US Civil War Generals - FAQ

Since publishing my Index to Civil War Generals in 1995, I've had a few questions from readers whose curiosity has been piqued by something in the index (or often something that I've omitted). So, what follows is a list of those questions that are most frequently asked - and those that I can answer.

How many Generals were there?

As with everything else, you have to define your terms. Both sides had militia generals, both had their share of promotions held up or shelved, and then there were commanding officers in a region who felt they had a right to promote people to General grades. If you limit the question to General officers in the non-militia service who were properly nominated and appointed (ie all the i's dotted and the t's crossed) my count is Union - 564, Confederate - 401.

There'll always be debate about these numbers, but for the definitive word on the matter I refer you to Dave Eicher's great work: Civil War High Commands Stanford University Press, 2001.

How were Generals appointed?

According to Dave Eicher, this was the official procedure to be followed in the US Army, for promotions in both the Regular and Volunteer forces:

  1. Proposal by superior officer, Congressman, Governor or other influential officer or citizen
  2. Approbation by officers senior to the candidate
  3. Endorsement by the General-in-Chief (Commander-in-Chief)
  4. Appointment by the Secretary of War or his delegate
  5. Acceptance by the candidate
  6. Nomination by the President
  7. Approval in a report by the Senate Committee on Military Affairs and the Militia
  8. Confirmation by a vote on advice and consent by the Senate
  9. Engrossment and registration of the appointment by the Adjutant General
  10. Appointment signed and sealed by the Secretary of War and the President

Steps 1-3 were routine and could be bypassed on occasion, while steps 4,5,7,9 were almost always followed. The most important steps were 6, 8 and 10, which were legal requirements for an appointment.

The process in the Confederacy was similar, which is not surprising - considering Jefferson Davis' background as US Secretary of War. However, the Confederacy suffered a little more from personality considerations that the Union. Many notable promotions were either not confirmed by the Confederate Senate or were held up for a long time until the decision makers could be persuaded to agree to the nomination.

What about Chamberlain's "battlefield promotion"?

Perhaps the most famous promotion in the War is the case of Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant promoting Colonel Joshua Chamberlain to Brigadier General "on the battlefield" of Petersburg in 1864. It was unique, and seems to be not in accord with the process set out above.

The actual timeline was:

June 18 Col. Chamberlain wounded at Rives Salient. It is feared that he will not recover from his wounds (in fact, he lived for fifty more years).

June 20 Lt. Gen. Grant, in view of Chamberlain's state, promotes him to Brigadier General "on the spot", forwarding a copy of his order to the War Department, and asking that his act might be confirmed and Chamberlain's name sent to the Senate for confirmation without delay.

June 23 Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, writes to President Lincoln, proposing for his approbation to the appointment of Col. Chamberlain to Brigadier General, to rank from June 18, 1864.

June 23 President Lincoln writes to the Senate, nominating Col. Chamberlain for appointment as Brigadier General, as proposed by Secretary Stanton.

June 25 The Senate orders that the nominations of Col. Chamberlain and several other officers be referred to the Committee on Military Affairs and the Militia.

June 27 The Senate orders that the Committee on Military Affairs and the Militia be discharged from the consideration of the nomination of Joshua L. Chamberlain, and as a result, advises and consents to the appointment of Joshua L. Chamberlain, agreeably to the nomination.

Senate Executive Journal
Grant, Ulysses S Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant

So, the proper procedure was mostly followed (even though the promotion occurred two days after Chamberlain was wounded); it just happened that the committee process was somewhat expedited.

What were their badges of rank?

From the 1861 Uniform Regulations for the U.S. Army at

1443. For a Major-General--two rows of buttons on the breast, nine in each row, placed by threes; the distance between each row, five and one-half inches at the top, and three and one-half inches at the bottom; standing-up collar, to rise no higher than to permit the chin to turn freely over it, to hook in front at the bottom, and slope thence up and backward at an angle of thirty degrees on each side; cuffs two and one-half inches deep to go around the sleeves parallel with the lower edge, and to button with three small buttons at the under seam; pockets in the folds of the skirts, with one button at the hip, and one at the end of each pocket, making four buttons on the back and skirt of the coat, the hip button to range with the lowest buttons on the breast; collar and cuffs to be of dark blue velvet; lining of the coat black.
1444. For a Brigadier-General --the same for a Major-General, except that there will be only eight buttons in each row on the breast, placed in pairs.

1525. For the Major-General Commanding the Army--gold, with solid crescent; device, three silver-embroidered stars, one, one and a half inches in diameter, one and one-fourth inches in diameter, one, one and one-eighth inches in diameter, placed on the strap in a row, longitudinally, and equidistant, the largest star in the centre of the crescent, the smallest at the top; dead and bright bullion, one-half inch in diameter and three and one-half inches long.
1526. For all other Major-Generals--the same as for the Major-General Commanding the Army, except that there will be two stars on the strap instead of three, omitting the smallest.
1527. For a Brigadier General--the same as for the Major-General, except that instead of two, there shall be one star (omitting the smallest) placed upon the strap, and not with the crescent.

