Even the rawest recruit quickly learns the military rank structure of the United States Army. He even learns to accept the apparent contradiction that although a Lieutenant General outranks a Major General, at a lower level Major stands above Lieutenant in in Rank. This and other other anomolies trace back to the fact that both the U.S. Army's organization and rank structure were adopted by the revolutionary colonists from their European mentors, who, in turn, adopted their military designations from the concepts and language of the Romans.
Peculiarly, the Army today does not technically have just "grades" or ranks"--though the terms are popularly used interchangeably--but has "grade of rank" and "pay grade." The former represents titles such as major General, Major, or Private. The latter is the letter-numerical device showing pay level, such as O-5, W-3, and E-2.
Tracing back to historic beginnings of the commissioned scale, the word "Lieutenant," through French from two Latin words (locum teneris), is a phrase which means "holding in place of." Thus a lieutenant acts in the absence of a "Captain."
At one time a "Captain and Co1onel" ranked equal within emerging European armies of the 17th and 18th centuries. Both ranks headed bodies or columns of troops on the march; caput, for "Captain", in Latin means "head" of a body, while columna describes "column ' of troops, which spawned our word "Colonel."
Not until the 18th Century did the rigid distinction between captain and colonel come into being. Organizationally, by that time, two different sizes of troop bodies existed--the captain headed the smaller company-sized unit, while the colonel commanded a group of companies formed together into a regiment.
With regiments expanding to 10 companies, a lieutenant colonel's rank emerged. He not only served in lieu of the colonel but was needed to command the left of the regimental line of a 10-company front. In other words, the colonel's span of command required a lieutenant colonel because the 10-company front often extended beyond the bugle calls and the signals of the flag, both of which were always regulated by the colonel.
Between the captain and the colonel was the "Major", a rank of French/Latin origin which indicated a higher degree of authority than the rank of captain. since "Major", deriving from the word magnus means "something greater" than a captain.
Before 1900, the major's job in the U.S. Army seldom entailed authority over a body of troops on the march; in camp, he remained a staff officer, the tactical expert, and troop trainer. When the battalion structure was superimposed on a 12-company regiment, a major often had command of this unit. However, apart from the question of authority, somehow in its passage from its Latin origins the one-time adjective "Major" became a noun standing for authority, as "Sergeant" or "General." In fact. there once was a rank in Europe of "Sergeant-Major-General" which eventually lost the word sergeant.
In the United States "Sergeant" is found only in the noncommissioned ranks, but its meaning has to be explained to shed light on the ascending commissioned ranks. "Sergeant" in classical language may have been a lawyer's term, coming from servientumor serviens ad legem, "serving at law." Shortened and used as a noun, it meant server or servant. When hyphenated with "Major," the military rank expands to mean "bigger servant or server" and further expands to the better server of the "General" when the latter title is added.
With the word "General" introduced, we can begin to understand why a Lieutenant General came to outrank a Major (Sergeant) General at a time when organizations of greater size came into being. Simply stated, the concept is that a lieutenant general acts in the absence of a "full" general; and the major general is the principal servientum to the "full" general. Eventually, a third hyphenated general officer rank of brigadier general was created to command a brigade, when this size of unit was needed to control the march or camp of several regiments.
With the advent of the 19th Century's combined armed teams, infantry, cavalry, and artillery arms, with supporting technical services and administrative units, and the consequent emergence of Divisions, Corps, and Field Armies, the rank of "General" with its several meanings and its various uses in combination with other ranks became strongly associated with these higher commands.
"General" or generalis relates to the Latin ,genus, meaning kind, origin, birth, or whole. It early took on a class distinction denoting a patrician of high birth. By medieval times, the adjective "general" was widely used in conjunction with legal, religious, military, or political terminology. "Attorney-general," for example, implied that the official in question was of superior rank and had wider and greater sphere of authority in his field than any other lawyer. The "General Officer" in the military area was superior in authority to other military officers. By 1700, the title "General Officer" was shortened to "General," without losing the meaning of "final or full" authority. Today it continues to cap the hierarchy of rank in the United States Army.
ARMY RANK-- An Historical Review
TRADITION plays an important role in designations of Army rank. The ranks of sergeant major, first sergeant and corporal trace their origin in the U.S. Army back to the Revolutionary War. Here are a few highlights in the evolution of Army rank.
Even the rawest recruit quickly learns the military rank structure of the United States Army. He even learns to accept the apparent contradiction that although a Lieutenant General outranks a Major General, at a lower level Major stands above a Lieutenant in rank. This and other anomalies trace back to the fact that both the U.S. Army's organization and rank structure were adopted by the revolutionary colonists from their European mentors, who, in turn, adopted their military designations from the concepts and language of the Romans.
Source: Charles F. Romanus, "How It All began," Army Digest (December 1967).