Like almost every soldier in the Army, Private Ransom Clark yearned to be home for Christmas. On December 25, 1835, the 23-year-old New Yorker spent the day with Company B of the 2nd Artillery Regiment. His regiment operated near Fort Brooke inside the Florida Territory. Marching along a military road to Fort King, Clark stared anxiously at the pine trees and palmetto thickets of a strange land.
Commanded by Major Francis Dade, the regulars marched for three more days before reaching the Great Wahoo swamp. The enlisted men in blue frockcoats were mostly illiterate youths from the states or recently arriving immigrants from Europe. They knew little about the Seminole, who vowed to defend their homeland and to protect fugitive slaves. Mounted on horseback, Major Dade encouraged a detachment to move their 6-pounder forward. Around 8:00 a.m., Clark heard him announce confidently: “We have now got through all danger – keep up good heart, and when we get to Fort King, I'll give you three days for Christmas.”
Suddenly, Clark heard war whoops and musket fire and saw Dade fall from his mount. Reacting to the surprise attack, the soldiers unlimbered the cannon and blasted canister shots for almost an hour. Others began delivering musket fire from behind logs. The rest scattered into the high savannah grass to confront their enemies.
Meanwhile, Clark was trapped in the crossfire. After suffering a shot to the head, another bullet shattered his groin. A third bullet entered his right shoulder, while a fourth pierced his lungs. Immobilized by his wounds, he watched helplessly as 300 Seminole massacred over a hundred men. He remained silent among the fallen, as the victorious warriors waded into the carnage in search of prizes. One grabbed him by the legs and removed his clothing.
Naked but alive, Clark began to move after sunset. “After dark I was a good deal annoyed by the wolves, who had scented my blood,” he later reported. He limped and crawled 50 miles, crossing four rivers in three days to reach the safety of Fort Brooke. No other survivor lived long enough to tell the story of what came to be known as the Dade Massacre.
Figure 5.1 The American Soldier, 1827. Army Artwork, Prints and Poster Sets, U.S. Army Center of Military History
Clark survived his deployment in Florida, although he perished five years later from an infected wound. The small war against the Seminole typified the military actions of the U.S. during the early nineteenth century. While the Navy protected lives and property beyond the shores, the regular Army – reinforced by state and voluntary militia – bolstered national security across the continent. In addition to fighting Indians and other non-state actors, the missions involved peacekeeping, reconnaissance, and interdiction. The citizens of the American republic gradually accepted the presence of a standing military, which they deemed necessary to build, to maintain, and to garrison the proliferating fortifications from the East Coast to the West Coast.
During the 30 years that followed the War of 1812, the American military stood in the vanguard of territorial expansion. The drive to the Rocky Mountains and beyond included efforts to secure lands for settlers. The federal government preferred to harvest the fruits of geographic insularity while attempting to minimize annual appropriations for defensive measures. In accordance with military policies, a small number of service members accomplished a great multitude of tasks. Despite drastic reductions to the force structure, the officers and enlisted personnel made it possible for the United States to become a transcontinental nation.
The martial spirit of the antebellum period changed the way the U.S. projected power. Americans in uniform entered new territories and removed stateless Indians, thereby turning borderlands into frontiers. While the proficiency of the state militia units declined, the volunteer militia movement invigorated civil society. Moreover, the industrial revolution prompted the Navy Department to begin to upgrade the capabilities of the maritime forces. The War Department worked with a highly motivated corps of officers, many of whom were trained as engineers. With the rise of exuberant nationalism, the Army and Navy appeared ready for almost anything.
The period after the War of 1812 established a pattern for national defense that persisted for decades. The federal government avoided costly expenditures for the military that threatened to drain capital and manpower from a market economy. Paradoxically, Americans sought greater safety by enlarging, rather than contracting, their sphere of influence and power. Growth, they assumed, was the path to security.
Secretary of War James Monroe, who also served simultaneously as the Secretary of State, resolved that national security required increased support for the military establishment during peacetime. He was alarmed by the recent British invasions in the Chesapeake and the Mississippi, which revealed vulnerabilities in the continental defenses. One of his last acts while in charge of the War Department was to draft a report for the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, which he submitted on February 22, 1815. Based upon recommendations from General Winfield Scott, Monroe's report contemplated a standing army of 65,000 men or more. The presence of British regulars in Canada and conflicts with Spain over boundaries made a large permanent force an imperative. However, the report settled for a lower postwar level of 20,000, which amounted to twice the prewar level. It also proposed launching an extensive program for improving coastal fortifications to avoid exposure of the nation to another seaborne invasion. Because the U.S. stood in “character and rank” among the leading nations of the world, said Monroe, “firm resolution” seemed necessary to secure it. “We cannot go back,” he told Congress.
