Civil War Final service rank

I am trying to determine my 2nd great grandfather's final military rank in the Civil War.

One adjutant report states his final rank as Brevet Captain in April 1863. One of his military service cards looks like it shows a promotion from 2nd to 1st lieutenant - no date given for promotion but does show his final discharge of Feb. 21, 1865.

Question: Am I correct in that "Brevet" means it was a temporary or honorary rank and therefore can NOT be his final rank. Which would mean his final rank was likely 1st Lieutenant??

Question: I have found some of his military cards on Fold 3 but wondering how comprehensive they are or if they'll have the same info as NARA. Is Fold 3 sufficient or should I use NATF 86 to request his military service records from the National Archives?

Thanks in advance!

  • I'm assuming your relative was Union, not a rebel.

    A Brevet rank was a temporary rank, but he would have worn it on his uniform. George Armstrong Custer was a Brevet Major General during the Civil war, but at the end of the war he reverted to his Regular Army rank, and that was why he died as a Lieutenant Colonel (Brevet Major General) at the Little Bighorn.

    By World War I they had done away with Brevet Ranks and instituted Temporary ranks. So in the Korean War, for example, my father was a Temporary Sergeant First Class but a Permanent Corporal.

    The Department of Defense did away with Temporary ranks in 1982 under a law they called the Defense Officers Personnel Management Act, but they just reinstituted them about two years ago as a force management tool, only this time they can temporarily promote someone into a position, then when they move out of the position, if they haven't been permanently promoted, they'll be reduced to their permanent grade, with no harm or foul.

    So was your ancestor in the Regular Army or a Volunteer Regiment? If he was in a Volunteer Regiment, he probably left service at his Brevet rank. If he was a Regular Army Officer, he may or may not have reverted to his Regular Army rank. Probably, but not necessarily.

    If you request his military cards--his service record--from the Archives, you'll get a copy of exactly what you see on Fold3, because Fold3 digitized the Archives' microfilm copies, and they don't access the paper copies unless the microfilm is unreadable--and you have to make a very strong case for that.

    IF, however, your ancestor filed for a pension after the war, or his widow did, you want to file for a copy of that, because they're not digitized. And there you'll find a lot more interesting things about his service . . . and possibly an explanation of what rank he was wearing at the end of the war.


    Thank you for posting your question to the Histor Hub!

    You are correct in stating that brevet ranks were temporary or honorary and thus would not reflect the soldier's actual rank at the time of his discharge. A brevet promotion did not entitle the officer to the pay of the higher rank or any accompanying privileges. They were usually given out for practical reasons, generally a need for officers of a certain rank in specific situations to lead the men effectively. Since you did not identify your ancestor by name or regiment, we cannot address his specific situation in more detail, but if he has a Compiled Military Service Record (CMSR) the file jacket should identify his actual final rank at the time he was discharged. Military cards that are available online are usually derived directly from the original service records held at the National Archives, but since we do not know the specific regiment we cannot tell if you are looking at index cards or the actual service record (both are available online but service records for some Union states have not yet been digitized). Service records that are available online should include the complete record. If you want to ensure that you have the most complete record available we would certainly encourage you to request the file directly from NARA via NAFT Form 86. You may also submit an order online at the following address: If you have any additional questions you are certainly welcome to contact the Archives 1 Reference Branch (RR1R) at for assistance.

    We hope this information assists you with your research!

    Archives 1 Reference Branch

  • Thank you so much for the information. His name was William Henry Harrison Wilcox but in his military records he's most often referred to as William H.H. Wilcox or W.H.H. Wilcox and occasionally as William H. Wilcox (although there is another by that name who served in a different NY regiment who is the same age).

    I have found some of his service cards on Fold 3 and they show some of his promotions but I haven't found one for discharge or for brevet captain (only seen that mentioned in adjutant report and his profile, see link below).

    I received his pension file years ago from the National Archives and it tells me all sorts of great info including his injuries and time as a POW in Libby Prison but does NOT mention his final rank on discharge (just when he was discharged). 

    He was in various companies in the 10th New York Infantry - one card says 10th Battalion, New York Infantry F&S. His pension record says 10th New York Volunteers. I've seen it on some accounts as the McChesney Zouaves or National Guard Zouaves.

    He is in the unit roster here:

    What's weird is the last line of his profile in that roster says he was discharged "
    with rank from April 26, 1863, original." That rank isn't referred to at all in the profile (or I'm misunderstanding something) but I have an adjutant report saying on April 26, 1863 he was a Brevet Captain. 

    So my interpretation was that he WAS Brevet Captain upon discharge. 

    I just found today a card from Veterans Administration pension payment cards, 1907-1933 showing his widow receiving a pension payment and it lists his rank as 1st Lt and Quartermaster. So I guess this shows he was getting paid at the 1st Lt. rate. Hopefully this link works -