When the grade of Lieutenant General was revived in 1864 for Ulysses S Grant, the uniform adopted was the same as for a Major General, except that he had three stars on his epaulettes. Later photographs (after 1866) show him in the uniform of a General of the Army, with two rows of three groups of four buttons and four stars on the epaulettes.

What was a Brevet General?

In the absence of other ways of rewarding high levels of service (such as medals or citations) the US Army had a policy in place for many years of awarding promotions by brevet to deserving officers. A promotion by brevet offered no extra pay, but it did entitle the officer to be known by the title of the higher rank (during the term of the brevet promotion) and some officers wore the insignia of the higher rank.

Brevet promotions were not limited to General grades - there were many brevet lieutenants, captains, majors and so on.

The Confederate Army did not promote its officers by brevet, but there are accounts of Confederate NCOs receiving brevet promotions.

Did Brevet Generals wear the same uniforms as other Generals?

Some did. Others retained the insignia of their substantive rank.

Francis McKinney, in his biography of George Thomas, reports that in the Mexican War Thomas had received a brevet promotion to Major. He then devised a design for his shoulder boards that combined the features of the rank insignia for captain and major.

After the Civil War, the War Department became concerned about various matters related to brevet rank. Two particular aspects were the wearing of uniform insignia for the higher rank and the way that officers continued to refer to themselves by their brevet rank. (This can be understood when you consider the situation of someone like John Gibbon, a celebrated Civil War corps commander, Major General of US Volunteers and Brevet Major General in the US Army, who reverted to his substantive rank of Captain, USA in January 1866.)

As a result of these concerns, Congress passed an act on July 15 1870 that said, in part:

"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 his actual rank."

As if to temper the effect of this, a decision of the Adjutant-General's office, dated September 23, 1870 stated that, under the act of July 15 1870, "officers, if they please, have the right to affix their brevet titles to their signatures, there being no prohibition in the law."

Why were so Brevet Generals many appointed on March 13 1865?

March 13 is the date of rank, not the date of confirmation or issuance. Most commissions read something in the form of "[name] is hereby granted the rank of [rank], to rank from [date]," the date frequently being sometime before the commission is issued. In the case of the Civil War, this date is commonly a date of some specific deed of the officer performed, particularly in the case of brevets. However, the majority of the 13 March brevets simply read "for service during the war" or something similar. The reason for this is unusual.

In May of 1865, the Senate Committee on Military Affairs and the Militia informed the War Department that they would not confirm any brevet whose date was prior to the last date of adjournment - which, in this case, was the 11 March adjournment of the special session of the Senate from 4-11 March 1865. Theoretically, this was to distinguish brevets made by the special session from those made later. 12 March being a Sunday, the War Department chose 13 March as the earliest available date to date the commission, and thus almost all brevets issued after that May bear this date. However, they were issued anytime between May of 1865 and 1 March 1869. Consequently, they were of course all signed by President Johnson rather than President Lincoln. [I am indebted to Juan Holmes for this clarification]

Who were the youngest Generals?

The youngest Brigadier General in the US Army was Galusha Pennypacker, who was nominated at the age of 20 years and 8 months. At the time of his nomination, he was not old enough to vote.

It's often suggested that George Custer was the youngest, but apart from Pennypacker, Charles Cleveland Dodge and Edmund Kirby were also younger than Custer when they were nominated.

The youngest Brigadier General in the Confederate Army was William Paul Roberts, who was nominated in February 1865 at the age of 23 years, 7 months and 10 days - 6 days younger than John Herbert Kelly was when he was nominated in November 1863.

Who were the oldest Generals?

The oldest General in the US Army was not Winfield Scott, who was only aged 75 when he retired in October 1861. That honour goes to John Ellis Wool (aged 79 when he retired in August 1863) and then came Joseph Gilbert Totten (aged 76 when he died in April 1864).

The oldest General in the Confederate Army was David Emanuel Twiggs, who was aged 71 or 72 when he died in July 1862. The next oldest were William "Extra Billy" Smith (aged 67 at the end of the War) and Samuel Cooper (aged 66 at the end of the War).

Why does a Lieutenant General outrank a Major General?

This goes back to the origins of the ranks in the armies of England. The rank of Captain General as the most senior officer in the Army was formally established in the Restoration of the Monarchy in the time of Charles II (although the term had been used previously). The first person to hold that formal rank was George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle, appointed in 1660. The ranks below this were Lieutenant General and then Sergeant-Major General. In time, the "Sergeant" was dropped and the title became "Major General".

Why isn't my ancestor on your list? He's always known in our family as General . . .

While it's possible that the standard lists of General officers (from which I have taken my data) may be incomplete, that's unlikely. If he's not here, he almost certainly was not entitled to be addressed as "General".

What seems to have happened a lot is that a family or a community may have unofficially "promoted" a veteran in honour of his service. On some occasions, a person may have promoted himself - for whatever reason.

But if you can't see him on my list, let me know anyway. I'll be happy to see if I can find out something about him.

Finally, if you have any further questions, or comments or corrections on anything I've written here, please contact me at

September 2010