United States v. Hunt,
81 U.S. 550 (1871)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Hunt, 81 U.S. 14 Wall. 550 550 (1871)

United States v. Hunt

81 U.S. (14 Wall.) 550




In construing the third section of the Act of March 3, 1865, increasing the commutation price of officers/ subsistence, by fixing it at fifty cents per ration, "provided that said increase shall not apply to the commutation price of the rations of any officer above the rank of brevet brigadier-general" -- a brigadier-general is to be regarded as above the rank specified.

The third section of the act of March 3, 1865, * enacts:

"That from and after the first day of March, 1865, and during the continuance of the present rebellion, the commutation price of officers' subsistence shall be fifty cents per ration, provided that said increase shall not apply to the commutation price of the rations of any officer above the rank of brevet brigadier-general, or of any officer entitled to commutation for fuel or quarters."

Under this enactment, Hunt, a brigadier-general of volunteers, filed a petition in the Court of Claims claiming commutation pay. The United States demurred, thus admitting, of course, that the petitioner was a brigadier-general during

Page 81 U. S. 551

the recent civil war, and was not entitled to commutation for fuel and quarters. He was then entitled to the increased commutation for subsistence if his rank of brigadier was not above the rank of brevet brigadier. The question was, was it such?

The Court of Claims gave judgment in favor of the petitioner, and the United States appealed, assigning as error that a brigadier-general is above the rank of a brevet brigadier-general, and therefore not entitled to the benefit of this provision.

Page 81 U. S. 552

THE CHIEF JUSTICE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Our duty in construing acts of Congress is to give the meaning to words which Congress obviously intended. It may be that in the strict sense of the military term, the rank of brigadier and brevet brigadier is the same, but it is well known that, practically, they are by no means identical, and that the position of the former is in many respects better than that of the latter. Brevet rank is conferred, in theory at least, for special and meritorious services by commission from the President, under authority of an act of Congress. It does not entitle the holder to corresponding pay or command, except under special circumstances defined by law. When an officer holding rank by brevet receives a regular commission of the same grade, he is said to be promoted and to become a full officer of that rank. These circumstances make it evident that there is a difference of military position between an officer by brevet and an officer by regular commission, and that the one is less eligible than the other. And Congress seems to have referred to this distinction of position rather than to technical rank in the provision under consideration. If they did not, why employ the word brevet at all? Why use the term brevet brigadier when it was so easy to say brigadier, and thus avoid all ambiguity? We think that Congress had in view the distinction

Page 81 U. S. 553

between brevet rank and regular rank to which we have referred, and regarded the latter as above the former. The practice of the Department of War, as we understand, and of the accounting officers, has been in accordance with this view, and seems to us correct.

Judgment reversed.

* 13 Stat. at Large 497.

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