The weather on May 23 was beautiful for campaigning, and the Army of the Potomac was on the move. Under cloudless skies the soft spring sun glinted off the steel sabers and bayonets of 100,000 men. But this was May of 1865, the war was over, and the Union’s saviors were marching down Pennsylvania Avenue to the cheers of jubilant spectators. Meade’s cavalry stretched seven miles and took more than an hour to pass the reviewing stand. Marching twelve abreast, the general’s infantry consumed another five hours. The next day six corps from Sherman’s army repeated the performance, the rangy westerners swaggering past the crowds “like the lords of the world!”
Following the two-day victory festivities the Union military forces underwent a rapid demobilization. By November 1866, only 11,043 of the 1,034,064 volunteers in the service in May 1865 were still in uniform. As the volunteers departed, the regular Army remained. It temporarily benefited from lingering martial enthusiasm when, in July 1866, Congress authorized a peacetime strength of 54,302. Included in the table of organization were four black infantry regiments (reduced to two in 1869), two black cavalry regiments, and 1,000 Indian scouts. Although these black units and Indian scouts were an innovation in the peacetime Army, which historically had been composed exclusively of whites, they became a permanent feature of the postwar military establishment. However, Congress soon slashed the Army’s overall size, and by 1876 the maximum strength was 27,442.
The Navy also underwent drastic reduction. Within five years it declined from a wartime peak of about 700 ships to 52. By European standards most of the ships were obsolete, for they were made of wood, moved by sails, and carried muzzleloading smoothbores. The mobilization accompanying the Virginius crisis showed how far the Navy had deteriorated. After war broke out in Cuba in 1868, Virginius made repeated voyages to the island carrying contraband to the revolutionaries fighting against Spanish rule. Although it sailed under the U.S. flag, the Spanish captured the ship in October 1873 and executed approximately fifty crewmen and passengers, many of them Americans. The result was a war scare with Spain. The Navy concentrated all available ships at Key West, but the assembled fleet (about two dozen ships, only six of them ironclads) was feeble compared to that of any major naval power, and diplomacy soon eliminated the likelihood of war. In early 1874 the fleet held maneuvers, which were unimpressive. Logistical support was nil, gunnery training was inadequate, and the ships’ boilers were so decrepit that the fleet’s top speed was only 4.5 knots. The fleet, declared one newspaper, was “almost useless for military purposes” because the vessels belonged “to a class of ships which other governments have sold or are selling for firewood.”
Although Army and Navy officers naturally lamented the extent of the demobilization, the reductions actually made sense considering the nation’s relative security and the missions that American policymakers wanted the armed forces to undertake. As even Generals Sherman and Sheridan realized, an invasion was unlikely. No European nation had a navy capable of transporting and sustaining a substantial expeditionary force across the Atlantic. Continental rivalries restrained any of the great powers from making a significant New World military commitment, and America’s vast size and immense military potential made foreign conquest impossible. Geography and European balance-of-power considerations gave the United States virtually total security. Moreover, through the 1880s a foreign policy with limited goals required little mobilized military power.
The Postwar Navy
In the post–Civil War era the Navy and Army returned to their traditional missions in support of national policy. Two aspects of postwar policy particularly affected the Navy. First, since “continentalist” assumptions dominated thinking about the national interest into the 1880s, the United States did not need a large, modern navy. Lacking a desire to compete with Europeans in an imperialistic struggle, the nation needed no navy to challenge them. Defense of the continental domain dictated only a modest naval force that in wartime could raid enemy commerce and supplement the fortifications protecting the coast. Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson correctly noted that the small and outdated postwar Navy was sufficient for the “defensive purposes of a peaceful people, without colonies, with a dangerous coast, and shallow harbors, separated from warlike naval powers” by the Atlantic.
Policy also required that the Navy protect lives and property abroad and, especially, foster trade by maintaining unimpeded access to foreign markets. Thus the Navy Department revived its prewar system of distant patrols. Although the European Squadron (successor to the old Mediterranean Squadron) had often been paramount in Navy planning, it declined in importance. Since European navies ensured stability in the Mediterranean, the United States made its major naval commitment to Latin America and Asia, where chronic instability provided ample opportunity for “gunboat diplomacy.” The Navy suppressed piracy, transported diplomats, stopped vessels flying the American flag to verify their nationality, provided a haven for missionaries threatened by “savages,” evacuated citizens endangered by war or epidemic diseases, and dispatched landing parties to deal with recalcitrant “barbarous tribes.” On numerous occasions marines and sailors went ashore to protect American merchants, investments, and strategic interests in Asia and in South and Central America. Naval officers also continued a diplomatic-commercial role, in the image of Matthew C. Perry. For example, in 1882 Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt negotiated the first treaty between Korea and a Western nation. Officers performed these missions partly to achieve personal glory and to preserve national “honor,” but they also shared the policymakers’ belief that expanding commerce and the nation’s welfare were inseparable.
The Navy’s deployment on distant stations required a return to wooden sailing ships. Advances in armor, rifled guns, and marine engines appeared with dizzying rapidity, but the debt-ridden U.S. government was not inclined to expensive naval experiments. Prolonged voyages could not be made with steam-powered vessels. Since even engineers did not perfectly understand thermodynamics, costly steam engines remained inefficient and consumed enormous amounts of expensive coal. Ships could not carry much coal and still have room for the crew and supplies. Although European navies could refuel at their colonial stations, the United States had few such bases. Finally, obsolete ships were sufficient to intimidate most Asians and Latin Americans, who were even less well armed.
Reinforcing these technological, financial, and military imperatives were sociological and psychological factors. The struggle between staff and line officers raged with new intensity, and steam symbolized the conflict. Believing they had made a substantial contribution to Union victory and that steamships would rule the oceans, engineers demanded equal rank with line officers. Considering the extreme flux in naval technology, engineers often uncritically hailed innovations in steam engineering to enhance their position. But line officers were not eager to share their authority aboard ships, and they opposed steam to assure their own prominence. Still, they were not blind reactionaries; most realized that ultimately steam would replace sails. They also understood an important political and strategic factor: National policy made steam ironclads temporarily unnecessary. Line officers prevailed, and in 1869 Vice Admiral David D. Porter, acting in the secretary of the navy’s name, ordered that all vessels “be fitted out with full-sail power” and that ships’ commanders justify any use of auxiliary steam power. He also dismissed Benjamin F. Isherwood, the chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering, and reduced the relative rank of other engineers.
The Frontier “Constabulary”
After a hasty post–Civil War concentration in Texas to help convince the French to withdraw from Mexico, the Army, like the Navy, resumed its traditional tasks. Taking advantage of America’s domestic war, French Emperor Napoleon III had established the Archduke Maximilian of Austria as the Emperor of Mexico in 1864 and supported him with an army. The Union ineffectually responded with diplomatic protests against this violation of the Monroe Doctrine. When the Civil War ended, the government dispatched General Schofield to Paris to demand withdrawal, and, before the volunteer armies dissolved, 52,000 troops mobilized in Texas to buttress the demand. Faced with continuing guerrilla warfare in Mexico, with fear of Prussian ambitions in Europe, and with the military might of a reunited United States, Napoleon withdrew in 1867.
With the continent saved from monarchy and the volunteers returned to their homes, the regulars aided the nation’s territorial and economic growth, manned the coastal forts, and fought Indians. The Army protected railroad construction crews, opened new roads, charted unexplored regions, briefly occupied Alaska, and improved rivers and harbors. The coast artillery stood guard in old masonry forts that rifled guns had made obsolete. The War Department planned a postwar program of earth, brick, and concrete barbette batteries, but reduced funding, and the relentless technical advances in artillery, soon killed the program. Given the country’s security, why waste money on unnecessary defenses?
Regulars redeploying to the west found Indian wars engulfing the Great Plains. When the regulars marched eastward in 1861, western state and territorial militia and volunteers assumed the frontier constabulary mission. Indian-white conflict actually intensified, since citizen-soldiers were often extremely brutal toward both hostile and friendly Indians. Violence first flared in August 1862 with an uprising among the Santee Sioux of Minnesota, who had endured years of insults, greed, and deceit from whites. Erroneously believing that Confederate agents had provoked the outbreak, the Lincoln administration dispatched General Pope, fresh from his humiliation at Second Bull Run, to the scene. But Pope was no more successful against the Indians than he had been against Lee. The war spread westward into the Dakota and Montana Territories, engulfing all the powerful Sioux tribes, and merged with other conflicts that flared across the prairies farther south. The situation in the west became so critical that the Union had to divert troops, including six regiments composed of former Confederate soldiers, from the major battlefields east of the Mississippi. The worst incidents occurred in 1863 at the “Battle” of Bear River, near the present-day Utah-Idaho border, and in 1864 at the “Battle” of Sand Creek. California volunteers launched a near-dawn surprise attack on Chief Bear Hunter’s Shoshone village camped along Bear River, killing approximately 250 men, women, and children. At Sand Creek, Colorado volunteers attacked Black Kettle’s Southern Cheyenne village. An advocate of peace, Black Kettle raised American and white flags over his tepee, but this did not prevent the whites from massacring 200 Cheyennes, mostly women and children. As one observer wrote, the Indians “were scalped, their brains knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their guns, beat their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word.”
