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 General Military History    
Cumby, TX, USA
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Why is a major general a lower rank?
Posted on: 7/2/2017 2:09:31 PM
Why is a Major general a lower rank than a Lieutenant General when a Major is a higher rank than a Lieutenant? What is the history behind this?

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E-9 Cmd Sgt Major

Posts: 6408
Re: Why is a major general a lower rank?
Posted on: 7/2/2017 2:31:52 PM
British Army-- Wikipedia

Captain-general (c. 17th century): a full general.

Sergeant-major-general (c. 17th century): shortened to major general.

Brigadier-general: replaced by colonel-commandant in 1921.

Colonel-commandant: replaced by brigadier in 1928.

Sergeant-major's major (c. 17th century): shortened to Major.

Captain-lieutenant (c. 17th & 18th century): the lieutenant of the first company in a regiment, whose captaincy was held by the regimental colonel. On promotion to full captain, the period in this rank was treated as having been a full captain for pay and pension purposes, since he effectively commanded the company.

Ensign: lowest subaltern rank in infantry regiments; replaced in 1871 by second lieutenant, but still used to refer to second lieutenants in some Guards regiments.

Cornet: cavalry equivalent of ensign replaced in 1871 by second lieutenant, but still used to refer to second lieutenants in some cavalry regiments, including the Blues and Royals and The Queen's Royal Hussars.

NB.The seeming incongruity that a lieutenant general outranks a major general (whereas a major outranks a lieutenant) is due to the derivation of the latter rank from sergeant major general, which was also subordinate to lieutenant general.



Pro Patria Saepe Pro Rege Semper

brian grafton
Victoria, BC, Canada
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E-9 Sergeant Major

Posts: 1795

Re: Why is a major general a lower rank?
Posted on: 7/2/2017 8:36:05 PM
Doyce, welcome to MHO.

I've often wondered the same question you are asking, but I'll admit its never been a burning issue with me.

I don't know that Jim's answer helps you all that much, to be honest, though there are some indications of how such various designations might occur.

Keep the faith. Someone will answer.

Brian G
"We have met the enemy, and he is us." Walt Kelly.

"The Best Things in Life Aren't Things" Bumper sticker.

Centre Hastings, ON, Canada
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E-9 Cmd Sgt Major
Posts: 6831

Re: Why is a major general a lower rank?
Posted on: 7/2/2017 8:53:49 PM
I think that Jim has it right.

My understanding is that the definition of the word lieutenant has something to do with it.

Lieu means "place" in French. Tenant means "taking". So taking the place of.

The Lieutenant-General exists to take the place of the General as needed.

Jim explained that the Major-General was actually the Sergeant -Major General. Drop the "sergeant" and we are left with Major-General.

Can't remember where I read it. Maybe it was on this forum in years past.

But if I'm just blowing smoke, someone please tell me.




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E-6 Staff Sergeant
Posts: 425

Re: Why is a major general a lower rank?
Posted on: 7/3/2017 4:01:50 PM
It derives from the Spanish army organizational development in the 16th and 17th century. Originally the most senior rank in the army was "captain general". His second in command was his lieutenant, thus "lieutenant general". The highest ranking infantry officer and third in command of the army was the "sergeant major general", since he administered the "sergeants major" who were the senior sergeants in each of the tercios or colunnas. In turn, the sergeant major administered the sergeants in his command.

Mike Johnson
Stafford, VA, USA
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E-7 Sgt First Class

Posts: 502

Re: Why is a major general a lower rank?
Posted on: 7/3/2017 10:43:11 PM
One thing that should be noted is that military ranks were created at different times.

Armies commanded by a captain general (or colonel general or general) assisted by a lieutenant-general who commanded in the general's absence contained

columns, or regiments, or battalions each commanded by a colonel assisted by a lieutenant-colonel, which in turn contained

companies each commanded by a captain assisted by a lieutenant with a number of sergeants to control the men in the company.

These ranks emerged as royal armies were created as feudalism was ending (captains and lieutenants existed earlier in feudal times and came from Latin meaning "head" and "in place of" respectively.

sergeant-major-generals and sergeant-majors come later, added initially to assist with administration and later major-generals and majors to facilitate larger forces.

Companies and regiments received sergeant majors and the army a sergeant major general, all to help with administration. Gustavus XII of Sweden is credited with this innovation. Cromwell introduced them into the British military. Subsequently, Armies used major generals to command groups of regiments or battalions (brigades or divisions), Regiments or battalions used majors to command groups of companies called battalions or wings. And of course the number of lieutenants grew in the companies to 2 and later more.

Classical European military officer ranks are based on 3 groups of 3.

General - Lieutenant-General - Major-General
Colonel - Lieutenant-Colonel - Major
Captain - Lieutenant - (2nd Lieutenant, Ensign, Cornet)

Other grades emerged. In Britain, a brigadier-general was a field officer temporarily serving as a general officer.

This the Websters 1828 entry on lieutenant, the old known dictionary in English the can be readily accessed for free:

LIEUTENANT, noun luten'ant. [Latin tenens, holding.]
1. An officer who supplies the place of a superior in his absence. Officers of this kind are civil, as the lord-lieutenant of a kingdom or county; or military, as a lieutenant general, a lieutenant colonel.
2. In military affairs, the second commissioned officer in a company of infantry cavalry or artillery.
3. In ships of war, the officer next in rank to the captain.

Michigan Dave
Muskegon, Michigan, MI, USA
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E-9 Cmd Sgt Major

Posts: 3390

Re: Why is a major general a lower rank?
Posted on: 7/8/2017 9:04:08 AM

I was too, was curious about military ranks!

"The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

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