Friday, September 12, 2003


Brevet Rank In The Civil War

Brevet rank, usually an honor, was borrowed from the British and introduced into the American army during the Revolutionary War. Over the years Congress, in legislation, specified reasons for granting brevet ranks and gave the senate the right to approve or reject them after they were recommended by the president. Army Regulation, published periodically, stipulated that an officer functioned at this brevet rank on special assignment of the president in commands composed of different corps and when in detachments or on courts-martial composed of different corps. In these instances the officers ordinarily received pay based on their brevet rank.

In early 1861 some recent graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point were named brevet 2nd lieutenants because there were not enough vacancies in the Regular Army to give them commissions as 2nd lieutenants. Many officers held brevet commissions higher than their ordinary rank, usually for gallant actions or meritorious service in combat or to allow them to serve in a staff position.
The Civil War encouraged the granting of hundreds of brevet commissions to both Regular and volunteer army officers and to at least one enlisted man, Pvt. Frederick W. Stowe, who was brevetted a 2nd lieutenant. About 1,700 Union officers held brevet rank as brigadier or major general.

The awarding of Numerous new brevets often created confusion, such as in the case of George Armstrong Custer. In addition to holding rank as major general of volunteers in the the Civil War, Custer was a lieutenant colonel in the Regular Army when in 1876 he was killed at the Little Big Horn, and also held brevet commissions as major general of volunteers and major general in the Regular Army. For a long time after the war, the army had to determine the official of many an officer and the rank he should show on his uniform.

Although brevet commissions were provided for in Confederate Army regulation, evidence indicates that officers were not awarded them.
In the years after the Civil War these commissions were issued to some U.S. Army officers for various reasons, but few were awarded after the Spanish-American War. In 1918 Tasker H. Bliss received the last brevet commission.

Source: "Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War" Edited by Patricia L. Faust


United States Marine Corps Brevet Medal BREVET MEDAL

In its simplest terms, a brevet promotion is an advancement in rank without corresponding advancement in either pay or position. Brevet promotions were widely used in the past to reward outstanding service or gallantry in action. Although they no longer exist in the American military establishment, brevet promotions have a long, colorful and important history. A knowledge of the concept is crucial to understanding the significance of the Brevet Medal and is equally important to understanding the evolution of officer rank in general. Brevets did not originate in this country, but like so many of our other traditions, came to us from England.

As a natural part of the system Their use was limited by Act of Congress on April 6, 1818, which authorized the conferring of brevets on officers of the Army, but required that they be conferred only by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. This Act of Congress also authorized awarding brevet promotions for either extraordinary merit or for the completion of ten years of service. The reason for this provision was simple. Promotions could only be given if there were vacancies through death, resignation, or dismissal and since the Army was so small there were few positions and advancement was slow. Brevet promotions were seen as a solution to the problem. From a cost perspective they had another advantage. Brevet rank entitled the holder to the pay of the brevet rank only if he held a command consistent with that rank. If a captain held a brevet commission as a major but filled a captain's slot, he would only be paid as a captain.

An Act of Congress on April 16, 1814, authorized brevets for the Marine Corps by providing, '7hat the President is hereby authorized to confer brevet rank on such officers of the Marine Corps as shall distinguish themselves by gallant actions and meritorious conduc4 or shall have served ten years in any one grade. " In the 86 years that followed, a total of 121 brevet promotions were granted to 100 Marine Corps officers. Although most of these officers only received one such promotion, fifteen received two and three officers were breveted three times. The first brevet promotion was given to Captain Anthony Gale on April 24, 1814, promoting him to major by reason of not having been a captain for ten years. This Act of Congress did not open a floodgate of brevet promotions; only three other officers received them that year, and no more than seven were granted in any given year until the war with Mexico.

The law authorizing brevets for Marines was modified twenty years later by Act of Congress on June 30, 1834, which also granted Marine Corps officers pay equality with Army officers. In addition, this Act repealed the granting of brevets for ten years service in grade (although those officers who had received such brevets were allowed to retain their rank). This provision made brevet promotions a reward for gallantry in action or meritorious service thereby making the brevet commission one of the most significant ways in which an officer of the Marine Corps could achieve recognition. For the next 81 years it was the highest award a Marine Corps officer could receive

As a result, the need for brevets passed into history - but not until one final chapter had been written: the establishment of the Brevet Medal which was to become unique among American decorations. The following lists the recipients of brevet promotions.

In April 12,1921, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, John A. LeJeune recommended to Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, that "an appropriate medal or badge or ribbon be prescribed as an article of uniform to denote the holder of a brevet commission." General LeJeune pointed out that brevet commissions had been conferred upon certain Marine Corps officers for "distinguished conduct or public service m the presence of the enemy" during the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and the Boxer Rebellion. He went on to note that there was no authorization for the award of a decoration or badge to denote a brevet promotion and, in actual practice, the brevet commission, once conferred was quickly forgotten by the service at large. The time-honored brevet had become nothing more than an empty honor and lacked any visible sip of the distinguished service it represented. A different condition, he remarked, existed for officers who had earned distinction in the recently concluded First World War. They had earned several newly created decorations, including the Army's Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, and the Distinguished Service Medals of both the Army and Navy.