In the weeks that followed, however, Congress began dismantling the armed forces. In the Reduction Bill of 1815, the authorization levels were slashed to only 10,000 men. Organized into a Northern Division and a Southern Division, the shrinking regiments inherited the impossible task of defending almost 2 million square miles of territory with no chief of staff or chain of command. Bureau responsibility for key functions remained ineffective, leaving a significant gap between the general staff and the field commanders. Moreover, the rapid reductions in strength caused a great deal of hardship for the veterans returning home. Given congressional parsimony, the Army languished in the throes of demobilization.
The Navy renewed its warfare against the Barbary pirates, who took American merchantmen as captives. On March 3, 1815, Congress authorized President James Madison to take action against the regency of Algiers. Captain Stephen Decatur led the first squadron of 10 warships, which was followed by a second, even larger squadron of 17 warships under the command of Captain William Bainbridge. Decatur captured two Algerine vessels and took hundreds of prisoners. On June 28, his squadron arrived in Algiers with its prizes. After negotiating a favorable treaty “owing to the dread of our arms,” Decatur sailed for Tunis. He negotiated another agreement whereby the Tunisians pledged to pay financial restitution to the U.S. for their previous attacks on merchantmen. Finally, he demanded and received another treaty from Tripoli, which disavowed the practice of demanding tribute and promised to release prisoners from various nations. As a result, America's 30-year fight to rid itself of piracy along the Barbary Coast ended with the establishment of a free trade zone in the Mediterranean.
After succeeding Madison as president, Monroe tapped the energetic John C. Calhoun of South Carolina to head the War Department. Constrained by the financial panic of 1819, Congress requested that Calhoun make further reductions to military spending. The next year, he responded with an innovative plan based to a large extent upon a concept once proposed by George Washington. Accordingly, the Army needed to maintain the formal organization of regiments along with the full complements of both line and staff officers. In other words, the fixed presence of the officer corps was indispensable for organizing the Army. However, the quantity of enlisted men in active service would be reduced by half. In case of an emergency, this skeletal frame could be doubled in size by increasing numbers without forming entirely new regiments. Thus, a force structure appropriate for wartime would exist during peacetime at a downsized level.
Even though members of Congress ignored much of Calhoun's plan, the concept of an “expansible” force informed defense planning for the rest of the nineteenth century. On March 2, 1821, Congress passed another Reduction Act, which cut the enlisted strength of the Army by half to 5,586 but reduced the size of the officer corps by only one-fifth to 540. It authorized the retention of a smaller regular force with a disproportionate number of officers while maintaining a structure necessary to form a much larger force. The War Department kept seven regiments of infantry and four regiments of artillery in place, albeit with most companies at half-strength. Despite the drastic cut to the end strength overall, the retention of a proportionally larger officer corps would allow the Army to expand rapidly if war came. Calhoun's plan marked a turning point in military policy, because Congress acknowledged that Army regulars rather than the state militia formed the backbone of national defense.
Moreover, the Reduction Act augmented the leadership of the armed forces. The Northern and Southern Divisions disappeared from the organizational scheme, but an Eastern and a Western Department replaced them. The former received orders from New York, whereas the latter was headquartered in St. Louis. The federal government authorized only one major general, General Jacob J. Brown. Calhoun brought him to Washington D.C. in an esteemed position that later became known as Commanding General of the Army, which he held until his death in 1828. Although unable to tamper with the state militia, the War Department began to create a more centralized system of command and control for the regular Army.
The regular Army stood at the forefront of several national trends. The higher echelons of service often attracted individuals with political connections but modest incomes. However, more than half of the rank and file hailed from foreign lands. Irish and German immigrants composed the largest ethnic groups. Although the federal government officially excluded blacks from military service after 1820, the organized militia in northern states permitted many to serve. Moreover, Indian recruits fell into shifting categories of allies, scouts, and assimilated troops. Regardless of their motives for joining, a small number served to advance American interests.
