Origins of Colonelcy
The word "colonel" derives from the same Latin root as the word "column" (Italian: colonna) and means "of a column", and, by implication, "commander of a column". The word "colonel" (relative to its use in the military) is therefore linked to the word "column" in a similar way that "brigadier" is linked to "brigade", although in English this relationship is not immediately obvious. By the end of the late medieval period, a group of "companies" was referred to as a "column" of an army.
The first use of colonel as a rank in a national army was in the French "National Legions" (Légions nationales) created by King Francis I by his decree of 1534. Building on the military reforms of Louis XII's decree of 1509, he modernized the organization of the French royal army. Each colonel commanded a legion with a theoretical strength of six thousand men.
With the shift from primarily mercenary to primarily national armies in the course of the seventeenth century, a colonel (normally a member of the aristocracy) became a holder (German Inhaber) or proprietor of a military contract with a sovereign. The colonel purchased the regimental contract — the right to hold the regiment — from the previous holder of that right or directly from the sovereign when a new regiment was formed or an incumbent was killed.
The Spanish equivalent rank of coronel was used by the Spanish tercios in the 16th and 17th centuries. Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, nicknamed 'the Great Captain', divided his armies in 'coronelías' or colonelcies, each led by a coronel (colonel). However, the Spanish word probably derives from a different origin, in that it appears to designate an officer of the crown (corona, thus the rank coronel), rather than an officer of the column (columna, which would give the word columnal). This makes the Spanish word coronel probably cognate with the English word "coroner".
As the office of colonel became an established practice, the colonel became the senior captain in a group of companies that were all sworn to observe his personal authority — to be ruled or regimented by him. This regiment, or governance, was to some extent embodied in a contract and set of written rules, also referred to as the colonel's regiment or standing regulation(s). By extension, the group of companies subject to a colonel's regiment (in the foregoing sense) came to be referred to as his regiment (in the modern sense) as well.
In French usage of this period, the senior colonel in the army or, in a field force, the senior military contractor, was the colonel general and, in the absence of the sovereign or his designate, the colonel general might serve as the commander of a force. The position, however, was primarily contractual and it became progressively more of a functionless sinecure. (The head of a single regiment or demi-brigade would be called a 'mestre de camp' or, after the Revolution, a 'chef de brigade'.)
By the late 19th century, colonel was a professional military rank though still held typically by an officer in command of a regiment or equivalent unit. Along with other ranks, it has become progressively more a matter of ranked duties, qualifications and experience and of corresponding titles and pay scale than of functional office in a particular organization.
As European military influence expanded throughout the world, the rank of colonel became adopted by nearly every nation (albeit under a variety of names).
Colonels in the United States Military
Upon the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, colonial legislatures would grant commissions to men to raise a regiment and serve as its colonel. Thus, the first U.S. colonels were usually respected men with ties in local communities and active in politics. With the post-war reduction of the U.S. Army, the rank of colonel disappeared, and was not re-introduced until 1802.
The rank of colonel was relatively rare in the early 19th century, partly because the U.S. Army was very small, and the rank was usually obtained only after long years of service. During the War of 1812 the Army grew rapidly and many colonels were appointed, but most of these colonels were discharged when their regiments were disbanded at the war's conclusion. A number of other colonels were appointed by brevet - an honorary promotion usually for distinguished service in combat.
The American Civil War saw a large influx of colonels as the rank was commonly held in both the Confederate army and Union Army by those who commanded a regiment. Since most regiments were state formations and were quickly raised, the colonels in command of the regiments were known by the title "Colonel of Volunteers," in contrast to Regular Army colonels who held permanent commissions.
During the Civil War, the Confederate Army maintained a unique insignia for colonel, three stars worn on the collar of a uniform. Robert E. Lee wore this insignia due to his former rank in the United States Army and refused to wear the insignia of a Confederate general, stating that he would only accept permanent promotion when the South had achieved independence.
After the Civil War, the rank of colonel again became rare as the forces of the United States Army became extremely small. However, many colonels were appointed in the volunteers during the Spanish–American War, prominent among them Theodore Roosevelt and David Grant Colson.
Honorary Colonels in the United States
Some people known as "colonels" are actually recipients of honorary colonel ranks from a state governor and are not officers of the U.S. military. In the 19th century, the honorary colonels were military appointments and they still are nominally appointed to a governor's staff, but without military rights or duties. Famous honorary colonels include Colonel Harland Sanders of KFC fame, a Kentucky colonel; Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, who received the honor from a Louisiana governor; and Edward M. House, known as Colonel House, was a Texas honorary colonel and adviser to President Woodrow Wilson.
There is an aristocratic tinge to the social usage of the title "colonel", which today designates the southern gentleman, and is archetypal of the southern aristocrat. Historically during colonial times until the U.S. Constitution was enacted in 1787, colonels were commissioned by the first states (former colonies and provinces) to protect their interests to the West resulting in hundreds of commissions by Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina and Virginia. As a result of the colonel commissions made between 1750-1790 colonies were founded in what has become the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, West Virginia. Today, states conferring this title as an honor include Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico, and North Dakota.
Texas confers the honor of Admiral in the Texas Navy. From 2005 to 2015 Illinois allowed for the Governor of the State to make appointments to the Governor's Regiment of Colonels, but no appointments were made. Many states have provisions in their articles or bills concerning state defense forces which allow the governor to grant honorary membership of the officer ranks. While the honor of colonel in this usage has no actual military role, in the case of these states, the title did evolve from the military.
The highest honor of Tennessee is "Colonel, Aide-de-camp, Governor's staff". Those who receive this award are recorded by the Secretary of State of Tennessee with those who have been commissioned into the State Guard and Tennessee National Guard.
Kentucky's famous colonelcy evolved from the personal bodyguards of the governor and now confers its recipients as honorary members on the governor's staff. Like Tennessee, Georgia's honorary titles give its members a rank as aides-de-camp on the governor's staff and is codified in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated 38-2-111, while the Alabama honor specifically makes one a colonel in the state militia.
"The Colonel" is also often a moniker reference to restaurateur Colonel Harland David Sanders, the founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken ("KFC") chain of franchised restaurants, whom Ruby Laffoon, Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, commissioned a Kentucky colonel in 1935. Currently Kentucky has more honorary colonels than any other place with over 75,000 currently in existence.