Every Man a Captain, Colonel, or General
John Hope Franklin

The possession of high military titles by some Southerners was observed by many travelers and occasioned some ridicule. When Mrs. Frances Trollope made the trip from New Orleans to Memphis in 1828, she was surprised to find that most of the men on the boat were addressed by the title of general, colonel, or major. She related her findings to an English friend who said that he found the same thing when he made that journey on the Mississippi River. He told Mrs. Trollope that he had asked a fellow traveler why there was not a single captain among them, to which the man replied, "Oh, sir, the captains are all on deck."

The architect Latrobe had the feeling that everyone he met in the South was either a captain, colonel, or general. Every house seemed to be presided over by an "officered head" of high rank, while backwoods taverns had "titled bonifaces of majority status." Latrobe, who was emotional on the subject of military titles, said that the multitudes of colonels and majors he saw in a tavern in Petersburg, Virginia, reminded him of the nobles of the Polish Republic. "The only difference is that instead of Count Borolabraski and Leschinski ... we have here Colonel Tom and Colonel Dick and Major Billy..." Another observer wagered that if a public carriage turned over with five males aboard, at least four colonels and generals would be injured.

A visitor to Savannah in 1842 felt that the obvious delight of men of all classes in military titles reflected a strong military spirit. The principal banker and the principal bookseller were both colonels, while the hotel keeper was a major. "Captains abound in every class," he reported: "nor do they receive their titles on parade only, but in everyday address of business and conversation." In the Carolina hills he found a similar condition, where titles "once enjoyed by ever so short a service are continued through life." Bishop Whipple got the impression that almost every third man in the South and Southwest was "blest with a military handle to his name."

It was not necessary for one to have served in the militia or a volunteer company to be dubbed with a military title. To ascribe to a person the role of a high military officer was a gesture of respect which no gracious or ambitious gentleman would decline. When Felix Lebouve migrated to Mississippi in 1835, he was almost immediately addressed as "colonel." No one recalls how he won the distinction. His biographer speculates that it was given "causa honoris by the lavish spirit of republicanism, which scorns to confine her honors to doughty deeds with the sword, but has all worthy sons in every walk of life to kneel before her and dubs them 'captain,' 'colonel,' 'general,' 'Judge,' by right of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, thus vindicating the sovereignty of the people." In Mississippi, in 1835, the people preferred military titles above all others. The preference was the same in Virginia, where the rage for military titles was such that the people were willing to confer the distinction gratuitously on anyone who did not possess a title. Most of the men of the better class were at least colonels, while every tavern keeper was a major. Occasionally there were a few "Kaptins ... amongst the stage drivers, but such an animal as a Lewtenant only exits on the muster-roll of the militia, for I never heard of any one having seen a live one in Republican America." Featherstonhaugh related a conversation which took place between a resident of Winchester, Virginia, and a ferryman.

"Major, I wish you would lead your horse a little forward," which he did, observing to the man, "I am not a major, and you need not call me one." To this the ferryman replied, "well, Kurnel, I ax your pardon, and I'll not call you so no more." Being arrived at the landing place he led his horse out of the boat, and said, "my good friend, I am a very plain man, I am neither a Colonel nor a Major. I have no title at all, and I don't like them. How much have I to pay you?" The ferryman looked at him, and said, "You are the first white man I ever crossed this ferry that arnt jist nobody at all, and I swear I'll not charge you nothing."


The Militant South 1800 - 1861 by John Hope Franklin
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1956, pages 190-192.