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The word 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 11th 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 14th century and to "admiral" by the 16th century.

Royal Navy

King Edward I of England appointed the first English Admiral in 1297 when he named William de Leyburn "Admiral of the sea of the King of England". The rank of Admiral should not be confused with the office of Admiral of England or Lord High Admiral, which was an office held by the person with overall responsibility for the Navy.

The Royal Navy has had Vice and Rear Admirals since at least the 16th century. When in commanded of 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. Below him was another admiral at the rear of the fleet, called Rear Admiral.

In Elizabethan times the fleet grew large enough to be organized into squadrons. The admiral's squadron wore a red ensign, the vice admiral's white, and the rear admiral's blue. As the squadrons grew, each was eventually commanded by an Admiral (with Vice Admirals and Rear Admirals commanding sections) and the official titles became Admiral of the White, etc.

The squadrons ranked in order Red, White and Blue, and admirals ranked according to their squadron. Promotion up the ladder was in accordance with seniority in the rank of post captain, and rank was held for life, so the only way to get promoted was for the person above you on the list to die or resign. Another way was to promote unsuccessful admirals to the next rank without distinction of squadron (a practice known as yellowing - the unfortunate became known as a yellow admiral).

  1. Admiral of the Fleet
  2. Admiral of the White
  3. Admiral of the Blue
  4. Vice Admiral of the Red
  5. Vice Admiral of the White
  6. Vice Admiral of the Blue
  7. Rear Admiral of the Red
  8. Rear Admiral of the White
  9. Rear Admiral of the Blue

Lord Nelson when he died was only a Vice Admiral of the White.

In the 18th century the original nine ranks began to be filled by more than one person per rank, althouth the rank of Admiral of the Red was always filled by only one person and was known as Admiral of the Fleet.

In 1864 the organisation of the fleet into coloured squadrons was abandoned. The Red Ensign was allocated to the Merchant Marine, the White Ensign became the flag of the Royal Navy, and the Blue Ensign was allocated to the naval reserve and naval auxiliary vessels.

The current ranks are Rear Admiral, Vice Admiral, Admiral and Admiral of the Fleet, also known as flag ranks because admirals, known as Flag Officers, are entitled to fly a personal flag. An Admiral of the Fleet flies a Union Flag at the masthead, while an Admiral flies a St George's cross (red cross on white). Vice Admirals and Rear Admirals fly a St George's cross differenced with one and two red balls in the hoist respectively.

The 1-star rank of Commodore in the Royal Navy is not considered a flag rank, and Commodores fly swallow-tailed pennants bearing the cross of St George and a single red ball in the upper hoist.

In 1996 the rank of Admiral of the Fleet was put in abeyance in peacetime, except for members of the Royal family. However, Admirals of the Fleet promoted before 1996 continue to hold their rank on the active list for life.

United States Navy

The United States Navy did not have any Admirals until 1862 because many people felt the title too reminiscent of royalty to be used in the country'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 American Civil War than any international considerations. Two years later Congress authorized the appointment of a Vice Admiral from among the nine Rear Admirals: David Farragut. Another bill allowed the President of the United States to appoint Farragut to full Admiral on July 25, 1866, and David Dixon Porter to Vice Admiral. When Farragut died in 1870 Porter became Admiral and Stephen C. Rowan Vice Admiral. Even after 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 in the United States 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.