What’s In a Name: Military Ranks

Military terminology can be confusing. Finding the Maryland 400 has previously worked on a glossary of military units to help readers better understand the differences between companies, regiments, and battalions. Today’s post will cover a glossary of important military ranks, describing each position’s duties as explained mainly by Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Steuben, inspector general of the Continental Army, wrote a manual of war during the winter of 1778-1779 titled Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. The manual, the result of Steuben’s intense training program, described the ideal versions of officer duties. 


A 1909 watercolor by Charles M. Lefferts depicting the uniforms of various soldiers in the Continental Army.

Colonel. As the commanding officer of a regiment, colonels and lieutenant colonels of the Maryland Line managed every aspect of military life from the top. Colonel William Smallwood, for example, led his troops in the Battle of White Plains in October 1776 and also had to sign off on—and sometimes personally buy—all supply orders during the march to New York in the summer of 1776. [1]

Major. Majors were “particularly charged with discipline, arms, accoutrements, [and] clothing [of] the whole interior management…of the regiment,” wrote Steuben. Majors ensured that soldiers carried out orders promptly and efficiently. Majors also instructed soldiers on guard duty. Majors of the First Maryland Regiment in 1776, however, had slightly different roles. Mordecai Gist led the Maryland 400 during the Battle of Brooklyn while Smallwood was absent due to court-martial duty. Thomas Price remained in Maryland during the summer of 1776 to coordinate Maryland’s defenses. [2]

Adjutant. Adjutants acted as administrators for their regiments. They primarily kept rosters of their regiments and noted the duties of all officers and non-commissioned officers. Adjutants recorded daily general orders and provided them to their colonels, who would then add orders “necessary for the regiment” before adjutants relayed them to the sergeants. They also had other administrative duties, including bringing arrested soldiers to court-martials. Adjutant Jacob Brice also fought in battle, narrowly escaping capture by the British at Brooklyn by shooting one of his captors. [3]

Quartermaster. Quartermasters managed regimental supplies, including arms, food, water, and clothing. They also managed campgrounds, ensuring they were properly set up and kept clean. Although he did not fight at the Battle of Brooklyn, quartermaster Joseph Marbury struggled to meet the supply crisis plaguing the Maryland Line throughout 1776. [4]

Captain. Captains commanded individual companies within each regiment, ensuring that they possessed the proper equipment and training. Captains bought supplies and managed commissioned officers serving in their companies. During battle, captains commanded their companies, risking their own lives in the process. Edward Veazy and Daniel Bowie both died in the Battle of Brooklyn, and John Day Scott died in the Battle of White Plains two months later. These three captains sacrificed their lives for the cause they believed in. [5]

Lieutenant. Each company had two to three lieutenants when at full strength. As lieutenants were next in the line of command behind officers, they had to be familiar with all of their captain’s duties. Nineteen-year-old lieutenant William Sterrett, for example, led his company during the Battle of Brooklyn instead of his ill captain. In total, the British captured eight lieutenants at Brooklyn, a testament to their service on the front lines. They were responsible for teaching battlefield maneuvers to soldiers and supervised non-commissioned officers. Lieutenants also oversaw soldiers on guard duty. Unlike captains, who tended to be in their thirties, lieutenants, ensigns and cadets in the Maryland Line were much younger; their average age was only twenty-two years old. Many young men saw this position as an opportunity to gain military experience required for promotion. [6] 

Ensign. Holding the lowest officer’s rank, ensigns most notably carried their regimental flags into battle on a rotating basis. They were also charged with monitoring the cleanliness of the men. Like lieutenants, ensigns tended to be young men with social connections who hoped to move up the ranks. [7]

Cadet. Cadets had no formal duty with the army. They often served as aides to officers, or joined the other aspiring officers on the battlefield. Cadets’ main goals were to build personal connections and demonstrate their gentlemanly comportment while they waited for an opportunity to become officers in their own right. There were at least six cadets in the First Regiment in 1776, five of whom moved up the ranks throughout the war; another cadet, Tobias Stansbury, left the army and served with various American privateers. [8]

