I've been trying to figure out why the insignia for a colonel in the U.S. military is an eagle. Obviously, there is the connection with the seal of the united states. But why is it used by the colonel rank?

It's important with respect to the U.S. could have warranted it for use on the highest ranking officers.

Basically as I see it:

  • NCO's: use chevrons in various combinations
  • LT, 1LT, CAPT: use bars, makes sense.
  • Major/LTC: use oakleaves (makes less sense but might have a similar explanation/origin as colonel?)
  • Col: use eagle
  • Generals: use stars

Does anyone know the actual origin of the design of the insignia and the why?

Note that I'm not looking for the origin of the rank colonel or the origin of insignes in general.

  • 1
    I would research the British colonel insignia - I know in 1810 they included a crown. Continental Army insignia were initially based on British, and an eagle is symbolically a very good replacement of a crown (crown became politically incorrect). Of course this does not apply to Major or Lieutenant-Colonel. – kubanczyk Feb 25 '13 at 10:22
  • Perhaps to go on a somewhat different note. Who would know? If this knowledge has been preserved somewhere, what would be the likely place to look? – Mythio Feb 25 '13 at 10:29

It's basically a simplified version of the Great Seal of the United States. It was made official insignia in 1832, source. The source has more about US rank insignia development (cockades in caps and all that).

There must have been a reason though, it must have been in informal use.

Wikipedia thinks this that it was used in 1805, but it's unsourced, my searches only lead to people verbatum quoting wikipedia and it got the other date wrong so I think we can disregard it for now.

Wikipedia has another "fact", backed up by Ask (because of plagiarism): "There is evidence that colonels wore the eagle as rank insignia in 1829 when they transferred the gold or gilt eagles that decorated their hat cockades to their collars". Here the trail leads back to this Office of History (Sacramento Air Logistics Center, McClellan Air Force Base etc) document, which has more info unfortunately doesn't elaborate further about origins.

So I think that it came into informal use and was adopted. I don't know why colonels specifically were able to do this, perhaps their uniform was ill defined or maybe it was just luck. But it is certainly not surprising that the eagle, as such a powerful symbol, made it's way in somewhere.


The eagle doesn't appear similarly in the British or French rank system (obviously it is a powerful military significance to the French, but not especially to colonels), which the two systems it's reasonable to assume the American rank structure emerged from. So it's origins are not there.

The great seal of the US Wikipedia page will explain it's significance to the American state and by extension it's significance to the military. Which is background, but doesn't address the colonel question.

  • 4
    The cynic in me would like to believe the bird insignia has to do with Colonel Sanders, but the timing is wrong. :-) – T.E.D. Feb 22 '13 at 19:45
  • 2
    It is an answer of sorts, but nothing conclusive. Was there perhaps a time when the rank of colonel was of greater importance? Maybe as the highest in the field leaders or something like that? To me it just seems weird that a rank other than the highest is associated with the eagle and the great seal. – Mythio Feb 24 '13 at 16:05
  • 4
    So much speculation: The US army was small at that time and pretty spread out so perhaps the largest military commands seen were regiments or battalions. The Colonel is the most senior field officer, so maybe this became functionally the highest rank during peacetime. Additionally, I get the impression that being a general ( like William Hull, Andrew Jackson, but not Winfield Scott) was a bit of a political appointment, so perhaps the colonels were the finest of the professional soldiers. – Nathan Cooper Feb 24 '13 at 17:39
  • @NathanCooper - Our standing army now is immense compared to the first half of the 19thC. A colonel is cheaper to pay than a general... especially if you don't have a two-million strong professional army to wrangle... plus they got to go fight people in the field where politicians couldn't gripe at them... – RI Swamp Yankee Jul 10 '15 at 4:23
  • The highest rank in the Us Army was Captain & Brevet Major in 1784, Lt. Col. & Brevet Brigadier General 1784-1791, Major General 1791-1796, Brigadier General 1796-1798, Lieutenant General 1798-1799, Major General 1799-1800, Brigadier General 1800-1812, Major General 1812-1841, Major General & Brevet Lieutenant General 1841-1861. So colonel was not the highest rank when the eagle insignia was adopted, though colonels were very rare. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – MAGolding Mar 5 '17 at 3:28

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