Military History Bleg

Grave Marker Revolutionary War

Because I know how wise you readers are in your varied studies and hobbies, I hope that you can help me out with something. I’d like to know if the abbreviation for the rank of ensign in a Revolutionary War militia is the same as what we use now in the Navy.

One of my ancestors was an ensign in the Henry County, Virginia militia, and I’d like do properly document that with an abbreviation. However, given that the rank was abolished in the Army in 1815, and the fact that I don’t know if things would be quite the same in the militia, I thought I would try to find out what the proper format is in this case before I have it engraved on something.

So, military & history buffs, what do you say?

12 thoughts on “Military History Bleg”

  1. I’ve looked at a handful of transcriptions of primary source documents from pre-war colonial militias, as well as some from the Continental Army. While it was in no way comprehensive research, it doesn’t look like Ensign was abbreviated, even in documents where other ranks were mentioned and were abbreviated (e.g. Col., Capt., Lt.).

    An example is cited in this gentleman’s blog post:

  2. In my family history research in that period I have learned that there was little standardization of spelling let alone abbreviations. In the PA militia & Line, I have seen “E.”, “En”, “Esn” and “Ensn” used for the same person, sometimes in the same document.

    What I have been doing for is spelling them out using the modern version of the title.

  3. Dundas’ drill manual (18th century, sustained through at least 1824 in Britain) uses “E” to abbreviate Ensign with colours in diagrams.

    A Treatise on the British Drill and Exercise of the Company with an Introduction to the Field Exercise of the Battalion Explaining the Different Posts and Situations of Every Individual in the Battalion During the Performance of Its Movements by Antonio Baron López Suasso Díaz de Fónseca does not appear to use abbreviations for this rank.

    An 1814 American Source (Lt John Russel) does not appear to abbreviate either, at least upon casual inspection.

    I am not familiar with any standardized abbreviation in the English speaking military world of the 18th century.

  4. Have you searched Hening’s Laws of Virginia? It covers this period, and off the top of my head, I am sure that many militia ranks are mentioned in there.

  5. Thank you guys for all of your tips so far. With what you’ve said, and a tip on the blog FB post, I did find this page from the National Archives with a little inspired Googling that uses both Ens. and ensign spelled out.

    I suspect that there’s a bit of a tendency to spell it out in many transcriptions and modern versions because we haven’t had the rank in the Army in 200 years, so many people may not be familiar with it outside of the Navy. (When I mentioned to Sebastian that my ancestor was an ensign, he said, “He was in the Navy?”)

    My other consideration is my engraving limitation. While I can just fit the full name with “Ensign” spelled out, I’d be a little concerned that people might think his first name was Ensign. Is that a little silly?

    I may end up writing out all of the versions mentioned here and see what looks best. :)

    1. I too am surprised that anyone other than the Navy used the term “Ensign”!


      1. Until 1815, we did! I had no idea until I started looking into my family history and found this guy. Then, we really only started discussing it when I talked about wanting to get the rank of my military ancestor engraved on my patriot pins to distinguish those of my ancestors who simply supported the cause (gave supplies, helped fund the war, etc.) and those who actually served military duty. Most of my family members were privates and sergeants, but I’ve got one militia captain in the bunch and then this random ensign. I really do need to sit down with some books on Virginia militias in the Revolution because that’s how almost all of my ancestors served.

      2. The etymology makes too much sense…

        An “ensign” is a name for a flag or pennant. So the person bearing that rank was typically a junior officer who carried the flag, or who commanded the color guard.

        Eventually the rank was replaced by 2nd LT.

  6. Us Navy folk were always the odd ones in the bunch. Ensign, LTJG, LT (that wears Captain’s bars), Commander (that wears a Major’s oak leaf), and Captain (that wears the rank of a Colonel). Then throw in the fact that the CO (sometimes referred to as the Captain) of a ship doesn’t actually HAVE to be the rank of Captain…

  7. “Ensign” is long a deprecated rank in the US Army but continues to survive in some foreign armies (including the Russian, and armies that are or were under Russian influence) as a rank much like an American Army warrant officer. The Russian term is “Praporshchik” and it is, like “Ensign”, related to the word for flag or banner. The German term is “Fähnrich” and in the land service generally is an officer candidate who is not yet commissioned but is on that track.

    Remember, any military is centuries of tradition untrammeled by progress…

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