Sergeant. Sergeants were non-commissioned officers who tended to be from the lower classes of society compared to commissioned officers, who mostly came from the gentry. Sergeants directly trained privates and kept them in line during battle. They taught privates to clean and use their weapons, ensured that their men dressed correctly, and reported any problems to their officers. The main requirement to become a sergeant in the Maryland Line during 1776 was literacy, although this changed over the course of the war. Soldiers promoted to sergeant later in the war were appointed due to their experience, often gained during the harsh campaign of 1776. Officers often valued sergeants so much that they refused to promote them. Josias Hall, colonel of the Fourth Maryland Regiment in 1779, stated that he had “Serjeants as old in the service as [any] whose good conduct & character [entitled] them to” promotion, but he preferred to “confine them to a subordinate rank” because “the best Serjeants do not always make the best officers.” [9]

Corporals. Corporals were non-commissioned officers who assisted sergeants in their duties. Along with the various duties performed by sergeants, corporals were also responsible for ensuring order while their companies were encamped. Each company had at least four corporals when at full strength. [10]

Drummers and Fifers. The musical unit of each company essentially commanded the daily lives of every soldier. Drummers and fifers worked together to relay orders during battle as well as in camp and regulated marches. They also played popular tunes in camp to boost morale. Most importantly, the musicians relayed orders from commanding officers to troops during battle, dictating their movements. Drummers like James Mead helped with recruiting services as well. The Maryland Line suffered from a shortage of musicians, sometimes leading to enlistment scandals over which regiment would have certain musicians. [11]

Privates. Privates were the lowest rank within the military and made up the majority of the First Regiment. Generally recruited from the lower classes in society, these recruits were responsible for the most menial tasks in and out of combat. Privates also tended to face harsher conditions, living without the luxuries enjoyed by officers in camp. Privates suffered more even when captured as prisoners of war. While commissioned officers generally received better treatment and were sometimes allowed to move freely in occupied cities, privates received no such benefits. Unlike commissioned officers, who could resign and leave when they felt it necessary, privates had to remain in the service until their enlistments ended. While ensign Bryan Philpot resigned because of “indisposition” privates like Edward Cosgrove could be sentenced to death for deserting. [12]

The high expectations set by Steuben, generals, and legislators did not always match the reality of war. Idealistic manuals of war like Steuben’s were parodied by works like the 1782 satire Advice to the Officers of the British Army by Francis Grose. Grose criticized incompetence and arrogance among officers. In one example, he recommended that colonels use soldiers for their own “convenience, just as the people are created for the pleasure of the kings who govern them.” [13]

George Washington also had issues with officers. Washington complained that orders were “read by some, only heard by others, and inaccurately attended by all, whilst by a few, are totally disregarded.” Steuben himself likely understood that his guidelines often went unmet, and was known to criticize officers for overworking their troops. [14]

-James Schmitt, Maryland Society Sons of the American Revolution Research Fellow, 2019


[1] Friedrich von Steuben, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, Part I (Philadelphia: Styner and Cist, 1792), pp. 120-123.

[2] Steuben, pp. 123-125.

[3] Steuben, pp. 125-127; Harry M. Ward, George Washington’s Enforcers: Policing the Continental Army (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Press, 2006), p. 51.

[4] Steuben, pp. 127-128.

[5] Steuben, pp. 129-131.

[6] Steuben, pp. 132-133.

[7] Steuben, pp. 133-134.

[8] John A. Ruddiman, Becoming Men of Some Consequence: Youth and Military Service in the Revolutionary War (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2014), pp. 31-35.

[9] Steuben, pp. 137-140; Josias Carvil Hall to Gov. Thomas Johnson, 12 October 1779, Red Books 22:55 [MSA S989-33], MSA.

[10] Steuben, pp. 137-140.