The government signed a series of Indian treaties in 1865, blanketing the West in temporary peace. But gold and silver strikes, the Homestead Act, and railroad construction quickened the pace of settlement even during the Civil War. The idea of a permanent Indian frontier died under the deluge of land-hungry and gold-seeking whites, so the government devised a policy of concentrating the Indians on reservations, usually in areas that whites did not covet—at least immediately. The reservation system combined blatant greed and misguided philanthropy. Confined to unwanted land, the thinking went, the Indians would not interfere with white settlement. Denied their nomadic lifestyle, they could be “civilized”—taught the white man’s language, turned into sedentary agriculturalists, and Christianized. The policy’s flaw was that many tribes or tribal factions hated reservation life and rebelled against it. Then the Army had to force compliance.
The Army’s task was thankless and difficult. One problem was white society’s ambivalence about Indians. The opinions of frontiersmen and eastern humanitarians highlighted the ambiguity. “There are two classes of people,” Sherman wrote, “one demanding the utter extinction of the Indians, and the other full of love for their conversion to civilization and Christianity. Unfortunately the army stands between them and gets the cuff from both sides.” If the Army killed too many Indians, humanitarians cried “Butchery!” But if it killed too few, frontiersmen scorned the troops as cowards. Yet philanthropists demanded the forced acculturation that drove Indians onto the warpath, and westerners demanding “protection” often provoked violence by insisting that Indians move to smaller reservations.
Reflecting society, Army officers were often ambivalent about fighting for “civilization” against the “savages.” Many of them despised pontificating humanitarians, disliked rapacious frontiersmen, and lamented their government’s record of broken treaties. They viewed some aspects of Indian behavior (torturing captives and mutilating the dead) with revulsion. Yet they found much about the Indians commendable and commiserated with their fate. They lauded the Indians’ fighting abilities. Such praise served professional and psychic needs, since the Indians’ superb skills justified the Army’s frequent failures, but many officers genuinely admired the Indians as warriors. They also praised the Indians’ defiant fight for freedom. “We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them and it was for this and against this they made war,” wrote Sheridan. “Could anyone expect less?” Holding such sentiments, many officers preferred negotiations to bloodshed and took an active interest in Indian welfare. However, officers fulfilled national policy, insisting that Indians stay on their reservations and fighting them when they did not.
Divided responsibility for Indian affairs was another difficulty. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs administered the reservation system, but the War Department enforced it, leading to confusion over the respective roles of civil and military officials. The government never imposed a clear solution to this problem, but the Army inevitably assumed increased authority because of Indian resistance. “Peace by kindness” could not make them accept the reservations.
It did not help that the Army campaigned at the outer rim of the American empire; projecting military power at an empire’s edge is never easy. In the hostile western environment, the small number of troops and their inadequate training and weapons were severe handicaps. Extremes in topography, drought, cold, and vast distances made campaigning an ordeal. The lack of navigable rivers and the rugged terrain created logistical problems that the extension of the railroads only partially eased. The Army relied on wagons, horses, and mules, but boulders and gullies shattered axles and wheels, forage was scarce, and animals collapsed from hard usage. Always too few to police the west properly, regulars were often poorly trained and armed. Based on European-style tactical manuals, what little training they received left them ill-prepared to fight an unconventional foe who sometimes had superior shoulder arms. In 1873 the Army adopted the single-shot, breechloading, black-powder Springfield rifle. Not until 1892, when the Indian campaigns were over, did it adopt a repeating rifle, the smokeless-powder Krag-Jorgensen. Long before then some Indians had acquired repeaters, especially Winchesters. Whether armed with repeaters or bows, the Indians were worthy adversaries. In the east Indians moved on foot, but in the west they rode ponies, giving them greater mobility. With no towns to defend, no encumbering supply trains, and an uncanny ability to live off the land, the western Indians were adept at guerrilla warfare. Relying on stealth and ambushes, they appeared to be everywhere without being anywhere and generally refused to engage in pitched battles. On those few occasions when they did stand and fight, the Army had its hands full.
The factors that shaped colonial Indian wars, and the subsequent two centuries of native-white conflict, still prevailed. First, microbes continued to inflict a biological catastrophe, killing far more Indians than bullets did and thereby eroding their ability to resist. Since diseases were recurring—in the northern Plains an epidemic occurred about every six years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—a tribe barely recovered from one epidemic before a new wave of death and anguish swept over it. The Comanche population, for example, peaked at 40,000 in the 1770s but, ravaged by periodic outbreaks of smallpox and cholera, dwindled to no more than 10,000 by the 1850s. Second, whites retained an advantage in their superior discipline and organization. While Native Americans were excellent strategists and tacticians, they primarily relied on transitory cooperation among tribes and tribal factions to achieve their goals. On the other hand, the Army’s high command planned comparatively far ahead and campaigned relentlessly. Third, the primary problem was making the Indians stand and fight. The Army utilized converging columns, sending several forces into an area simultaneously, which occasionally forced the Indians into battle. Although the columns invited defeat in detail, officers assumed they would not encounter a large enemy force. The grass and game in any one region would normally not support substantial Indian concentrations.
A fourth theme was that to achieve decisive results, whites had to wage ruthless total war against the Indians’ fixed camps. Since Indians dispersed into hunting and war parties during the summer, this often required winter campaigns. When the regulars found a winter encampment, the occupants were doomed. The Army invariably surprised the Indians, who were notorious for their lax security and thus could not put up a successful defense. The elements, the grass-fed ponies’ weakened condition, and the presence of women and children made escape difficult. If the Indians fled, the Army destroyed their shelter and food supplies, leading to death from starvation and exposure.
Finally, the Army compensated for its weaknesses by the time-honored method of employing friendly Indians. At times the Army linked a tribe to a fort, forming a symbiotic military colony. The Tonkawas at Fort Griffin, Texas, and the Northern Cheyennes at Fort Keogh, Montana, were examples of this. Friendly Indians represented at least half the Army’s strength in some encounters, and in a few instances the only U.S. soldiers engaged with the enemy were Indian allies. A general estimated that one Indian scout unit was more valuable than six cavalry companies. Yet many officers hesitated to rely on Indians. Within the context of American-style war they were not good soldiers, lacking discipline and refusing to sacrifice themselves in mini-Gettysburgs. Doubts lingered about their loyalty, though scouts turned on white soldiers only once, at the Battle of Cibicu Creek in 1881. Depending on Indians reflected badly on the Army, tainting the regulars’ prestige. But the most successful officers utilized Indian allies.
For three centuries the conflict between whites and Native Americans followed the course of white settlement, which is why the final campaigns occurred on the Great Plains and in the intermountain west rather than the west coast. The tide of white settlement flowed steadily westward to the Mississippi, then inched across that mighty waterway to form a belt of well-watered states running from Minnesota to Louisiana. From there the Americans jumped across the west’s interior and settled in California and Oregon. Only as the Civil War came to an end and in the succeeding quarter century did they backfill the Great Plains and intermountain west, and they did so by approaching from both the east and west.
The Indian “wars” between 1866 and 1890 consisted of little more than pursuits and skirmishes; only an occasional incident involved enough men to classify it as a “battle.” Conflict flared intermittently in three zones. The regulars’ nemesis in the arid southwest was the Apaches. In the Rocky Mountains and the northwest, the foremost adversaries were Utes, Bannocks, Sheepeaters, Paiutes, Shoshones, Modocs, and Nez Perce. And on the Plains the Army fought Comanches, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas, and, especially, Sioux.
The most deadly conflict in the final stage of the Native Americans’ defeat throughout the continental U.S. was the so-called Snake War, a dreary, sputtering guerrilla conflict against Shoshones, Northern Paiutes, and Bannocks (whites collectively referred to these groups as “Snakes”) who roamed the Great Basin where Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada converge. Lasting from 1864 to 1868, the war claimed 378 soldiers, civilians, and Indian scouts, while 1,254 Indians died or were wounded. Although the Snake War was the deadliest, the Great Sioux War was the most famous, even though it had only about half the Snake War’s total casualties. Among the Army’s approximately 950 engagements in the post–Civil War West, the best known, by far, occurred during the Great Sioux War: The Battle of the Little Bighorn (known to the Indians as the Battle of the Greasy Grass), where the Sioux, reinforced by Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho allies, defeated George A. Custer’s 7th Cavalry.
Conquering the Sioux was not easy because they were stronger than many other tribes. Not only did their nomadic lifestyle protect them from the worst ravages of the epidemics that swept the Great Plains, but the government had also inoculated some Sioux bands against smallpox in 1832. Fortunately for the whites, the Sioux had been such aggressive expansionists that they alienated many weaker tribes; before the Great Sioux War ended, Crows, Assiniboines, Shoshones, Arikaras, Pawnees, Utes, and Bannocks fought for the Americans. Moreover, by the early 1870s the Sioux and their Northern Cheyenne allies had purposefully shifted from an offensive to a defensive strategy. They would no longer attack whites outside the region between the Yellowstone River and the Black Hills, but they would do all they could to defend themselves if the whites invaded that area. In order to put up the most effectual defense, they tinkered with new forms of centralized command to overcome the factionalism that so often sundered tribes. Sitting Bull became the foremost chief, with Gall and Crazy Horse his foremost subordinates. Perfect unity among the Sioux remained impossible to achieve, but strategic thinking underlay the effort.
