The Society of Descendants of Militia Officers

serving from 1607 to 1861

Ranks of Militia Officers:

Militia rolls, order books, and journals generally identify the rank of individuals.  We can identify five different categories of ranks, titles, and appointments important to understanding the organization of the Militia.  They include:

First - senior civilian officers with specific responsibilities for organizing, equipping, and recruiting the militia.

Second - Commissioned Officers who held a commission by virtue of appointment by the Governor, or by someone the Governor authorized to raise militia units and appoint officers, or by election of the members of the militia.  Commissioned officers held command authority and were expected to lead militia troops in battle and to perform management duties required to administer their units.

Third - Non-Commissioned Officers elected or appointed within the unit to junior troop leadership positions responsible for ordering the unit in line, maintain unit cohesion, and training individuals in musketry and drill. 

Fourth - individuals who performed duties that were not inherently military in nature, but that were important for the health and well-being of soldiers.

Fifth - appointments to unit staff positions in which the individual was primarily listed in rolls and correspondence by the position held rather than by a specific military rank.  

Three senior civilian titles are associated with the Militia:

(I)  Captain General - a title given to Governors in their military roles of commander-in-chief of state or colony military forces.  Relatively few Governors have exercised their authority as Captain General by leading troops in the field; Governor Tryon of North Carolina in the campaign against the Regulators and as the commanding general at the Battle of Alamance is an example.

(II)  County Lieutenant - a senior official in a County with responsibility for recruiting, organizing, and equipping the Militia.  In Virginia, County Lieutenants may also have had some operational responsibility for command of their County's troops.  County Lieutenants generally appear to have held the military rank of Colonel.

(III)  County Sub-Lieutenant - assistants to the County Lieutenants responsible for areas within a County.  County Sub-Lieutenants generally appear to have held the military rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

There were a number of changes in the rank structure of the commissioned officers of the Militia throughout its history.  The following were the most common ranks:

(1)  Major General - division commander (state or colony level most senior purely military officer)

(1a)  Serjeant Major General - old English term for Major General, used at least in Massachusetts in the 1640s.

(2)  Brigadier General - brigade (district of multiple counties) commander

(3)  Colonel - regimental (county) commander

(4)  Lieutenant Colonel - second in command of a regiment, commander of a regiment in one state, or commander of battalion

(5)  Major - third in command in a regiment or an Aide de Camp to a Major General.  Majors are sometimes titled 1st Major or 2nd Major to indicate their relative seniority within the unit.

(5a)  Serjeant Major - old English term for Major, used at least in Massachusetts in the 1640s

(6)  Captain - company commander (company within a county)

(7) Captain-Lieutenant - a Lieutenant holding a company commander position, but paid as a Lieutenant

(8)  Lieutenant - second officer of a company.  Starting in the early 1800s, Lieutenants start to be numbered in order of seniority, 1st through as many as 5th in a company.  By the Civil War this had started to harden into the modern systems of two Lieutenant ranks, 1st and 2nd, with 2nd Lieutenants replacing the Cornet or Ensign.

(9a)  Ensign - third officer of an infantry company

(9b)  Cornet - third officer of a cavalry troop or company

Note that the term Cadet is used occasionally without identifying the significance of this rank.  We believe that it is used in the sense of an officer cadet.

There are five non-commissioned officer ranks:

(10)  Quartermaster - a senior non-commissioned officer rank paid at a rate higher than Sergeants, found in some cavalry troops.

(10a)  Marechal de Logis - the equivalent title to Quartermaster used in at least one Louisiana Militia cavalry company.

(11)  First Sergeant - the senior Sergeant of a Company.  When used this title implies a higher rank than Sergeant, but does not appear to have been paid at a higher pay scale.

(12)  Clerk - an administrative position paid as a Sergeant, responsible for unit strength reports and other records.

(13)  Sergeant - the most common senior non-commissioned officer rank.  Sergeants and Corporals are responsible for ordering the troops and maintain cohesion in battle, for some between muster administrative duties in some cases, and for instruction in drill and musketry.  Much like Majors and Lieutenants, Sergeants and Corporals are often numbered in order of seniority in the Company as 1st through 4th.

(13a)  Brigadier - the equivalent title to Sergeant used in at least one Louisiana Militia company.

(14)  Corporal - the junior non-commissioned officer rank

(14a)  Sous-Brigadier - the equivalent title to Corporal used in at least one Louisiana Militia company.

(15)  Lancepesade - the most junior non-commissioned officer rank, approximately equivalent to Lance Corporal, used in the Burgher Guards of the Dutch New York colony.

