A Little Problem with the Brevet System
In eighteenth and nineteenth century armies brevets were
essentially honorary promotions to reward outstanding service. To be sure, there were some benefits attached
to having a brevet. One was normally
addressed in the rank of the brevet, rather than one’s substantial rank. Thus, for example, although for most of the
period form 1848 until his death in 1866, Winfield Scott’s substantial rank was
major general, since he held a brevet for lieutenant general he was normally
addressed with this much more exalted title.
Also, an officer might sometimes actually act in the
capacity of his brevet. For example, a
major holding a brevet for colonel might be appointed to head a court martial
in his brevet rank. An officer
commanding a combined arms column where there were several officers of equal
substantive rank might be assigned in his brevet rank. In these circumstances, the officer was not
only entitled to be addressed at his higher rank, but also to receive all the
pay and benefits of that rank. One can
readily see how this could lead to problems.
One such situation occurred during the War with Mexico.
As war clouds were gathering with Mexico, Col. Zachary Taylor, who
held a brevet for brigadier general, was assigned in his brevet rank by
President James K. Polk to command the army on the Rio Grande.
So, having been assigned to duty in his brevet rank, Taylor was entitled to draw the full pay and
emoluments of a brigadier general.
As luck would have it, one of Taylor’s subordinates was Col. William Worth,
of the 8th Infantry. Worth
also held a brevet for brigadier general, having been awarded it in 1842, for
the Second Seminole War. Taylor assigned Worth to
command a division in his capacity as a colonel, not as a brevet brigadier general. That’s when the trouble began.
Although Worth was not assigned to duty as a brigadier
general, he claimed that army regulations implied that an officer given an
assignment properly commanded by brigadier general was entitled to the pay and
emoluments thereof, and requested that his pay and benefits – including hefty ration,
quarters, and other allowances –
be adjusted accordingly. Now neither the
army paymaster nor Taylor were inclined to make a ruling on the matter. So the question was passed on to the War
Department. The department replied that
regardless of the status of his command, Worth was only entitled to his pay and
benefits as a colonel in the Regular Army.
Incensed, Worth promptly resigned from the army. As a result, Worth missed the two opening
battles of the war, Palo Alto
and Resaca de la Palma. Meanwhile,
Worth’s resignation wended its way to Washington,
where it was refused. Nevertheless, since
the active army was expanding, most regular officers were being given at least
promotions in the volunteer army.
Indeed, Worth himself was awarded a brevet for major general. So Worth returned to his division, in time to
participate in the Battle of Monterey and all subsequent campaign in the north.
Despite a distinguished war record, and his brevet for major
general, at the time of his death, on May 7, 1849, Worth’s substantive rank was still colonel,
which he had attained in 1838. He is,
however, portrayed as a general on his tomb, which stands in New York’s Madison Square.
Lt. Beresford Encounters a Bureaucratic Problem
On May 17, 1795, Lieutenant John Poo Beresford,
just 28, was acting commander of HMS Hussar,
a 28-gun frigate, which took part in an action in the Caribbean
during which two French frigates were captured.
In view of his gallantry, he was given command of one of the prizes, Prevoyante, and shortly afterwards a
promotion to post captain. Although Prevoyante was rated as a 40 gun ship, at
the time she was only carrying 24 guns.
To remedy this problem, Beresford took hers to Halifax, and had her fitted with a full 40
guns, at his own expense (he was the bastard son of the Marquis of
Waterford). He then took her back to
sea, intending to recoup his investment by capturing French merchantmen for the
While Beresford was pursuing this
goal, back in London
the Admiralty learned of his initiative in refitting the ship. Now although Beresford had already served as
acting commander of a light frigate, the Admiralty decided that a 40-gun ship
was much to distinguished a command to entrust to so junior a captain. Soon orders arrived transferring Beresford to
the second ship captured back in May, Raison,
which was only a 24-gunner.
Adding insult to injury, Raison also needed a refit, and Beresford
ended up footing the bill for her as well.
Despite these misadventures,
Beresford’s career prospered, and he served long and well, commanding frigates,
ships-of-the-line, and eventually squadrons against the Dutch, the Spanish, the
Americans, and, of course, the French.
At the time of his death, 1844, Beresford held a knighthood and ranked
as an Admiral of the White