The Custer fight demonstrated most of the themes of Indian warfare but also had unique features. Provoked by treaty violations and angered by efforts to confine them to reservations, large numbers of reservation Sioux joined the so-called “hunting bands” of Sitting Bull, which had never been on a reservation. In 1876 Sheridan planned an expedition of three converging columns to force all of the Sioux onto their reservation. Commanding more than 1,000 troops and 262 Crow and Shoshone allies, George Crook marched north from Fort Fetterman. John Gibbon with 450 soldiers and 25 Crow auxiliaries moved east from Forts Shaw and Ellis. Westward from Fort Abraham Lincoln came Alfred H. Terry leading 925 soldiers, including the 7th Cavalry, and 40 Arikara scouts. The commanders directed their attention to catching the enemy, giving little thought to then defeating him, since each column could deal with more warriors than anyone expected to fight in any single encounter. However, the Indians were concentrated in unprecedented numbers, perhaps 1,000 lodges (wigwams) in all, which meant about 2,000 warriors. They had no intention of fleeing, and many carried repeaters. They attacked Crook’s column on June 17 at the Battle of the Rosebud, where fighting raged for six hours, with Crook’s Indian allies repeatedly saving his position from being overrun. The battle badly mauled Crook’s command and forced it to retreat.
Unaware of the Indians’ uncommon determination and of Crook’s repulse, Gibbon, Terry, and Custer planned to trap the Indians in the Little Bighorn Valley. Custer would ascend the Rosebud, cross to the Little Bighorn, and descend it. Gibbon and Terry would go up the Bighorn River and assume a blocking position at the Little Bighorn’s mouth, bottling up the enemy. As soon as either force encountered Indians, it should give battle to prevent them from escaping. Custer declined to take a Gatling gun platoon, which would limit his mobility, and refused 2d Cavalry reinforcements, believing that he could “whip all the Indians on the Continent with the Seventh Cavalry.”
Approaching the Little Bighorn on June 25, the day before Gibbon and Terry could be in position, Custer fragmented his regiment into four battalions. He sent Captain Frederick W. Benteen off to the south with three companies to ensure the Indians did not flee in that direction. Locating a village, he ordered Major Marcus A. Reno’s three-company battalion to charge it immediately, perhaps assuming the Indians were surprised. Directly commanding five companies, Custer moved to the north, and one company stayed to the rear with the pack train. But instead of running, the Indians attacked, forcing Reno to withdraw and dig in and wiping out Custer’s battalion. Reinforced by Benteen and the pack train, Reno held out until the Gibbon-Terry column arrived on the 27th. The post-battle reactions of Indians and whites showed much about their respective warmaking abilities. The Indians were unable to sustain collective action, drifting apart into bands to celebrate, hunt buffalo, and find fresh grass for their ponies. But the Army poured troops into Sioux country by rail, steamer, foot, and horse. Crook and Nelson A. Miles, aided by Indian spies and scouts, spearheaded a winter campaign that ferreted out enemy camps and virtually ended Indian resistance.
Although the Army’s role in subduing the Indians should not be minimized, other factors were perhaps more important. By 1890 railroads crisscrossed the west, bringing new settlers. In 1866 fewer than 2 million whites lived in the west; twenty-five years later there were 8.5 million, planting crops, raising cattle, and depleting the timber, grass, and game that sustained Indian society. For the Plains Indians the buffalo’s destruction was especially harmful, for they depended on its hide and meat for almost every want. By the late 1880s commercial hunters had reduced the buffalo herds from 13 million to a thousand, and Sheridan believed that did more than the Army to pacify the Indians. In other regions of the west, white settlement and activity also severely reduced other types of game. The frontier was gone, and Indians had nowhere to go but the reservations.
The conquest of the Indians ended an era in the Army’s history. Indian fighting had been its primary function since the formation of the 1st American Regiment. Now the Army no longer needed to remain in the far-flung garrisons, and consolidation took place rapidly. By 1891 the Army had abandoned one-fourth of the posts occupied in 1889. Even before the troops settled into their fewer, more permanent installations, officers began debating a disturbing question: What was the Army’s purpose now that its foremost traditional mission was gone?
The Army and Reconstruction
“Of the slain there were enough to furnish forth a battlefield . . . all killed with deliberation,” wrote Albion W Tourgee in his 1879 novel A Fool’s Errand, “shot, stabbed, hanged, drowned, mutilated beyond description, tortured beyond conception.” Tourgee was not describing a frontier massacre. Having been a Republican judge during Reconstruction, he was explaining the fate of many blacks and their white political allies. Allowing for literary license, the judge told the truth. Appomattox was only a truce that ushered in two years of nominal peace before the south renewed the conflict at a guerrilla level. President Grant refought many of the men he had already defeated once and whose purpose had been little changed by Lee’s surrender. Confederate veterans dominated the irregular warfare between 1867 and 1877, continuing the struggle against federal authority in order to preserve white supremacy and regional political powers. The renewed war forced the Army to participate in low-intensity military operations and to assume an untraditional duty. Garrisoning the south during Reconstruction was a deviation from its customary apolitical role.
During the Civil War the Army became involved in developing loyal governments in the seceded states and working out the freedmen’s place in society. Lincoln appointed military governors with civil and military powers for occupied states, hoping they could mobilize loyal electorates, and Army officers initiated educational and free labor programs for exslaves. To support the Army’s work with blacks, in March 1865 Congress created the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen’s Bureau) in the War Department. Staffed primarily by Army personnel, the bureau represented a unique social welfare experiment and an unprecedented extension of federal power into the states, since it had authority over the economic, legal, and political affairs of the former slaves.
Northerners assumed that martial law and the military’s role in the south would end in 1865. They expected southerners to acknowledge defeat by treating blacks justly, rejecting Confederate leaders, and embracing southern Unionists. None of these things happened. Encouraged by President Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policy, which imposed no severe penalties on the south, unrepentant southerners elected former Confederates to state, local, and national offices, formed militia units composed of exsoldiers, passed “black codes” restricting the freedmen’s rights, slaughtered blacks in race riots, refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, and bullied loyalists. Most important from the Army’s viewpoint, southerners frequently insulted and sometimes assaulted soldiers and filed scores of damage suits in state courts against federal military personnel. In these suits claimants asked for damages for actions that the soldiers had taken under martial law during and after the war. Since the claimants, judges, and jurors were inevitably former rebels, the courts were unsympathetic to the defendants. Army personnel, whose legal status in the south from 1865 to early 1867 was ambiguous, were reluctant to exercise authority under martial law or support the Freedmen’s Bureau for fear of provoking damage suits.
The problem of protecting the Army from vengeful southerners and establishing its legal position was one of the main factors that drove a wedge between Johnson, on the one hand, and Congress, Secretary of War Stanton, and Commanding General Grant, on the other. Johnson’s position, expressed in proclamations issued in April and August of 1866, was that the rebellion was over, the southern states were restored to the Union under his lenient policy, and the civil authority was ascendant over the military. He wanted the Army out of the reconstructed states since, he said, “standing armies, military occupation, martial law, military tribunals, and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus are in time of peace dangerous to public liberty” and incompatible with free institutions. In the Milligan, Garland, and Cummings decisions, the Supreme Court agreed with him that continued martial law was unconstitutional. But from the perspective of the Army and a growing number of Republican congressmen, if prevailing conditions did not change, the wartime sacrifices would have been in vain, for only loyal people would suffer any penalties.
Rather than see Appomattox reversed, Army personnel and white Unionists suffer further abuse, and blacks returned to virtual slavery, Stanton and Grant defied the president and turned to Congress for help, resulting in an alliance between the Army and Congress that wrested Reconstruction policy from Johnson’s hands. In 1866 Grant, with Stanton’s concurrence, issued orders permitting military personnel who believed the south’s civil courts denied them justice to have suits transferred to federal courts or the Freedmen’s Bureau’s tribunals. He also issued a secret circular urging commanders to act discreetly but authorizing them to employ martial law when necessary despite Johnson’s proclamations. Congress further protected the Army by amending the 1863 Habeas Corpus Act to provide for federal jurisdiction in suits against soldiers and to assist the defendants with government legal aid.
Laws passed in March 1867 signaled a complete victory for the Congress-Army alliance over the president and in essence established a separate army for Reconstruction duty. The Command of the Army Act and the Tenure of Office Act kept Grant and Stanton in their positions and enhanced the commanding general’s authority over the entire Army. Although frontier garrisons remained under executive control and the precise extent of the president’s loss of authority over the occupation forces remains subject to debate, Grant and Stanton, acting in concert with Congress, were the dominant voices affecting the Army in the south. To prevent organized resistance, Congress disbanded southern militia units and prohibited new ones from being raised without its approval.
Finally, Congress passed the First Reconstruction Act setting forth its own policy. The act legalized Army occupation, reinstated martial law, and divided the south into five military districts, each commanded by a general. The Army became a political instrument, a role that it did not relish but undertook as a means of self-preservation. Under the act the Army had the power to remove and appoint officials, register voters, hold elections, regulate court proceedings, and approve state constitutions. Grant interpreted the law to mean that commanders had “entire control over the civil governments” and were not responsible to any United States civil officer, and Congress agreed. Thus a general’s political inclinations were important. A few lacked zeal for the goals of congressional Reconstruction and worked with Conservatives (Democrats) to limit its impact. But others favored the Republican Party, and their tutelage fostered Radical Republican governments. By 1871 Congress had readmitted most of the states, Conservative or Republican. After a state’s restoration military rule ended and civil government began. However, southerners so detested most of the new regimes that, having created Republican governments, the Army had to help defend them.