There are two essentially civilian positions within Militia organizations that have the status and pay of officers, but do not serve in a combatant role: 

(a)  Surgeon - usually approximately equivalent to a Captain

(a1) Surgeons Mate - a junior surgeon position approximately equivalent to a junior Lieutenant

(b)  Chaplain

In addition to ranks, there are appointments - the actual position an individual filled within the table of organization of the unit or field army.  These may have General added to them, such as the Quartermaster General, or they may be titled as an Assistant.   Often they do not have a specific rank attached to the holder in surviving documents, perhaps through omission in document that focus on the role being performed or because everyone at the time understood the significance and relative rank of the position.  These include:

Brigade Major - a Major assigned to the brigade staff to assist the Brigadier General.  These may have been ranked as 1st Brigade Major, 2nd Brigade Major, etc. based on seniority.

Fort-Major - the term implies that the holder was in fact a Major and that his duties were in some way associated with a fortification.  The term is rare, and its meaning uncertain.

Aide-de-Camp - an officer who served as an aide to a more senior officer, often serving as messenger with authority of the senior officer, as a gatherer of information, as the chief of staff, or as performing other substantial duties of a tactical and administrative nature.

Adjutant - an officer responsible for administrative and communications functions.  When of the regimental staff, ranks as Lieutenant.

Quartermaster - responsible for the quartering of the unit.  This is actually a tactical function of establishing the location and order of units within a camp so that they preserve unit integrity and are arranged in the order of march or the order of deployment for combat.  When of the regimental staff, ranks as Lieutenant.

Commissary - responsible for the supply services of the unit.

Wagon Master - responsible for the organization and operations of the wagons, carts, and other transportation vehicles that accompanied the army in the field.

Provost Marshal - responsible for the enforcement of discipline and the apprehension of violators of military or civil law.

Judge Advocate - the legal advisor to the commander and primary legal functionary of the unit.

This list highlights the complexity of military organization when the militia went to war.  Most of the key functions in a modern field army are represented, and the various appointments suggest a reasonably sophisticated staff organization. 

Examining militia ranks is complicated by the difficulty of identifying who is a militia officer.  This is a multiple part problem:

(1)  National or colonial power officers operated in conjunction with the militia in most of the wars in our period of study and may appear in descriptions of battles in a way that makes it difficult to identify their organizational affiliation.  It was not unusual for militia to serve under the overall command of regulars in the United States or British Armies.

(2) State raised volunteer regiments engaged for a longer period than the militia also had officers using the same rank terminology.  

(3) To further confuse the researcher, individual officers, and sometimes entire units, transitioned from one type of service to another.  For example, we see that as militia units became state troops, and then continental line, and finally back to state troops during the Revolutionary War.  And it was not unusual as wars extended over years for militia units to be activated for longer periods of time than the relatively short service that distinguishes them from state troops.

(4)  And at least one case in coastal areas, a ship captain served in a quasi ground force leadership role.

(5)  Finally there are a  number of individuals using military titles for which we cannot ascertain the origin.  Some of these may be  courtesy titles, some may reflect former military service, some may be promotions that are not otherwise recorded, and some may have been assumed by the individual in much the same way as occurs today as military imposters.   

Therefore, the researcher should be familiar with the structure of the Militia (including both when inactive and when in the field) and carefully account for the organizational assignment of officers encountered in research efforts.    


Duncan, Louis C.; Medical Men in the American Revolution 1775-1783; [monograph]; Medical Field Service School, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania; 1931.

Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E. and Smerlas, Donna D.; Massachusetts Militia Companies and Officers in the Lexington Alarm; [monograph]; three publishers, The Society of Colonial Wars in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, The Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetta, Archives Division, and The New England Historic Genealogical Society, no place; 1976.     

Lewis, J. D.; "The American Revolution in North Carolina: The North Carolina Militia;" [Internet page]; at; accessed 2015-08-20.

Roach, Hannah Benner; The Pennsylvania Militia in 1777; [monograph]; reprinted from The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, Volume XXIII, Number 3, 1964; Diane Publishing Company, Darby, Pennsylvania; no date.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University Library; Colonial and State Records of North Carolina;  Volumes 8, 10, and 19; [Internet website, transcription from original documents]; at; 2010-03-24. 

United States, Second Congress; An Act more effectually to provide for the National Defense, by establishing an Uniform Militia throughout the United States; [legislative act];1792-05-08.

Wright, Robert K.; "Massachusetts Militia Roots: A Bibliographic Study;" [extended article]; National Guard Bureau, Washington, District of Columbia; at; 1986-07-19.