Navy Traditions and Customs
Why is the Colonel Called "Kernal"?
The Origin of the Ranks and Rank Insignia Now Used by the United
States Armed Forces
Admiral comes from the Arabic term amir-al-bahr meaning
commander of the seas. Crusaders learned the term during their
encounters with the Arabs, perhaps as early as the Eleventh Century.
The Sicilians and later Genoese took the first two parts of the
term and used them as one word, amiral. The French and Spanish
gave their sea commanders similar titles. As the word was used
by people speaking Latin or Latin-based languages it gained the
"d" and endured a series of different endings and spellings
leading to the English spelling "admyrall" in the Fourteenth
Century and to "admiral" by the Sixteenth Century.
King Edward I appointed the first English Admiral in 1297 when he named William de Leyburn "Admiral of the sea of the King of England." Sometime later the title became Lord High Admiral and appeared to be concerned with administering naval affairs -rather than commanding at sea. Admirals did become sea commanders by the Sixteenth or Seventeenth Century. When he commanded the fleet the Admiral would either be in the lead or the middle portion of the fleet. When the Admiral commanded from the middle portion of the fleet his deputy, the Vice Admiral, would be in the leading portion or van. The "vice" in Vice Admiral is a Latin word meaning deputy or one who acts in the place of another. The Vice Admiral is the Admiral's deputy or lieutenant and serves in the Admiral's place when he is absent. The British Vice Admiral also had a deputy. His post was at the rear of the fleet so instead of calling him the "Vice-Vice Admiral" his title became Rear Admiral. He was the "least important" of the flag officers so he commanded the reserves and the rear portion of the fleet. Sometimes he was called "Admiral in the rear." The British have had Vice and Rear Admirals since at least the Sixteenth Century.
Our Navy did not have any Admirals until 1862 because many people felt the title too reminiscent of royalty to be used in the republic's navy. Others saw the need for ranks above Captain. Among them John Paul Jones who pointed out that the Navy had to have officers who "ranked" with Army Generals. He also felt there must be ranks above Captain to avoid disputes among senior Captains. The various secretaries of the Navy repeatedly recommended to Congress that Admiral ranks be created because the other navies of the world used them and American senior officers were "often subjected to serious difficulties and embarrassments in the interchange of civilities with those of other nations." Congress finally authorized nine Rear Admirals on July 16, 1862, although that was probably more for the needs of the rapidly expanding Navy during the Civil War than any international considerations. Two years later Congress authorized the appointment of a Vice Admiral from among the nine Rear Admirals. That was David Glasgow Farragut. Another bill allowed the President to appoint Farragut Admiral on July 25, 1866, and David Dixon Porter Vice Admiral. When Farragut died in 1870 Porter became Admiral and Stephen C. Rowan Vice Admiral. When they died Congress did not allow the promotion of any of the Rear Admirals to succeed them so there were no more Admirals or Vice Admirals by promotion until 1915 when Congress authorized an Admiral and a Vice Admiral each for the Atlantic, Pacific and Asiatic fleets.
There was one Admiral in the interim, however. In 1899 Congress recognized George Dewey's accomplishments during the Spanish-American War by authorizing the President to appoint him Admiral of the Navy. He held that rank until he died in 1917. Nobody has since held that title. In 1944 Congress approved the five-star Fleet Admiral rank. The first to hold it were Ernest J. King, William D. Leahy and Chester W. Nimitz. The Senate confirmed their appointments December 15, 1944. The fourth Fleet Admiral, William H. Halsey, got his fifth star in December 1945. None have been appointed since.
The sleeve stripes now used by Admirals and Vice Admirals date from March 11, 1869, when the Secretary of the Navy's General Order Number 90 specified that for their "undress" uniforms Admirals would wear a two-inch stripe with three half-inch stripes above it and Vice Admirals the two-inch stripe with two half-inch stripes above it. The Rear Admiral got his two-inch stripe and one half-inch stripe in 1866. The sleeve stripes had been more elaborate. When the Rear Admiral rank started in 1862 the sleeve arrangement was three stripes of three-quarter-inch lace alternating with three stripes of quarter-inch lace. It was some ten inches from top to bottom. The Vice Admiral, of course, had even more stripes and when Farragut became Admiral in 1866 he had so many stripes they reached from his cuffs almost to his elbow. On their dress uniforms the admirals wore bands of gold embroidery of live oak leaves and acorns.
The admirals of the 1860s wore the same number of stars on their shoulders as admirals of corresponding grades do today. In 1899 the Navy's one Admiral (Dewey) and 18 Rear Admirals put on the new shoulder marks, as did the other officers when wearing their white uniforms, but kept their stars instead of repeating the sleeve cuff stripes.