White racists considered three organizations besides the Army provocative. Although the Freedmen’s Bureau helped plantation owners by keeping blacks tied to the land as agrarian laborers, it also enhanced the freedmen’s political and civil rights. The Union League, a northern patriotic society, spread to the south, where freedmen comprised the bulk of its membership and its main purpose was to mobilize black voters. To provide for local protection, most of the governments received congressional permission to raise militias. Composed of both blacks and white Unionists, the militias undertook general police and specific election duties, ensuring that freedmen voted and that ineligible former rebels did not. Paradoxically, the militias weakened rather than strengthened the Republicans. Congress used their formation as a pretext to reduce the Army, and the sight of armed black men intensified the white southerners’ reaction to Republican rule.
The southerners’ violent answer to Reconstruction was the Ku Klux Klan. Begun as a social fraternity in Tennessee, that state’s leaders made it into a paramilitary arm of the Conservative Party. The Klan spread to every state between the Potomac and the Rio Grande and spawned a host of similar organizations, such as the Knights of the Rising Sun and the Knights of the White Camellia. Manned by undemocratic Democrats and racist reactionaries, the terrorist groups beat, whipped, raped, and murdered lone blacks and white Republicans, especially those active in the Freedmen’s Bureau, Union League, and militias. Many incidents were simple brutality. But the violence also served a counterrevolutionary purpose, undermining the reconstructed governments by inducing some Republicans to leave the South and assassinating and intimidating others. Wherever the terrorists were active, Republican voting drastically declined.
“The Ku Klux organization is so extensive, and so well organized and armed, that it is beyond the power of any one to exert any moral influence over them,” wrote a general serving in Tennessee. “Powder and ball is the only thing that will put them down.” But who would supply the powder and ball? The reign of terror was so extensive that state governments were powerless to control it. Only the national government and its Army had the resources to quell the south’s challenge to federal policy. Most Army officers were willing to engage the rebels again—even those who sympathized with southern goals deplored the lawless terrorists—and whenever the beleaguered state governments requested aid, they responded as best they could. But severe problems hampered the Army’s war against the Klan. Too few regulars were available. In 1868 only 17,657 men were on occupation duty, and three years later the number was only 8,038. While numbers are not necessarily an indication of power, the Army was nevertheless too small to quash the violence. Constitutional and legal safeguards against military power also restricted the Army. When Congress readmitted a state, the Army could intervene only upon the application of, and in subordination to, state civil authorities. These officials, either afraid of or in sympathy with the terrorists, often inhibited effective action. Moreover, even when officials called upon the Army to assist in enforcing the law, its legal authority was as murky as it had been in 1865–1867. Thus officers facing a delicate political situation often hesitated to act decisively.
Perhaps the most fundamental problem was the north’s flagging determination. Representing a minority in each southern state and utterly dependent on federal support, were the Republican governments worth saving? Increasing numbers of northerners thought not, and erstwhile backers of congressional policy gradually retreated. An important test between northern resolve and southern resistance came in the early 1870s, when Congress passed the Enforcement Acts. The most important one, called the Ku Klux Klan Act, outlawed the Klan and similar groups, permitted President Grant to declare martial law and suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and gave federal officials and troops unprecedented authority of enforcement. However, the enforcement record in the south was pitiable, and by 1874 the program retained little vitality. In nine South Carolina counties, where Grant for the first and only time suspended the writ of habeas corpus, the act did achieve measurable success and demonstrated what might have been achieved. The commander there, Major Lewis M. Merrill, deployed the 7th Cavalry so effectively that he broke the Klan’s grip on the state. But South Carolina was the exception.
Despite the Enforcement Acts, not because of them, the Klan’s activity declined as it lost the community support essential for irregular operations. The grosser Klan outrages repelled simple humanity, and the exile and demoralization of the black labor force hurt the economy. More important, Democratic leaders, unable to control the Klan, could not mobilize it to help them win elections. With the KKK, violence spawned violence, all too often unharnessed to political purpose.
But southerners did not give up their war for white supremacy and home rule. The north’s obvious desire for peace and its growing indifference to the fate of southern Republicans encouraged Democrats to act boldly. In the mid-1870s a new white terror arose to “redeem” those states still under Republican rule. Openly directed by Democratic leaders, such well-armed organizations as the White League of Louisiana and the Red Shirts of South Carolina were essentially Conservative militias formed to counter Republican militias. Although relying heavily on economic pressure and threats, which were unlikely to provoke federal intervention, they resorted to violence when it served political purposes. Democrats planned race riots and battled Republican militias prior to elections, in time to keep Republicans from the polls but too late for Washington to send regulars to police the voting. What occurred between 1874 and 1877 was not indiscriminate Klan-style violence, but a calculated insurrection as the last unredeemed states fell to Democrats.
One unexpected result of Reconstruction was the difficulty in enacting legislation to reform and modernize the armed forces. The Democratic triumph in the south led to a reunited national Democratic Party. Based on its experiences between 1861 and 1877, it became an antimilitary party, giving new birth to the attitudes of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian eras. For the next generation congressional Democrats, especially those from the south, generally opposed forward-looking military legislation. At times Democratic intransigence threatened the Army’s operational ability. For example, in 1877 Congress appropriated no money for the Army until November 30, forcing soldiers to rely on loans from bankers, who were often usurious. Frequently joining the antireformist Democrats were the War Department’s bureau chiefs, whose political power had been enhanced during Reconstruction. With the Army responsive to Congress’s direction, the chiefs exerted even greater independence from their traditional superior, the secretary of war, and developed closer ties to Congress, thus gaining political leverage in fighting line-sponsored reforms.
In 1865 Sherman predicted that “no matter what change we may desire in the feelings and thoughts of people [in the] South, we cannot accomplish it by force. Nor can we afford to maintain there an army large enough to hold them in subjugation.” He was right. Force failed to transform southerners. But northern public opinion never permitted the use of much force. A massive, sustained intervention might have produced more favorable results. But budgetary restraints, fear of standing armies, and concern for the consent of the governed (as long as they were white) prevented a significant commitment of indefinite duration. By 1877 the north was so anxious for sectional reconciliation that it gave up the effort to preserve the gains of 1865. It had won the conventional war but lost the unconventional war of 1867–1877. White supremacy prevailed, and the south’s wartime leaders dominated a distinct section within the United States. As one man wrote in 1877, “Status quo ante bellum or things as they were before Lincoln, slavery excepted: such is the tendency everywhere.” True, formal slavery died, but whites imposed informal servitude on blacks, making them the most cruelly deceived of all by Appomattox. The north got peace in 1877, but the peace lacked justice.
The Army’s duty in the south was onerous. Subjected to political crossfires, it turned in a performance that seemingly pleased no one, north or south. Radicals argued that it did too little to support the congressional program, while Conservatives complained that it did too much. As the Army redeployed, most men were probably glad to leave the south. Avenging Custer or chasing the Nez Perce would surely be more satisfying (if also more deadly) than playing a thankless political and civil role. But the Army was about to march into another civil-military cauldron, for in 1877 a nationwide labor strike rocked the government, which ordered the Army to undertake another untraditional task: policing labor strikes.
The Army and Strikebreaking
In the last half of the century American society underwent rapid change. Immigration threatened its identity, urban growth compromised its agrarian past, and the rise of corporate capitalism altered the relationship between management and labor. Hard hit by recurrent depressions and stressing the rights and needs of individuals, laborers went on strike, raising the specter of class warfare. Capitalists demanded that the government intervene to preserve order, and presidents responded by ordering the Army to enforce the law. Essentially middle class by birth, Army officers shared the capitalists’ ideology. Both groups were concerned about social stability and the sanctity of private property but little understood the conditions that drove workers to strike.
The 1877 strike began with railroad workers, but coal miners and the urban unemployed soon made common cause with them. Local law enforcement agencies and private industrial police were unable to restore order. Management appealed to governors for National Guard (militia) assistance, but some states found they had no militia, and those that did discovered their Guardsmen often sympathized with the strikers. Worried state officials and capitalists called for federal aid, and President Rutherford B. Hayes sent about 2,000 regulars to troubled areas, some arriving after forced marches from Indian country, “all tanned and grizzled, and with unwashed faces and unkempt hair, and their clothes covered with dust an inch thick in some places.”
Military intervention in labor disputes was not unprecedented (in 1834 President Jackson used troops in a labor disturbance), and Reconstruction familiarized Americans with using regulars upon a governor’s application. Still, Hayes’s action marked the beginning of a wrenching experience for the Army. During the next twenty years it participated in several other shattering labor upheavals and several minor ones. Three characteristics marked the Army’s role in labor troubles. First, in each situation the government and Army responded on an ad hoc basis. The government devised no policy, and the Army no contingency plans, for strike duty. Second, despite this handicap, the Army was effective. It not only restored order but also broke strikes, to the dismay of workers and the delight of capitalists. Third, the Army acted with restraint. Although sometimes met with abuse and rocks, regulars refused to respond with violence. In 1877, for instance, local police, hired guards, and National Guardsmen killed 100 strikers, but regulars did not kill a single man.