The Marine Corps generally followed the Army's lead in regard to rules and regulations of arms, accouterments, manner of dress, wearing of insignia, and the awarding of decorations and medals. Therefore, by first endorsement to General LeJeune's letter the Secretary of the Navy wrote to Secretary of War John W. Weeks to coordinate action on LeJeune's proposal. He pointed out that the Marine Corps was governed by the same general statutes concerning brevets as the Army and asked for comments from the War Department on LeJeune's proposal. The Navy's position was that any badge prescribed for holders of brevets should be the same for both the Army and the Marine Corps. The Secretary of War replied on May 3, 1921, and his answer was short and to the point The Army did not wish to support LeJeune’s proposal. Since there were no longer any Army officers on active duty who held brevet commissions, and since when such officers were on active duty they wore the insignia of their brevet rank, the War Department did not wish to further distinguish brevets by any kind of special decoration.

Regardless of the negative position of the Navy Department, Brigadier General Charles L. McCawley indorsed the effort, and on June 27, 1921, General LeJeune issued Marine Corps Order Number 26. The importance of the Brevet Medal with respect to other decorations was not recognized at its inception. It was original placed after the campaign in which the brevet was awarded. Shortly after that, it was changed. The Brevet Medal indicated the recipient was holding a commission issued by the President and confirmed by the Senate, "For Distinguished Conduct and Public Service in the Presence of the Enemy." To insure its distinction it was to be worn immediately after the Medal of Honor.

The following twenty men are the only known recipients of the Brevet Medal.

*Information from the book, "The Brevet Medal" by John E. Lelle.

Richard Sinnreich

Time to rethink the military promotion system?

Last week, the Washington Post reported the formal censure by the acting Secretary of the Navy of the retiring commander of Marine Corps forces in Central Command and the Pacific. The censure cited his "lack of judgment" in requiring a subordinate selected for promotion to brigadier general to wear the stars of his new rank prior to receiving the prerequisite Senate approval.

In the military, awarding the insignia of rank in advance of actual promotion is called "frocking." It occurs because a considerable time may elapse between selection for promotion and the date on which the latter legally takes effect. Meanwhile, assignment exigencies may require the selected officer to assume the duties of his or her new rank before actually receiving it.

Usually, such a "promotable" officer must simply operate for a time at the lower rank. In some cases, however, and especially where interaction with foreign military forces is involved, sporting a lower rank than the job requires invites unnecessary complications.

In those circumstances, senior commanders may decide to frock the officer, granting him or her the outward status of the new rank without the associated pay and juridical authority. But the rules governing this practice are very restrictive, especially for flag officers.

In the case in question, the officer was assigned a sensitive command in Kuwait. Although he had been selected for promotion to brigadier general a year earlier, the selection still had not been confirmed. In preempting that confirmation, however well intended, the officer's superior violated an important element of civilian control of the military, to say nothing of a jealously guarded Congressional prerogative.

His scolding thus was justified. But the episode merely highlights a longstanding problem with the way military rank is awarded. In most occupations, the job determines the rank. In the military almost uniquely, the rank at least nominally determines the job.

But today, military rank once awarded is permanent. That wasn't always the case. Until the last century, primarily to accommodate wartime force expansion and peacetime contraction, it was common to "brevet" an officer temporarily to a higher rank.

Like frocking, breveting reflected assignment. Unlike frocking, however, breveting awarded the officer all the pay and privileges of the rank.

More important, when the assignment ended, so also did the brevet. While permanent rank, having been confirmed by Congress, could be reduced or removed only by court-martial, a brevet could be terminated at the stroke of a pen.

For that very reason, breveting was vulnerable to abuse. But it had the virtue of allowing prompt and flexible matching of rank to mission requirements. And because it conferred no permanent authority, it presented no threat to civilian supremacy.

As American military and naval forces transform themselves to accomplish with smaller formations tasks that formerly required much larger ones, it may be time to resurrect the brevet in some modernized form.

Consider, for example, a contingency requiring a relatively small U.S. force — a brigade task force, say — to deploy independently and collaborate with a larger allied or indigenous military organization.

Today, typically, to provide the necessary senior representation, the brigade would be subordinated to a higher headquarters, duplicating commanders and increasing the deployed footprint. Instead, breveting the brigade commander and augmenting his or her staff might well be cheaper and more effective.

Or consider a current Defense Department proposal to replace component commands in overseas theaters — each headed by a 4-star flag officer — with standing joint task forces commanded by 3-stars. The objective, endorsed by most military professionals, is to improve the routine integration of multi-service forces.

But at least one senior commander in Europe has warned that reducing the rank of a task force commander from 4 stars to 3 would seriously diminish his or her ability to deal on an equal level with allied counterparts. In Europe, he contends, credibility tends to be associated with rank more than with position.

Here too, breveting might just as effectively satisfy the representational requirement without permanently inflating general officer ranks or requiring additional and unnecessary headquarters echelons.

Finally, it may be time to reconsider altogether the relationship between promotion and assignment. The traditional model, in which rank is associated with the officer rather than the job, is by no means the only one possible and may no longer be the best.

Any alternative system must reflect the reality that military officers, unlike civilians, lack the freedom to reassign themselves at volition. It must assure them reasonable financial stability and career progression. And of course, it can't be permitted to diminish the basic accountability of military officers to civilian political authority.

Within those broad parameters, however, there remains considerable scope for innovation. Maybe now is the time to begin exploring it.

Lawton’s Richard Hart Sinnreich comments on military issues for The Sunday Constitution.

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R. W. "Dick" Gaines
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