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The brevet rank in military law

Reader GR Gordon is struggling to understand the use of “Brevet” military ranks by several men from a maternal grandfather’s home town in upstate New York, who were members of the Company H, 5th New York Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, in the Civil War.

Because she can’t find those ranks referenced in their official files, she notes, “I’m totally confused by this brevetting system. Would you be able to explain how it worked? Were these true military titles, or perhaps honorific civilian recognitions. Were the underpinnings of the system based on federal or state law, or social custom, or all of the above?”

Great question — and one that the law does answer.

And let’s begin with the technical definition: “In military law. A commission by which an officer is promoted to the next higher rank, but without conferring a right to a corresponding increase of pay.”1

It’s a system inherited from the British, first officially recognized during the Revolutionary War when — in 1778 — the Continental Congress resolved that “no commissioned officer in the Army of the United States, who shall be honored with a brevet commission, shall be entitled, by Virtue of such brevet commission to any higher rank in the regiment, troop, or company to which he belongs, than he before held therein ; such brevet commission giving rank only upon detachments from the line, and in general courts martial ; nor shall such brevet officer be entitled to receive any additional pay in consequence of such brevet promotion.”2

Loosely translated, that meant that the brevet commission was basically honorary: it carried with it no right to command and no extra pay.

In November 1778, Congress declared that brevet commissions were to be reserved for “cases of very eminent services,”3 and in 1779 brevet commissions in the Continental army required the consent of nine of the states.4

The no-extra-pay part was emphasized by Congress in 1783, when it resolved: “That the Secretary of War inform the Paymaster General that brevet commissions do not entitle to pay or emoluments, unless the same be expressed in the resolution granting such commissions.”5

The issue wasn’t significantly addressed again until 1806, when Congress adopted rules for the Army. It provided that officers with brevet ranks could serve according to those ranks in courts martial or on detachment to specific duty, but not otherwise.6 In 1812, it provided that “the President is hereby authorized to confer brevet rank on such officers of the army as shall distinguish themselves by gallant actions or meritorious conduct, or who shall have served ten years in any one grade” but limited the pay and benefits of such rank to cases where the officers were placed in command situations — and only while actually serving in command.7

In 1818, brevet rank was made subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, and again the extra pay of the higher rank was limited to those circumstances where breveted officers were “on duty, and having a command according to their brevet rank.”8

During the Civil War, however, many officers — both Regular Army and Volunteers — received brevet rank, including many who had never seen combat at all. As the war drew to a close in 1865, the War Department compiled long lists of recommended brevet promotions for “faithful and meritorious service” eventually reaching just about every officer who served in Union blue.9

In 1869, Congress responded by making brevet rank far more limited: “commissions by brevet shall only be conferred in time of war, for distinguished conduct and public service in presence of the enemy,”10 and, a year later, provided that “no officer shall be entitled to wear while on duty any uniform other than that of his actual rank, on account of having been brevetted ; nor shall he be addressed in orders or official communications by any title other than that of his actual rank, and to be so addressed.”11

In 1890, brevet rank was made available to those who’d served in the Indian Wars, but made the limits of the rank even clearer: “brevet rank shall be considered strictly honorary and shall confer no privilege of precedence or command not already provided for in the statutes which embody the rules and articles governing the Army of the United States.”12

And by 1922, the brevet rank was history, replaced by the awarding of medals for gallant or meritorious service instead.13

Bottom line: the brevet commission was essentially honorary, a reward for meritorious service, and didn’t carry the pay or perks of the higher rank except when a breveted officer was actually serving in a command position where the rank was important.

Hope this helps!

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “A matter of rank,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 20 June 2019).


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 153, “brevet.”
  2. George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence: Continental Congress, April 30, 1778, Resolution on Brevet Commissions; digital image, Library of Congress ( : accessed 20 June 2019).
  3. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1908), 12: 1158; digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 20 June 2019).
  4. Ibid., 13: 216.
  5. Ibid., 25: 541.
  6. Article 61, “An Act for establishing Rules and articles for the government of the armies of the United States,” 2 Stat. 359, 367 (10 April 1806).
  7. §4, “An Act making further provision for the Army of the United States, and for other purposes,” 2 Stat. 784, 785 (6 July 1812).
  8. “An Act regulating the pay and emoluments of brevet officers,” 3 Stat. 427 (16 Apr 1818).
  9. See Spencer Tucker, Almanac of American Military History (Santa Barbara, Calif. : ABC-CLIO, 2013), I: 2331.
  10. §2, An Act to amend the Act of April tenth, eighteen hundred and six, for establishing Rules and Articles for the Government of the Armies of the United States, 15 Stat. 281 (1 Mar 1869).
  11. §16, “An Act making Appropriations for the Support of the Army for the Year ending June thirty, eighteen hundred and seventy one and for other Purposes,” 16 Stat. 315, 319 (15 July 1870).
  12. §3, “An act to authorize the President to confer brevet rank on officers of the United States Army for gallant services in Indian campaigns,” 26 Stat. 13, 14 (27 Feb 1890).
  13. Encyclopaedia Britannica, ( : accessed 20 June 2019), “brevet.”
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