“In reality, the Army is now a gendarmery—a national police,” wrote a colonel in 1895. The Army’s participation in labor strife apparently convinced a few officers that this was true. Arguing that the nation needed an enlarged Army to restrain the industrial proletariat, they requested increased appropriations and manpower. Actually, such appeals may have been consciously spurious. By 1890 the thrust of professionalization was toward creating a modern Army prepared for war, and the money and men allegedly needed to control “white savages” could be used for this primary mission. Strikebreaking was no more edifying than Reconstruction duty: One alienated southerners and the other antagonized labor, which trumpeted the old arguments against a standing army. In any event, the officers’ appeals did not work. Southern congressmen, remembering the army’s “tyranny,” obstructed Army legislation, and many other Americans were receptive to labor’s warning about despotism. Moreover, state officials no longer needed to rely on regulars. After an inept start in 1877, National Guard units became more efficient and assumed a greater role in quelling labor strife.
The need for a police force for strike duty was only one stimulus that revived the volunteer militia, which almost universally assumed the name National Guard in the postwar era. After the war southern militias, first Democratic and then Republican, reformed immediately, but northern units briefly deteriorated. The exhaustion with war and the sense of security that led to the Army’s reduction also sapped militia vitality. But by the early 1870s the traditional attractions of militia service began to resuscitate the institution. Spontaneous martial enthusiasm, the social prestige of belonging to an elite group, and the appeal to physical fitness, discipline, and duty sparked the renaissance.
Following the 1877 debacle the pace of the National Guard’s revival quickened. Between 1881 and 1892 every state revised its militia code, and in 1879 militia leaders formed the National Guard Association to lobby Congress for favorable legislation. However, the association’s only success came in 1887, when Congress doubled the annual appropriation begun in 1808 to $400,000. By the early 1890s the Guard contained more than 100,000 men, predominantly from the middle class. Its foremost activity was preserving order in industrial disputes. Between 1877 and 1903 governors called out the Guard more than 700 times, and about half of the calls were for the Guard to perform strike police duty. Since many working people viewed the Guard as a capitalist tool and disliked it intensely, serving as strike police was no more rewarding for Guardsmen than for regulars. Indeed, when the National Guard Association asked for federal aid, it emphasized the Guard’s role as a reserve force, not as policemen. Thus neither regulars nor citizen-soldiers avidly pursued strike duty as a primary mission. But both groups sought other missions that armed forces modernization and professionalization offered.
Imperialism and Naval Modernization
Stimulated by America’s emerging imperialist impulse, technological developments, and officers’ career concerns, the armed forces started to modernize during the 1880s. A steam and steel “new navy” eased down the slips and onto the seas, and Congress appropriated funds to commence a new coastal fortifications program. To build ordnance and armor for the modern ships and coastal defenses, linkages developed among the military, government, and industry. During the century’s last two decades, America shifted from isolation to imperialism, its outward thrust combining idealism, cultural arrogance, and economic expediency. A resurgent Manifest Destiny proclaimed the white man’s moral responsibility to spread civilization, and Social Darwinists gave Manifest Destiny a “scientific” veneer, arguing that nations behaved like biological organisms. Only the fittest survived, so strong nations inevitably extended their power over weaker ones. And since Darwin described a struggle for survival, a nation must be prepared to fight. Some civil and military leaders actually glorified war. One congressman announced that “there are no great nations of Quakers,” and a naval officer wrote an essay in the North American Review extolling “The Benefits of War.”
The fusion of destiny, Darwinism, and a glorification of war was not the only cause of American imperialism. Some people thought the closing of the frontier, industrial overproduction, and labor unrest portended a crisis. They believed that America’s history was one of expansion, the frontier (in theory) providing a “safety valve” for the discontented, raw materials, and a market for manufactured goods. With the frontier gone, was it coincidence that the nation suffered from excess production, depressions, and labor unrest? Policymakers sought a new frontier, primarily commercial rather than territorial, by channeling expansionist energies into an aggressive search for overseas markets to absorb the industrial glut, restore prosperity, and preserve domestic tranquility. The United States, however, did not have unfettered access to foreign markets. European empires controlled much of Asia and Africa, and some Europeans cast covetous eyes upon Latin America. President Chester A. Arthur had defined America as the “chief Pacific power” and the U.S. considered the Caribbean its private lake, but if the country did not enter the imperial quest, the great powers might foreclose its opportunities to sell exports in either region. Thus policymakers urged a strategy of preemptive imperialism: The United States should seize or dominate desirable areas before rivals gobbled them up.
Two imperatives flowed from the search for foreign markets. First, America must acquire more bases as trading and naval way stations to protect its interests and encourage commerce. Between 1867 and 1889 the United States purchased Alaska, occupied Midway, and acquired the right to build naval bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Pago Pago, Samoa. (Few expansionists thought this was enough.) Second, the country must strengthen its coastal defenses and Navy, and broaden its definition of national security. Since the U.S. was becoming part of an interdependent world economic and political system, a commercial struggle might flash into an outright war, necessitating the protection of the continental domain and its overseas interests.
Rearmament advocates initially stressed traditional defensive strategies. An expanded Navy and modern fortifications would prevent an enemy from raiding the coast, bombarding wealthy port cities, and effecting a close blockade. By the mid-1880s the increased capabilities of European steam fleets made these prospects seem frightening. The Navy would also engage in single-ship operations, defending the merchant marine and foreign bases and destroying enemy commerce. However, a growing number of strategists questioned the viability of the traditional maritime strategies. They perceived that the telegraph and fast steam cruisers would make commerce raiding difficult. Moreover, instead of sailing singly or hovering near the coast to defend important harbors, the ships of a modern Navy might be massed for offensive fleet actions at sea. As one congressman said in 1887, we want a Navy “with which we may meet the foe away from our coast when he comes.”
Technology joined imperialism as a spur to modernization. For twenty years Americans congratulated themselves for not following European nations that built the costly experimental weapons that soon became outmoded. But the technological advances had been tremendous. Delaying modernization much longer might mean falling irretrievably behind in the technological race. More important, European naval architects had eliminated much technical confusion, blending steam, armor, and improved guns into acceptable ship standards. Navies could dispense with full sail rigging, since better engines increased speed and range. Steel was superior to iron for hulls and armor, and hull compartmentalization would keep a damaged ship afloat. Guns came to be breechloading rifles using slow-burning powder that enhanced velocity. Compound barrels permitted lighter yet stronger guns, which hydraulic recoil mechanisms automatically returned to their firing position. In 1883 a naval commander summed up an increasingly universal feeling: “The present time is very favorable; it is possible after twenty years of experiments, mainly by foreign nations, the results of which are known to us, to build a fine fleet, of such numbers as may be judged necessary, and equal to performance and wants now well understood; a fleet that shall be superior ship for ship to the same kind of vessels elsewhere.”
Army and Navy officers, particularly junior ones, pushed modernization for national security reasons, but also for narrow career interests. Promotion remained slow; larger, modern forces with important missions would break the logjam. With the ending of the Indian wars, the Army had lost its most active mission. Police duty was an unsatisfactory substitute, and no strategists envisioned sending large expeditionary forces abroad. At most the nation might require small Army forces to help the Navy temporarily defend a few points on foreign soil. The Army embraced a new fortifications program, for coastal defense seemed its sole remaining significant function. While reminding the public of the Navy’s role in aiding businessmen abroad, naval officers propagandized for the new Navy among selected groups. They lobbied among shipbuilders, steel firms, and weapons manufacturers who would benefit from naval construction. Navalists also supported an expanded merchant marine, hoping they could convince the business community that more commerce justified more warships.
Ever since the Virginius affair of 1873–1874, navalists had lobbied intensively for a revitalized Navy, but it took a decade for them to achieve even modest results. The Navy’s serious rebuilding effort began in 1882–1883 under Secretary of the Navy William H. Hunt, who persuaded President Chester A. Arthur that new construction was necessary. “Every condition of national safety, economy, and honor demands a thorough rehabilitation of the Navy,” the president told Congress, which responded in 1882 with an act authorizing two steel cruisers, though it failed to appropriate funds to build them. The same law limited repairs on existing ships, which ensured an early retirement for the “old navy,” and authorized the secretary to appoint a Naval Advisory Board, which recommended four steel cruisers and a dispatch boat. Congress eliminated one cruiser and in the Naval Appropriations Act of 1883 authorized and funded the protected (armored) cruisers Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago and the dispatch vessel Dolphin (known as the ABCD ships). The cruisers were transitional vessels, sail-rigged but with steel hulls, compartmentalization, steam engines, screw propellers, electric power plants, and breechloading rifles using slow-burning powder. Between 1884 and 1889 Congress authorized eight more protected cruisers (including Charleston, the first modern U.S. ship without sails), three unprotected cruisers, six steel gunboats, three armored cruisers (two of them, Maine and Texas, were originally classified as second-class battleships), and a few monitors. The new Navy initially remained wedded to the old mission of showing the flag and protecting commerce. The ships still lacked the armor and armaments to engage European fleets, yet they were ideal for intimidating nonindustrialized peoples and could carry out attacks on enemy commerce.