While advancing American interests, the Navy endeavored to protect overseas trade and to conduct diplomatic missions. In 1816, Congress pledged to provide appropriations of $1 million annually for eight years of naval construction. Eventually, a dozen 44-gun frigates were constructed under the provisions. Instead of battle fleets, the Navy Department preferred smaller but swifter warships organized into squadrons. They stationed the squadrons in the Mediterranean, the Pacific, and the West Indies after 1820. Even though the Navy attempted to interdict ships involved with the slave trade, the African Squadron was not established until two decades later. While the Board of Navy Commissioners helped the Secretary of the Navy administer the squadrons, Congress gradually pushed for retrenchment.
During 1816, Congress appropriated funds to upgrade what eventually became known as the “Third System” for coastal defense. It created the Board of Engineers for Fortifications, which officials simply dubbed the Fortifications Board. Its members included Brevet General Simon Bernard, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Totten, and Captain Jesse Duncan Elliott. They visited naval yards, harbors, and arsenals while formulating comprehensive plans for improving defenses. They produced annual reports, which established priorities for congressional budgeting and procurement. For instance, the 1821 report suggested 50 sites for fortification from the Atlantic seaboard to the Gulf Coast. Although forts appeared at only 42 of these sites, the towers, seawalls, and batteries received upgrades.
The reports of the Fortifications Board established the parameters for a defense system that extended inland. The Army's engineers generally oversaw the construction projects. All of the fortifications involved masonry composed of either brick or granite. The main defensive works incorporated large structures based to an extent upon the Montalembert concept for concentrated guns in tall, thick masonry walls. Other fortifications reflected the Vauban concept of low, protected masonry walls fronted by earthen slopes. Even if the fortifications appeared durable, their expense troubled Congress. Remarkably, the new lines of defense secured the continent from possible foreign attack for the next three decades.
Monroe took additional steps to secure a permanent peace with the British Empire. According to the Rush–Bagot Agreement of 1817, the British and the Americans provided for gradual naval disarmament on the Great Lakes. Although the deal did not formally address land defenses, it forestalled an expensive arms race between the former enemies. Furthermore, the Convention of 1818 fixed the boundary between Canada and the Louisiana Purchase at the 49th parallel. It also resolved the Anglo-American dispute over the Oregon country by agreeing to treat it as a condominium or jointly occupied territory for 10 years. Going forward, the agreements signaled a rapprochement between Great Britain and the U.S.
Beginning with the “era of good feelings,” the American republic enjoyed greater stability without confronting an urgent threat to national sovereignty. In fact, security seemed relatively inexpensive because of the interposition of vast bodies of water around North America. Consequently, the U.S. avoided the elaborate and costly burdens of defense that imposed a heavy toll on civil society.
Into the Borderlands
Once the Napoleonic Wars ended, the Monroe administration permitted the armed forces to redraw the map of North America. Determined to keep the European powers at bay, service members encountered a variety of non-state actors – Indians, pirates, expatriates, traders, and adventurers – along U.S. borders. Time and again, military operations cleared the way for Americans to pursue their interests across the continent.
The Spanish colony of Florida represented a focal point for American interests. During 1816, General Edmund Gaines oversaw Fort Scott's construction at the confluence of the Clint and Chattahoochee Rivers in southern Georgia. He permitted two gunboats to demolish Negro Fort, which often provided refuge for runaway slaves on the Florida side of the international boundary. As many as 270 people died inside the fort. The next year, Gaines's troops attacked a Creek village on the Georgia side of the line. Creek and Maroon parties retaliated two weeks later by raiding an Army keelboat ascending the Apalachicola River. Two miles from Fort Scott, they killed 36 soldiers along with several dependants. The children's heads were smashed against the side of the boat. Secretary of War Calhoun ordered Gaines to seek reparations by crossing into Florida and attacking the Seminole, who harbored the responsible parties. In a matter of weeks, Gaines successfully captured Amelia Island on the eastern coast of Florida.