[11] William Carter White, A History of Military Music in America (New York: Exposition Press, 1924), pp. 20-21, 26, 29; Charles Patrick Neimeyer, The Revolutionary War (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), p. 137; Donald E. Mattson and Louis D. Walz, Old Fort Snelling Instruction Book for Fife: With Music of Early America (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1974), p. 6.

[12] Steuben, pp. 140-143; Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Stories of American Prisoners during the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008), pp. 48-49.

[13] Francis Grose, Advice to the officers of the British Army (New York: Agathynian Club, 1867, reprint), pp. 32-33

[14] George Washington to Major General Stirling, 5 March 1780, Founders Online, National Archives; Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle: Being A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier (1830; reprint, George F. Scheer, ed., 1962), p. 193.

This entry was posted in Maryland 400. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What’s In a Name: Military Ranks

  1. The article is great. It is nice to see the ranks and the examples used in your article where they could be thrust into other duties in times of need. I did not see you mentioned the literacy requirement for commissioned officers vs. non-commissioned officers. I have often heard that the commissioned officers were required to have sufficient education to write reports to commandants. One item is the Ensign description is fairly brief but one requirement of their role I thought was to keep the men organized into their companies and regiments by shouldering the flag during the battle, they could direct men where to be by company during the smoke filled battlefields. One omission that I believe is true under Captain is that they often were the ones who enlisted men to their company. They were often the person for enlisting their neighbors, relatives, etc. into their company.

    One item I am not in agreement fully on is that privates were often of the lower classes in society. Though that may typically be true, there are quite a few companies where the relatives of the Captain were enlisted as privates with him, especially early into the war, many prominent families allowed their sons to enlist and could fall into the rank of Private. Baltimore’s Independent Cadets is one example of this happening.

    All in all, another great article to educate us on the information of the past as it relates to the American Revolutionary period. James, thank you for your thoroughness.


    • James Schmitt says:

      Hello! I tried to keep the explanations as short as possible without omitting too many important details.

      The issue of literacy is noted under sergeants, who needed to be literate like commissioned officers to receive their positions. Sergeants also needed military experience in and out of combat later on to secure their positions (which the campaign of 1776 provided). Although captains worked to enlist their own soldiers, typically paying them with funds of their own or funds provided by the state, other officers were also highly important in the recruitment process, especially later in the war. While attempting to recover from a wound sustained during the Battle of Germantown, Colonel John Hoskins Stone became very active in the recruiting services, for example. Sergeants like William Pitts and Benjamin Worthington (both privates in the Fourth Independent Company in 1776) were responsible for finding new recruits for their captains, which could lead to disputes between different companies and regiments. Ensigns carried their regiment’s flag on a rotating basis to help maintain order, as you mentioned.

      Social class among Revolutionary War soldiers is a very complex subject that I found difficult to compress into a single sentence. When describing privates as coming from the lower classes, I meant to include the Revolutionary era equivalent of the middle class as well, who generally could enlist as privates, become non-commissioned officers, or receive commissions. Zachariah Tilley, for example, was a ship’s craftsman prior to becoming a private in the Third Company. Others were farmers and some were indentured servants. Yet some farmers could also become officers. Officers often had to sacrifice years worth of income to serve, which could affect how a person might have viewed their social class. In one letter between Samuel Smith to Otho Holland Williams, Smith–then a lieutenant colonel–lamented that he could not marry the woman he was engaged to because he did not have enough money to do so. Smith described his father, one of Baltimore’s most prominent merchants, as once being wealthy but having very little left in 1778. Other former officers fell into debt following the war, such as Captain Patrick Sims and ensign Walter Brooke Cox, both in the Second Company in 1776. There are a variety of other issues as well, such as non-monetary factors in determining social status and wealth. Ultimately, the historical record lacks the data needed to definitively know what role social class played in regard to American military rank throughout the entire Revolutionary War.

      Thank you again for your comment!


Comments are closed.