A fundamental change in naval policy occurred in the early 1890s, prompted by Secretary of the Navy Benjamin R. Tracy, who believed that the “sea will be the future seat of empire. And we shall rule it as certainly as the sun doth rise!” To do so, the United States needed bases (perhaps even colonies) and a great Navy, and Tracy was an avid expansionist and an ardent navalist. He cast his imperialist eye on several islands, but all his schemes failed. He had more success with the development of the Navy. His first annual report in November 1889, which reflected increasingly widespread professional naval thought, represented a clear break with past strategy. Instead of emphasizing coastal defense and commerce protection and raiding, he called for a new doctrine of command of the sea based on battleships capable of destroying an enemy’s fleet in midocean. “The country,” he said, “needs a navy that will exempt it from war, but the only navy that will accomplish this is a navy that can wage war.” The present force of cruisers and gunboats did “not constitute a fighting force.” He recommended building eight battleships for the Pacific and twelve for the Atlantic, all of them “the best of their class in four leading characteristics: armament, armor, structural strength, and speed.” He also suggested a complementary force of sixty cruisers (thirty-one of which were already built or authorized) and twenty coastal defense vessels. He believed the U.S. could easily afford such a Navy and that its construction would benefit labor.
Tracy’s recommendations for 100 modern warships might have seemed excessive had not the Policy Board’s report of January 1890 been leaked to the press. Appointed by Tracy to study naval requirements and prepare a long-range plan, the board called for more than 200 ships! With the Tracy and Policy Board reports before them, congressmen engaged in an acrimonious debate. Many recognized that battleships marked a radical departure and hesitated to embark on an uncharted voyage. Some wanted only monitors and coastal fortifications, others preferred cruisers and gunboats. The resulting naval bill was a compromise. It authorized three battleships, but designated them “sea-going coastal battleships” and limited them to a 4,500-mile range. Traditionalists could thus consider Oregon, Indiana, and Massachusetts as little more than updated monitors with an enhanced ability to break a blockade. Yet the battleships did mark a departure, the starting point for a new maritime strategy that strove to gain command of the sea. Once begun, Congress did not reverse the trend. In 1892 it funded Iowa, a battleship with no statutory range limit; in 1895 it authorized two more battleships and in 1896 another three.
Tracy not only introduced battleships into the Navy but also formed a “squadron of evolution” in 1889 that was the precursor of a concentrated battlefleet. Comprised of the ABC cruisers and a steel gunboat, it practiced steaming in formation and tactical maneuvers, which were faster and more complex than under sail. In 1892 the Navy Department merged the squadron into the North Atlantic Squadron, which by 1897 developed into a fighting fleet. With good reason Tracy could claim in 1892 that progress made during his tenure marked “an epoch in the naval development, not only of this country, but of the world.”
A well-defended coast was an essential adjunct to a strong navy. Both Army and Navy officers realized that “the navy is the aggressive arm of the national military power.” However, it could undertake an offensive mission only if it had secure home ports and if relieved of defensive duties. The Chilean bombardment of Callao, Peru, in 1880 and the British bombardment of Alexandria, Egypt, in 1882 were vivid reminders of an undefended port’s fate. American cities must be secure from similar attacks and from the prospect of a squadron holding them ransom, extracting money and exerting diplomatic leverage in return for immunity from shellings. In 1883 President Arthur called congressional attention to the obsolete coastal defenses, and the next year Commanding General Schofield’s annual report spoke of “the perfectly defenseless condition of our seaboard cities.” Sparked to action, in the Fortifications Appropriations Act of March 1885 Congress directed the president to appoint an Army-Navy civilian board, headed by Secretary of War William C. Endicott, to investigate the problem.
The Endicott Board report of 1886 painted a grim picture of the seaport defenses and proposed a massive fortress program estimated at $127 million. It recommended large numbers of breechloading rifles and rifled mortars, supported by floating batteries, submarine mines, torpedo boats, rapid-firing guns, machine guns, and electric searchlights, for twenty-six coastal localities and three Great Lakes sites. In 1888 Congress created a permanent Army Board of Ordnance and Fortifications to test weapons and make proposals for implementing the program. Funding for construction began in 1890, though at a more modest level than the Endicott Board had suggested. The work fell behind the original projections from the start, yet new defenses to match the new Navy were underway.
Building the ships and ordnance inextricably linked the government, the military, and industry. When the new Navy began, a fundamental question arose: How should the nation acquire the tools of war? Should it rely upon the private economic sector, which might lead to monopolies with respect to designs and prices? Or should it depend on government arsenals, an arrangement that smacked of socialism and might be less efficient than profit-motivated private enterprise? Or would some combination of private and public facilities be better? To study this problem, the Naval Appropriations Act of 1883 created a Gun Foundry Board composed of six Army and Navy officers. After investigating arms manufacturing in Europe, the board recommended a mixed system. The government should offer contracts to private firms to supply basic steels and forgings, which government-owned plants would fabricate into finished guns and ships. The officers suggested the Army’s Watervliet Arsenal and the Washington Navy Yard as excellent assembly plants.
The government accepted the Gun Foundry Board’s report. The 1886 law authorizing Texas and Maine stipulated that they be built with domestic steel and machinery, and that at least one of the ships be constructed in a navy yard. To entice firms to bid, the secretary of the navy pooled orders for Texas, Maine, and four monitors into one $4 million contract, and in mid-1887 awarded it to the Bethlehem Iron (later Steel) Company. Subsequent contracts also went to Carnegie, Phipps and Company (later Carnegie Steel).
By the mid-1890s construction of the Navy and the coastal fortifications had intertwined private and public policy in a mutually beneficial relationship. Manufacturing armor and ordnance required expensive plants employing skilled workmen; to cease construction would idle the factories and create unemployment or disperse the workers into other endeavors. Thus economic depressions no longer meant decreased government expenditures but increased expenditures to keep factories operating and workers employed. This motive may have influenced the 1895–1896 battleship authorizations during the depression that began in 1893. Military contracts certainly allowed the Bethlehem and Carnegie firms, and their supporting subcontractors and shipbuilders, to survive while other establishments went bankrupt. In short, armed forces modernization bound together the public welfare, private interest, and national security.
Reforming the Armed Forces
“History does not countenance the idea that an untroubled assurance of peace is a guarantee that war will not come,” wrote a naval essayist in 1879. “Lessons” drawn from history often rest upon feeble analysis and faulty analogy, but the writer had a point. Sooner or later, war came. To military reformers viewing the global great power rivalry, progressively involving the United States, a big war against a powerful adversary was not impossible. Indeed, the central theme in late-nineteenth-century military theorizing was that in peace the armed forces should prepare for war against even the most formidable potential enemy. While seemingly a truism, this postulate represented a rejection of past policy.
Traditionally the nation maintained small peacetime constabularies—the Army on the frontier and the Navy on its stations—and then extemporized fighting forces during wartime. Such a policy, professionals argued, would no longer suffice. The potential foes were too strong, the lead time in producing modern weapons was too long, and warfare had become so complex that hastily mobilized amateurs could not master it. In determining the composition and strength of the Army and Navy, the U.S. should look beyond Indians and pirates to the leading European nations, especially Germany and England. Officers also thought that preparing for war required the ability to wage it “scientifically.” In their quest for efficiency they reflected a societal trend. During the initial stages of the Progressive movement in America, captains of industry applied scientific managerial techniques to the problems of production. “Progressives in uniform” sought similar expertise and bureaucratic forms, which would allow them to utilize prewar preparations in the most “scientific” wartime manner.
The reformers’ greatest success was creating a more complete educational system. This success was due in large part to General Sherman (the commanding general between 1869 and 1883) and Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, two men who epitomized the professional spirit. Each was responsible for establishing an important school and both supported other schools, journals, and institutes, all fostering the expertise and corporate spirit essential for professional identity. Sherman and Luce also each nurtured a protégé (Emory Upton and Alfred Thayer Mahan, respectively) whose writings profoundly influenced military affairs.
A man of great intellect, Sherman vigorously pushed for Army education. He believed West Point was only the beginning of military education, envisioning it at the base of a pyramid consisting of advanced schools where officers gained specialized knowledge; at the apex he hoped for a “war college.” Sherman sustained the 1868 revival of Calhoun’s old Artillery School, encouraged the development of an Engineering School of Application, and, most important, founded the School of Application for Infantry and Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth. It began as a training school for junior officers that emphasized small-unit tactics, but two outstanding officer-instructors, Eben Swift and Arthur L. Wagner, stressed an analytical approach to learning rather than rote memorization and redirected the school toward a true staff college devoted, as Sherman said, to “the science and practice of war.” Meanwhile, creative officers formed additional schools for the field artillery and cavalry combined, the Signal Corps, and the Hospital Corps, plus an Army Medical School. Sherman was also instrumental in the founding of the Military Service Institution in 1878, a professional society that brought together officers with a common interest in acquiring specialized knowledge. The Institution promoted writing and discussion about military science by publishing a bimonthly journal. It also spawned the formation of branch associations for the infantry, cavalry, artillery, and military surgeons, each publishing its own journal.