Meanwhile, the Monroe administration turned over operations in Florida to General Andrew Jackson. In a letter written on January 30, 1818, Monroe told Calhoun to instruct Jackson “not to attack any post occupied by Spanish troops.” However, Jackson never received the instructions. In fact, he previously wrote Monroe that he disapproved of the limitations imposed upon Gaines during his incursion into Florida. He also suggested that the Spanish colony could be seized within 60 days and held as indemnity for the incessant attacks against Americans. Although not a reply, Monroe wrote directly to Jackson with vague exhortations. “Great interests are at issue,” noted the president, “and until our course is carried through triumphantly and every species of danger to which it is exposed is settled on the most solid foundation, you ought not to withdraw your active support from it.” Eager for action, Jackson chose to interpret these words as an authorization for the use of force.
Early in 1818, Jackson marched 1,000 Tennessee volunteers across the border and linked up with reinforcements that included friendly Creek Indians. Soon, close to 5,000 men joined the incursion. They occupied the ruins of Negro Fort, which Jackson renamed Fort Gadsden. On April 7, he took the Spanish fort of St. Marks and captured a prominent British adventurer named Alexander Arbuthnot, who armed the Seminole. Two Creek leaders, Homathlemico and Josiah Francis, were captured and hanged immediately. Next, troops sacked the Seminole villages of Chief Billy Bowlegs along the Suwannee River, where they arrested a Royal marine, Robert Ambrister. After returning to St. Mark's, Jackson convened a military court to try Arbuthnot and Ambrister for inciting the Indians. On April 29, the former was hanged, and the latter was shot. A month later, the Spanish governor surrendered the town of Pensacola to Jackson. While Monroe insisted to Congress that the Army had merely chastised the Indians, Jackson hoisted the U.S. flag over Florida.
Although the high-handed moves in Florida lacked clear authorization from Washington D.C., Monroe sent Jackson into the borderlands knowing what he might do. While the general felt no reluctance about fighting an undeclared war, the commander-in-chief chose not to stop his aggression. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who began negotiating with the Spanish minister Don Luis de Onís, effectively widened the scope of their discussions. Signed in 1819, the Adams–Onís Treaty – also called the Transcontinental Treaty – required Spain to cede all of Florida to the U.S. and to relinquish territorial claims north of the 42nd parallel in the Pacific Northwest. In return, the U.S. agreed to pay up to $5 million for American claims against Spain as well as to abandon territorial claims to Texas. By stretching the boundary across the continent, the U.S. gained international recognition as a two-ocean power.
As the international balance of power gradually shifted, the Monroe administration began repositioning the armed forces to block British interests in the continental interior. With much of the unorganized territory unmapped, the Army Topographical Bureau dispatched Major Stephen Long to the “Engineer Cantonment” on the Missouri River. After an expedition to the Yellowstone River stalled, he headed toward the western border along the Rocky Mountains. In 1820, he set out with a team of scientists to find the headwaters of the Platte, Arkansas, and Red Rivers. With financing for the expedition in jeopardy, Long and his party returned via the Canadian rather than the Red River. Unfortunately, poor leadership and frequent desertions marred their expedition. In fact, they ate their own horses to survive. The official report described the barrenness of the interior and included a map labeling it a “Great Desert.”
Three years later, Long led a scientific party on a probe into the borderlands with British Canada. While surveying the topography, the flora, and the fauna from the Minnesota River to Lake Superior, he encountered British fur traders and settlers. They inhabited the area without acknowledging U.S. sovereignty. After determining the location of the 49th parallel, he marked it with an oaken post displaying the letters “G.B.” on the northern side and “U.S.” on the southern side. He ordered the firing of a military salute while conducting a short ceremony. By virtue of the authority given to him by the commander-in-chief, Long proclaimed that the village of Pembina belonged to the U.S.
As the U.S. reshaped the borderlands, Spanish colonies in the western hemisphere pursued independence from Madrid. During 1822, the Monroe administration established diplomatic relations with five breakaway republics – La Plata, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. Eyeing the prize of Cuba, Secretary of State Adams called it a “natural appendage” of North America. However, the Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia, and Austria authorized military incursions to help restore the possessions of the Spanish Empire. Specifically, the Russian ukase of 1821 asserted rights to the Oregon country and forbade non-Russian ships from approaching the coastline. Given their interests in overseas territories, Great Britain proposed to the U.S. that they mutually declare and enforce a policy to stop any incursions by the Holy Alliance. Adams urged Monroe to resist a joint statement, suggesting instead a unilateral one.
