The Difference Between 2nd and 3rd Lieutenants

Q: My ancestor received a commission as a Second Lieutenant, but he is listed as a Third Lieutenant on muster rolls. Why?

A North Carolina infantry company was led by four commissioned officers: a captain and three lieutenants. Among the lieutenants were a first lieutenant, a second lieutenant, and a third lieutenant (also referred to as a junior second lieutenant or a brevet second lieutenant). The second and third lieutenants were the same pay grade (second lieutenant) but had different ranks.

Second lieutenants were initially appointed by the state. Two second lieutenants were assigned to each newly formed company. The junior (by date of rank) of the two officers filled the subordinate rank of third lieutenant. Thus, second lieutenants outranked third lieutenants by virtue of seniority.

Vacancies in the second lieutenant rank were filled, when practical, by promoting the third lieutenants. Replacement third lieutenants were then elected by their companies and as a result, held the newest commissions. In this system, which remained in place until late in the war, third lieutenants were always junior to second lieutenants.

The above always held true as long as a third lieutenant remained in the same company. But what happened if a third lieutenant transferred to an organization where his date of rank was earlier than a second lieutenant serving in the same organization? Captain Edward White, General Clingman’s AAG, asked that very question in November 1864.

“If a 2d and Jr 2d Lieut from different companies should be associated in duty and the date of appointment of the Jr 2d was prior to that of the 2d, which would take precedence.” General Hoke’s AAG, Major J. L. Cross, responded, “A relative difference of grade exists between 2nd and Jr 2nd Lieuts rank where both belong to the same company. When coming together from different companies, there is no distinction, they are both 2nd Lieuts. & their rank is determined by the date of the appointment.”

If I were a descendant of William R. Boon, I would describe his military service as “Second Lieutenant William R. Boon, served as Third Lieutenant of Company D, 51st Regiment North Carolina Troops.”

Final Note: I believe that the official rank was “Junior Second Lieutenant.” The designation of “Third Lieutenant” came from Hardee’s book on infantry tactics.

[Ref: Clingman Papers, Folder 18, Scans 58 & 59]

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