Perhaps Sherman’s greatest contribution to military education was the encouragement he gave to Emory Upton, whose writings dominated Army thought well into the twentieth century. An 1861 West Point graduate, Upton had a meteoric Civil War career. Beginning as a second lieutenant, he was a brevet major general before his twenty-fifth birthday. Yet the war disturbed him. “I am disgusted with the generalship displayed,” he wrote during the Wilderness campaign. Too many men had been “wantonly sacrificed” in frontal assaults. “Thousands of lives might have been spared,” he continued, “by the exercise of a little skill; but, as it is, the courage of the poor man is expected to obviate all difficulties.” In 1867 he published Infantry Tactics, which adapted tactics to rifled and breechloading shoulder arms, and the War Department immediately adopted the book for use in the Army and militia. The book emphasized simplicity in drill, specially trained and more numerous skirmishers, less dense attacking formations, and the need for soldiers to exhibit an intelligent initiative.
Upton, however, believed the major problem was a defective military policy. Appointed commandant of cadets at West Point, Upton developed a close relationship with Sherman, who, in 1875, appointed Upton to a commission assigned to propose Army reforms based upon its studies of foreign military systems. After the world tour Upton wrote two books, The Armies of Asia and Europe and The Military Policy of the United States. The latter, one of the most significant books in American military history, was a clarion call for drastic policy changes.
As Upton perceived it, U.S. policy contained near-fatal weaknesses. Excessive civilian control was a fundamental flaw, since most congressmen, presidents, and secretaries of war were inexperienced in military matters. The nation as a whole had an “unfounded jealousy of not a large, but even a small standing army.” Thus America relied upon unreliable citizen-soldiers. Although volunteers and militiamen could be brave, Upton considered their short enlistments, lack of discipline, dual state-federal control, and untrained officers as crushing liabilities, making them useless as a reserve force. Since these defects prevented adequate preparations, the country’s wars usually began with failures, were longer than they should have been, and entailed “enormous and unnecessary sacrifices of life and treasure.” “Ultimate success in all our wars,” warned Upton, “has steeped the people in the delusion that our military policy is correct and that any departure from it would be no less difficult than dangerous.” Nothing, he argued, could be further from the truth.
While in Europe, Upton studied the German military, which offered a stark contrast. The Germans had a General Staff that operated in comparative freedom from civilian restraint. Unlike America’s staff, which was simply an aggregation of the bureau chiefs, the German staff made peacetime preparations for war, gathering information about foreign armies, drawing up war plans, and controlling an educational system that ensured competent collective leadership. The regular Army was large and proficient and organized on the cadre, or expansible, principle. Germany relied on conscription and assigned its veterans to seven years’ service in the reserves, which were under national control. With these sound practices, Upton said, Germany defeated Austria in six weeks and humbled the vaunted French in just three and a half months.
Upton proposed revolutionary reforms to prevent a repetition of America’s past folly. Although he claimed that the United States “can not Germanize” and that it would not be desirable to do so, Upton’s reforms had a definite Teutonic ring. The country should abolish its present General Staff and create a Germanic one, enhancing the powers of professionals relative to the president and secretary of war. An enlarged regular Army, organized on the expansible principle, should be at the center of military planning. To flesh out the Army in wartime, the United States should rely on “National Volunteers” controlled and led by regulars. Although he admired conscription and considered it a “truly democratic doctrine,” Upton only obliquely advocated it, knowing the public would not accept peacetime conscription. The militia would be a force of last resort, used solely to execute the laws, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions.
Upton’s ideas collided with America’s most revered traditions, ran counter to the prevailing aversion to spending more money on an Army already performing its duties satisfactorily, and suffered from problems as fundamental as those he thought existed in America’s policy. In unreservedly praising regulars and denigrating militiamen and volunteers, Upton misused history. Regulars were not uniformly successful, and citizen-soldiers were not always pathetic. As Washington, Jackson, Forrest, Lincoln, and others demonstrated, superb leaders could be created in arenas other than the Army. Nor did Upton understand that policy cannot be judged by any absolute standard. It reflects a nation’s characteristics, habits of thought, geographic location, and historical development. Built upon the genius, traditions, and location of Germany, the system he admired could not be grafted onto America. In essence, Upton wrote in a vacuum. He began with a fixed view of the policy he thought the U.S. needed, and he wanted the rest of society to change to meet his demands, which it sensibly declined to do. Thus, for example, his plan for a large expansible Army faltered for obvious reasons. No peacetime nucleus big enough to avoid being swamped by a wartime influx of citizen-soldiers was politically, economically, or strategically feasible or necessary.
Despite the fallacies in his reasoning, Upton spoke for a generation of officers. He simply presented the ideas in systematic form, buttressed them with “scholarship,” and “proved” the professionals’ case. However, the Burnside Committee of 1878 showed how unrealistic the Upton reforms were within the context of late-nineteenth-century American society. Established by Congress to study Army reform and chaired by former general (now senator) Ambrose Burnside, the committee heard testimony from generals as diverse as McClellan and Sherman. All but one urged the expansible Army plan and other Upton proposals. Yet Congress defeated a bill incorporating these suggestions. Discouraged by his professional failures and suffering from violent headaches (for which doctors could find neither a cause nor a cure), Upton committed suicide in 1881. Many officers, realizing that the United States would not soon change its command and manpower policies, viewed the future pessimistically. But some began searching for sounder policy alternatives that would strengthen the Army without Germanizing it.
While the army had Sherman and Upton, the Navy had Luce and Mahan. Encouraged by Sherman and Upton, Luce was the foremost proponent of naval education and the driving force behind the formation of the United States Naval Institute in 1873. Analogous to the Army’s Military Service Institution, the Naval Institute began publishing its Proceedings on a regular basis in 1879. But Luce’s greatest achievement was persuading Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler to begin the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1884. “No less a task is proposed,” wrote Luce, who was the college’s first president, “than to apply modern scientific methods to the study and raise naval warfare from the empirical stage to the dignity of a science.” Since the Navy had no authoritative treatise on naval warfare fought under steam power, he proposed to discover the requisite principles through a comparative approach. By studying the conduct of warfare on land, he believed that naval officers could establish parallel principles for sea warfare. Realizing that the key faculty member would be the lecturer on naval history, Luce looked “for that master mind” who would do for naval science “what Jomini has done for military science.” As he later wrote, “He appeared in the person of Captain A.T. Mahan, U.S.N.”
Nothing in his previous career foretold greatness for Mahan. The son of West Point’s Dennis H. Mahan, he attended the Naval Academy against his father’s wishes, graduating in 1859. During the following years of uneventful service, he developed a hatred of the sea and maneuvered for shore duty whenever possible. He hoped to win renown through intellectual performance, and in 1883 he published a competent study of the Civil War Navy. Accepting Luce’s offer to teach at the Naval War College, he spent the winter of 1885–1886 preparing his lectures. Published in 1890 as The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783, the lectures established his reputation as the world’s foremost naval historian.
The book, supplemented by Mahan’s article titled “The United States Looking Outward” that also appeared in 1890, set forth a philosophy of sea power linking national greatness, prosperity, and commerce to imperialism and navalism. From his research Mahan concluded that England became a great nation by controlling the seas and the commerce they bore. Britain could attack an enemy’s colonies, blockade its ports, and choke off its trade routes. Enumerating six elements of sea power based primarily on England’s experience, Mahan emphasized the applicability of these factors to the U.S. and concluded that it possessed the ingredients to become a world sea power.
To achieve greatness, the United States must abandon its “continentalist” policy in favor of more aggressive competition for world trade, which required a strong merchant marine, colonies, and a big navy. The merchant marine would carry foreign trade and serve “as the nursery of naval attitudes,” while colonies provided raw materials, markets, and naval bases. Mahan especially wanted to annex Hawaii as a bridge to Asia and to control any future Central American canal, which would be a funnel for world trade and inevitably attract Europeans bent on defiling the Monroe Doctrine. An avowed missionary for Manifest Destiny, Mahan also perceived colonies as toeholds for extending Western civilization. A powerful navy would protect the merchant marine and colonies, but not by the traditional guerre de course. Mahan considered it useless as a primary strategy, since history “taught” him that commerce raiding never won a war. A navy’s purpose was to gain “command of the sea” by defeating the enemy fleet in a decisive battle. Only battleships, not cruisers and destroyers, could fight such battles. A concentrated battleship fleet was “the arm of offensive power, which alone enables a country to extend its influence outward.”
Mahan preached a gospel of armed aggressiveness that won him world acclaim (and healthy royalties). His writings took England by storm. He received honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, dined with the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, and was the first foreigner ever entertained at the Royal Navy Club. Germany’s Kaiser tried to learn Mahan’s book by heart and ordered translations put aboard every ship in the Imperial fleet. In Japan the Emperor, government leaders, and the officer corps received copies. In the United States Navy his writings became holy writ, sanctifying its requests for more and better ships. Mahan’s main purpose in writing The Influence was to provide a rationale for naval expansion, and he succeeded admirably.