During his annual message to Congress on December 2, 1823, the president issued a bold statement known as the Monroe Doctrine. The U.S. would avoid involvement in European affairs, but Monroe warned foreign governments against making attempts to reestablish dominion over any portion of the western hemisphere. Colonization of the borderlands was “dangerous to our peace and safety.” Imperial threats to the sovereignty of the emerging republics of Latin America constituted “an unfriendly disposition” toward the U.S. The American military guaranteed the security of the New World, although European regimes largely discounted the saber rattling. Without much fanfare at the time, the Monroe Doctrine remained the nation's primary strategic concept for over a century.
Arc of Expansion
The regular Army spearheaded the expansion of American interests into new locations. A disposable force operated near the outer edge of settlement, whereas the bulk of the regiments were held in reserve at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. Forts appeared in every section of the country, but the primary line of defense shifted westward.
By 1823, the British and American fur trade had brought economic disruption, epidemic disease, and ecological devastation to the Indian tribes of what was known as the Old Northwest. Beginning on June 2, Arikara warriors assaulted several trappers employed by the Missouri Fur Company. The survivors of the assault fled downstream to Fort Atkinson, where Colonel Henry Leavenworth responded by organizing 220 soldiers from the 6th Infantry Regiment for a counterattack. Armed with good rifles, a boatload of trappers volunteered to join his “Missouri Legion” in the fight. He also accepted the aid of 750 Yankton and Teton Sioux, who desired to strike a blow against their traditional enemies. To support the counterattack, three keelboats carried ammunition and two 6-pounders up the Missouri River.
Arriving at the Arikara villages on August 9, Leavenworth made a number of tactical errors. The mounted Sioux swept ahead of the infantrymen and initiated battle. However, the officer negotiated a treaty to avoid further bloodshed. Arikara leaders promised to restore the property of the Missouri Fur Company, but the villagers slipped away in the night. The Sioux withdrew in disappointment, while the trappers burned the village site. Returning to Fort Atkinson, Leavenworth claimed that his actions taught the Arikara “to respect the American name and character.” Despite the show of force, the absence of supply lines made it difficult for Army regulars to operate far beyond a military outpost.
The absence of supply lines stemmed largely from federal issues over internal improvements, that is, appropriations for constructing transportation systems. At the urging of Secretary Calhoun, the War Department extended the cordon of forts along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. They served as forward bases to garrison soldiers, whose presence enabled the U.S. to extend its jurisdiction and to enforce the laws. Owing to their remote station, subsistence farming and stock-raising made them remarkably self-sufficient. Although the “factory system” for trading posts ended, the Indian Office was organized in 1824 to negotiate treaties for the transfer of tribal lands. Serving as a frontier constabulary, officers and enlisted men monitored the civilian traffic in many areas. Despite caution about using Army regulars for construction projects without an explicit military purpose, soldiers surveyed and built roadways and canals in almost every section of the country. Given the vast expanses of territory in North America, expanding the infrastructure enabled U.S. forces to rapidly deploy to danger zones.
On the prairies and the plains, the U.S. needed a cavalry force to match the tactical mobility of the horse-mounted Indians. During 1832, Congress authorized the formation of a battalion of 600 mounted rangers, which were placed under the command of Major Henry Dodge. The following year, Dodge earned a promotion to colonel and received command of a regiment called the “dragoons.” After rigorous training in horse-riding and infantry fighting at Jefferson Barracks, Dodge commanded their first expedition beyond Fort Gibson in 1834. Leavenworth, now a general and the commander of the Western Division, died tragically while accompanying them to the Washita River. Nonetheless, dragoons continued to patrol overland trails and river valleys to display their skilled horsemanship. With Americans pushing westward in growing numbers, Army regulars began to escort civilians as far as the Mexican border.
After achieving independence from Spain, the Mexican government permitted Anglo-American emigrants to settle within the state of Coahuila y Texas. During 1835, Anglos and Tejanos joined together to declare their independence from Mexico. To suppress the Texas revolt, General Antonio López de Santa Anna marched his army northward. Although it was not strategically vital, approximately 150 defenders of the Alamo died after a siege on March 6, 1836. Juan Nepomuceno Seguín, a prominent Tejano and captain in the Texas cavalry, carried dispatches from the Alamo before it fell. Volunteers from the U.S. rushed across the Sabine River to join the army of General Sam Houston, a veteran of the American military. On April 21, 1836, Houston captured Santa Anna in the Battle of San Jacinto and forced the Mexican leader to recognize the Lone Star Republic.
