employed by the Colonel Commandant, a second by the Adjutant Inspector, and the third by the Quartermaster. Although these men were eventually replaced by civilian clerks, their employment as administrative specialists did set a precedent.

Although the noncommissioned officer in charge of a ship's guard usually was called an orderly sergeant, the term "first sergeant" occasionally was used in official documents, especially in those recording the activities of Marine detachments at shore stations. In brief, the orderly sergeant had become recognized as "first sergeant" in every sense of the word. His greater responsibilities both in leadership and administration was reflected by his higher pay grade. he was a cut above the ordinary sergeant.

By the close of the Civil War, the orderly sergeant had advanced above the quartermaster sergeant into the second pay grade. During 1872, the Marine Corps dropped the title "orderly sergeant" for the more descriptive "first sergeant.

First sergeants remained in the second pay grade until
1893 when, together with the drum major, they received a pay increase of three dollars per month. The sergeant major and quartermaster continued to head the list of noncommissioned officers, but they were drawing only $23, two dollars less than a drum major or first sergeant.

This unusual situation was further complicated by a wartime measure enacted on 5 May 1898 which authorized the grade of gunnery sergeant. A law enacted on 5 May 1899 set forth the enlisted grades and the authorized strength of each, beginning with five sergeants major, one drum major, 20 quartermaster sergeants, and 72 billets for gunnery sergeants on a par with first sergeants in everything but pay. The "gunny" was to receive $35 each month to the latter's $25. Presumeably, the additional ten dollars was in recognition of the gunnery sergeant's skill with naval ordnance.

Enlisted Ranks And Grades, US Marine Corps, 1775-1958, by Bernard C. Nalty, Historical Branch, G-3, HQMC, Wash,DC, June 1959