Like Upton, Mahan achieved fame even though his ideas were not novel and his arguments contained weaknesses. Numerous officers and informed civilians had understood the sea power concept before Mahan put pen to paper. During the late 1870s and 1880s, Porter, Schufeldt, Luce, and many other officers expressed Mahanian ideas, as did expansionist civilians such as Tracy. Mahan merely codified the big-navy philosophy of his age, but he had the advantages of writing eloquently and at the moment when imperialism and navalism were in full flower. Mahan also used history as badly as Upton and drew a false analogy between the U.S. and a European country. Relying on the Royal Navy’s example, he believed that a similar American navy would yield comparable diplomatic and military benefits. However, Mahan was careless with his facts, studied a unique era when no rival navy matched England’s, and only paid lip service to Britain’s geographic position and fortuitous control of crucial narrow seas. He never really understood that America was a continent not an island, that the Atlantic was not the Channel, and that the Caribbean was not the Mediterranean. Intellectually rooted in the age of sail and convinced that the principles of strategy did not change despite evolving technology, Mahan ignored technological developments, such as submarines, self-propelled torpedoes, floating mines, airplanes, and expanding networks of railroads and all-weather roads, all of which in part modified his battleship/command-of-the-sea thesis. Although some of these innovations were not evident in 1890, most were by Mahan’s death in 1914. Immensely influential yet doctrinally conservative, Mahan hastened the building of a battleship navy designed to fight decisive battles for “command of the sea.”
Along with the growing sophistication of military education, another professional triumph for the reformers was the creation of embryonic intelligence organizations. In 1882 the Navy Department established the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), and in 1885 the War Department formed a similar organization, eventually known as the Military Information Division (MID). These groups served almost as European-style general staffs, creating at least a rudimentary foundation for rational planning. Through Washington-based staffs and attachés assigned to America’s principal embassies, ONI and MID gathered data about foreign military affairs, began to prepare war mobilization plans, and disseminated maps, charts, and specialized military reports. Predictably, a rivalry developed between ONI and MID. When ONI’s chief discovered an Army intelligence officer borrowing a report, he was incensed. “Such an incident as this served to make me doubly cautious,” he wrote, “especially in dealing with these army people, who in matters of tact or discretion seem to me to be a lower order of intellect than the mule.” In spite of the bickering, ONI and MID were vital steps toward the professional’s foremost objective, the preparation for war in time of peace.
Armed forces progressives had mixed success in reforming their personnel, reserve forces, and command systems. Since conditions for enlisted men had not improved since before the Civil War, few well-adjusted, native-born Americans enlisted, and the services included many criminals, outcasts, and foreigners. At times more than 50 percent of the men in both services were foreign-born, though some were naturalized citizens. For relief, enlisted personnel resorted to “watered whiskey and wayward women,” suicide, and especially desertion. At times the Army’s desertion rate climbed as high as 33 percent. The Navy averaged 1,000 desertions a year out of an authorized strength of 8,000, which made its manpower problems acute since naval modernization required more men.
By the late nineteenth century authorities were so concerned about the large number of foreigners in the Army and the high desertion rate that they made a conscious effort to Americanize the Army and improve the living conditions of enlisted men. The adjutant general ordered recruiters into rural areas to reduce the proportion of enlistees from northern cities with large immigrant populations, which were the Army’s traditional recruiting grounds. And Congress passed a law declaring that enlistees must be citizens (or have made a legal declaration of their intent to become citizens) and know how to read, write, and speak English. Moreover, reformers in both services maintained that tolerable treatment of enlisted personnel would attract better men and reduce the desertion rate. They proposed a number of improvements, such as better food, clothing, and living quarters, higher pay, greater promotion opportunities, and an equitable legal system. But progress was slow and uneven, hampered by public apathy, congressional economy, and opposition from conservative officers who believed these changes ruined discipline.
Personnel reform extended to the officer corps, where reformers also achieved modest progress. One demand was for promotion on ability rather than seniority. To determine ability, reformers suggested rigorous examinations and annual fitness reports. Although conservatives argued that politics and social influence would pervert selective promotion, in 1890 the Army required examinations for officers below the rank of major, and in the mid-1890s it instituted efficiency reports for all officers. In 1899 the Navy acquired a rudimentary system of promotion by merit that allowed for the “selecting out” of ineffective officers reaching the grade of captain. Neither service’s promotion system worked very effectively, but the systems established the principle of selection by merit. Reformers also wanted a compulsory retirement system, on the assumption that aged officers lost their initiative and energy. Older officers disagreed, but in 1882 Congress enacted mandatory retirement at age sixty-four.
One of the Army’s most troublesome problems was whether a national reserve or the state-controlled National Guard would be its first line of support. Almost all regulars preferred an Upton-style national reserve, separate from the militias and under federal control. They wanted militias to perform auxiliary duties as short-term local defense units and to serve as manpower reservoirs for national forces. In the regulars’ eyes the Guard was not battle-ready, and its mobilization would raise perplexing questions: Could federalized militias serve more than three months, and could they serve overseas? State authorities and National Guardsmen opposed a federal reserve, but Guardsmen disagreed on what their role was. Militiamen from the Atlantic coast and Canadian border states accepted the Army’s definition of their function, since proximity to important ports and fortifications guaranteed them a vital local defense role. However, they were reluctant to serve for more than a few months and opposed overseas service. Guardsmen from inland states, whose homes would not be threatened, rejected the regulars’ definition. Wanting recognition as the organized cadre of any wartime volunteer force, they were willing to undertake extended campaigns, even overseas. Despite their differences over the composition and control of reserve forces, regulars and Guardsmen moved toward closer cooperation. The Army loaned cannons and mortars to militia units, detailed officers to inspect National Guard encampments and assist in training, and occasionally participated in joint maneuvers. However, the basic issue of the Guard’s military function remained unresolved.
The Navy faced a similar problem concerning the naval militia. Encouraged by the National Guard’s example, in 1888 Massachusetts established the first naval militia, and by 1898 fifteen state militias had a combined strength of 4,215. Many professionals viewed the new organizations warily, preferring a national naval reserve. Since militias were under state control and had elected officers, the Navy could not ensure their quality. Officers also questioned whether technology had not made amateur sailors an anachronism and feared that the naval militia might distract attention from more important matters, like building battleships. Still, in the absence of a national reserve, militias provided a second-line force that might be useful for coastal defense. Federal and state forces began to cooperate, beginning in 1891 with an annual $25,000 appropriation for the “arming and equipping of the Naval Militia.” The Navy loaned warships for militia training and conducted joint summer cruises, a few militia officers attended the Naval War College, and the Navy Department created an Office of Naval Militia. But as with the Guard, the fundamental question of the naval militia’s role in national defense remained unanswered.
The progressives’ biggest failure in the last third of the nineteenth century was their inability to reform the military’s command structure. The Army discarded the Civil War chief of staff and Army Board, leaving the prewar structure intact. At the top was the secretary, usually a civilian lacking military knowledge and burdened with routine detail. Below the secretary were the bureaus, each headed by an independent Army chief. Although proficient and even progressive within their own individual areas of highly technical activity, the bureaus remained woefully deficient in overall planning and coordination. Standing somewhere in the organizational chart (no one knew exactly where) was the commanding general, whose authority was uncertain. Having achieved his position through seniority, he and the secretary were often incompatible. These three disconnected power centers spent much time in bureaucratic conflict at the expense of coordinated effort, the strife manifesting itself in the ongoing line-staff feud. The secretary received no united professional advice, and no agency had clear responsibility for studying problems of wartime high command and mobilization. The Navy Department lacked a position analogous to the commanding general, but the secretary and bureau chiefs managed to foster similar bureaucratic confusion.
Both services tried expedients to solve their command problems. When Sherman became commanding general, President Grant promised that he would be the Army’s professional head and ordered all segments of the Army to report to Sherman. However, Grant soon rescinded the order when the bureau chiefs rebelled and Congress complained that subordinating the bureaus to the commanding general violated the law. When Schofield became commanding general in 1888, he solved the problem by relinquishing all pretense of commanding the Army. Realizing that Upton’s call for military independence from civilian control was unacceptable, he served the secretary as a military adviser, or de facto chief of staff. Schofield’s solution worked well, but his successor, Nelson A. Miles, refused to subordinate himself to anyone. His ambitions shattered the harmony of the Schofield years and revived the command muddle. Navy secretaries sought control over their bureaus by creating ad hoc boards. Usually formed for a specific purpose, the boards reported and then dissolved, leaving no permanent imprint.
By the 1890s progressive officers, usually from the line, unanimously wanted a general staff for each service and rotation between staff and line. The staffs would undertake planning and coordinating functions, while rotation would temper the line-staff imbroglio. But the reformers failed. Congress had scant interest in reform, bureau chiefs resisted, and conservative officers objected. Under the current system the United States had won its wars, so why change?
In 1897 the German General Staff published a survey of world military forces. Although it detailed such “powers” as Portugal and Montenegro, the study excluded the United States Army. The omission was logical; compared to European armies, the Americans’ 28,000 officers and men did not represent an “army” in any operational sense of the word. Yet the Army was not somnolent. Its external appearance was little changed, but reformist officers had established the basis for a modern force. If Europeans could safely ignore the Army, the United States Navy was another matter. By 1898, with four first-class battleships (and five more building), two second-class battleships, two armored cruisers, and more than a dozen protected cruisers, the Navy was ascending toward European standards. Supported by the new seacoast emplacements, an expanding specialized industrial base, and the writings of Mahan, the Navy was on the brink of its debut as a world sea power.