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What was “Brevet” and what did it mean?
Jay C. Wood, USN (Ret)
One problem we run into when doing family history research in the Civil War period is the ranking
of officers.  Some ranks, such as Ensign, are not used in today’s army.  A Civil War Ensign is
today’s Second Lieutenant except in the navy where an Ensign is still an Ensign.
One Civil War era ranking term which is seldom seen today is “Brevet” (the accent should be on the
second syllable).  Actually, it is not a rank but a temporary commission.
The following messages are recorded in the “OR” or Official Records of the Civil War:
    CITY POINT, VA., October 26, 1864--8.30 p.m. (Received 9 p.m.)
Maj. Gen. H. W. HALLECK,
Washington, D.C.:
  The papers announce that Custer has been made a major-general. Is it possible he
has been made a full major-general, and Crook, who commands a department, left
only a major-general by brevet?
                                                           U.S. GRANT,
                                                           Lieutenant-General.


    WAR DEPARTMENT, October 26, 1864--10.30 p.m.
Lieutenant-General GRANT:
  Crook was appointed a full major-general immediately upon the vacancy created by
General Birney's death. Custer was made a brevet major-general upon the urgent and
repeated solicitation of General Sheridan. The newspapers are not good authority for
the action of the Department.
                                                          EDWIN M. STANTON,
                                                          Secretary of War.
  There are several things to note in these two dispatches:
  First: the short amount of time between reception of the first and the transmission of the reply.  
Second: The reply is from Secretary of War Stanton not Army Chief of Staff Halleck.  Secretary
Stanton didn’t want his leading field general to be distracted by the inner workings of the War
Department.  This might also explain the short time between reception and transmission.
  Third: Custer had a “sponsor” and who that was.  Fourth: newspapers are “not good authority”
(some things never change).  Fifth: most important of all is the “brevet” promotion of Custer.
  Yes, that is George Armstrong Custer they are discussing.  Grant was not especially looking out
for Crook, nor was he particularly against Custer.  He was looking out for the system.  The same
system used in every military organization since time began.
  Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant knew and understood the significance of rank and seniority
in the U.S. Army.  In short, no junior commands a senior.  It appeared that Custer had been
promoted around Crook which would make him senior to Crook.  But Custer had been promoted to
Brevet Major-General.  This keep him junior to Crook even if Crook had not been promoted to full
Major-General, which he was.
  Seniority in the military is determined first by rank and then by date of rank.  When two or more
equally ranked officers are together, they determine who is senior by their respective dates of rank.  
The officer who has held his or her current rank the longest is the senior officer.  (The
senior/junior ranking of “his or her” never came into play during the Civil War.)
  If the promotions had been as “the papers” announced, making Custer senior to Crook, Grant
would probably have sent a different dispatch than the one he actually did send.
    CITY POINT, VA., October 27, 1864--9 p.m.
Hon. E. M. STANTON, Secretary of War:
  I have frequently before found that newspaper authority was not reliable. I am very
glad that Custer has been brevetted and Crook made a full major-general. I could not
believe the papers; therefore asked if it was possible that Crook had been overlooked.
                                                          U.S. GRANT,
                                                          Lieutenant-General.
   Grant was satisfied that Custer was junior to Crook because he was “made a brevet major-
general” and not a full Major-General.  But what is a “brevet” and how does it figure into the
senior/junior rankings?
  In my fancy electronic dictionary, I find:

          bre•vet (bre-vèt¹, brèv¹ît) noun
          Abbr. brev., bvt.
          A commission promoting a military officer
          in rank without an increase in pay.

  Crook had been a Major-General but was being paid his old salary as a Brigadier-General because
he was a “Brevet” Major-General.  Upon his promotion to “full” Major-General, he got a pay raise.  
During the Civil War, a Major-General received a maximum annual salary of $7,011.00.
  During the time between his brevet commission and his full commission, Crook had enjoyed all
the rights and privileges (and duties) of a Major-General.  He was senior to all Brigadier-Generals
but junior to every full Major-General.  Two or more equally ranked brevets would have to
determine seniority by date of brevet.  
  At any given time, there can be only so many people, both officer and enlisted, in the Army,
Navy, Air Force and Marines (Air Force!  Civil War?).  This number is determined by Congress
and only Congress can increase or decrease that number.  Congress also determines how many
Lieutenant-Generals, Major-Generals and on down the line to the lowest Lieutenants and Ensigns
can be on the payroll at any given time.  The key is not how many Captains there actually are but
how many are receiving Captain’s pay.   
  Only Congress can make the initial appointment as a commissioned officer.  Remember someone
being referred to as “a gentleman by act of Congress”?  Even “battlefield commissions” must
eventually be approved by Congress if the commission is to remain in effect.
  Congress must also approve all promotions to and above Colonel.  This includes all the various
generals.  (In the Navy this would be promotion to Captain and all the various admirals.)
  But Congress isn’t always in session when a vacancy occurs.  General Birney’s death left one
Major-General position vacant.  Therefore, Crook got the appointment and could remove “Bvt.”
from the front of his rank.  The “paper work” would be sent to Congress later for their approval.
  Everybody was happy.  Crook got his pay raise and, more important, his permanent
appointment.  Grant was satisfied that the “system” had not been circumvented.  Stanton pacified
Grant and Grant could then get on with the war.  Sheridan’s “fair-haired boy” got another
promotion, even if it was only by brevet.  (Custer was already a Brevet Colonel and Brevet
Brigadeer-General.  He became a triple brevet!)
  Some people might think a brevet promotion can be used to get around Congress.  Not so.
Eventually Congress still has to approve the promotion to and above Colonel even if it is done by
brevet.  Congress also has to approve the initial commissioning of someone by brevet.  Quite a few
Sergeants became commissioned officers by brevet during the Civil War.
  Is brevet still used?  Yes, but not to the extent it was during the Civil War. Today, it is used
mainly to immediately promote someone when Congress has approved the promotion but for some
future date (budget problems?).  Until that time, they have all the rights and privileges (and duties)
of the new rank by brevet. Another difference is that the word “Brevet” no longer precedes the
name of the promoted rank.
__________________________________
References:

1.  
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate
Armies.
(1893; reprint, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: The National Historical Society, 1985), Series I,
Volume XLIII/2, Serial #91, p. 467.  (Also available on CD-ROM from Guild Press of Indiana, Inc.,
435 Gradle Drive, Carmel, IN  46032.)
2.  
Ibid, p. 474.
3.  
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright© 1992
by Houghton Mifflin Company. (Electronic version licensed from InfoSoft International, Inc. All
rights reserved.)
4.  Thomas H. S. Hamersly, comp.
Army Register of the United States 1779-1879 (Washington,
D.C.: T.H.S. Hamersly, 1880), Part 2, p. 190-192.
5.  I obtained then cropped the photo from <http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamiedfw/494209039/>.
The photo is of a marker at Little Big Horn. Custer is actually buried at West Point.
Click this mouse to go directly to the Site Map page directory to this site.
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    So the next time you see “G. A. Custer, Brevet Major-
General,” you will know he was wearing the insignia of a Major-
General but was not getting the full $7,011.00.  

    The brevet promotion made a lot of difference to George
Armstrong Custer but none at all to Sitting Bull.
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