A former minister to Mexico, Joel Poinsett became the Secretary of War in 1837 and began planning for a series of reconnaissance operations in the western territories. The following year, Congress authorized a separate unit of officers known as the Corps of Army Topographical Engineers. Its most notable member was Lieutenant John C. Frémont, who achieved fame nationwide as the Pathfinder. In 1842, he led an expedition to the Rocky Mountains that mapped the South Pass. During the next two years, he returned to the Rockies and proceeded onward to the Great Salt Lake as well as to Fort Vancouver. Next, he headed south into Spanish California, eventually journeying back across the Great Basin and the Wasatch Range. After crossing the Continental Divide, he navigated along the Arkansas River before ending his military venture in St. Louis. Because his reports contained valuable geographic information, the War Department authorized additional operations for exploring and surveying the continent.
Under the banner of national defense, Americans in the military pursued an array of political, diplomatic, scientific, and commercial objectives. The regular Army devoted itself to the ambitions of the antebellum period, although sometimes at the expense of other occupants in North America. Because military operations frequently benefited the U.S. as a whole, the federal government helped to underwrite the arc of expansion.
East of the Mississippi River, Indian communities tangled with governmental authorities hostile to their interests. During 1825, the War Department set aside a permanent reserve for their voluntary colonization and safety. The territory was bounded on the north by the Platte River and on the south by the Red River, while it stretched from the western borders of Missouri and Arkansas to the 100th meridian. On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. It contained provisions for governing the territory in addition to providing aid to emigrant Indians. If Indians refused to relocate, then they would be subject to the laws of the states. Lewis Cass, who became Secretary of War the following year, executed Jackson's policy of Indian removal.
The policy led to an armed conflict called Black Hawk's War. A former ally of the British during the War of 1812, Black Hawk headed a band of Sauk and Fox Indians driven from Illinois. On April 5, 1832, he led as many as 2,000 followers eastward across the Mississippi River to return to their ancestral homes. While Americans desired to remove them from the mining districts, an intertribal contest raged for control of hunting grounds. In response to a request from Secretary Cass, General Henry Atkinson arrived in Illinois with 200 regulars from the 6th Infantry. Convinced that Black Hawk intended to fight, he requested support from the state militia. Approximately 2,000 militiamen responded to the call of Governor John Reynolds. They included a young volunteer named Abraham Lincoln, who was elected captain of his militia company. In the Battle of Stillman's Run, two battalions confronted Black Hawk's band on May 14. The Indian warriors fought valiantly and routed the much larger militia force.
To bring the war to a successful conclusion, the Jackson administration ordered Major General Winfield Scott of the Eastern Department to assume command of the operation. After learning about Scott's orders, Atkinson hoped to take action before his arrival. Augmented by volunteer militia and Indian auxiliaries, he organized a new force that he dubbed the “Army of the Frontier.” Following a series of Indian raids on remote settlements, U.S. forces defeated Black Hawk's band in the Battle of Wisconsin Heights. On August 2, 1832, the fleeing Indians reached the confluence of the Bad Axe River and the Mississippi River. Before they reached the other side, an Army gunboat christened the Warrior strafed them with canister shots and rifle volleys. Only 150 of the band survived. After Black Hawk surrendered and accepted imprisonment, he traveled to Jefferson Barracks under the supervision of a young Army lieutenant named Jefferson Davis. As a result of the treaties that followed the war's conclusion, the military directed the removal of most tribal groups in the vicinity to Indian Territory.
With few exceptions, the removals to Indian Territory became logistical disasters. Inside the War Department, the Commissary General of Subsistence, George Gibson, monitored the operations. Civilian superintendents of emigration haphazardly handled planning and execution, including the disbursements of money and supplies promised in the removal treaties. Frequently, malnutrition plagued emigrating Indians because of the spoiled meat and insufficient rations delivered by unscrupulous contractors. Beset with freezing temperatures while moving during the winter months, families also suffered from outbreaks of cholera, smallpox, and pneumonia. Although Army regulars often shared a paternalistic attitude regarding Indian affairs, they seemed unprepared for the difficult duties that fell to them.
After signing the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, the Choctaw of southern Mississippi postponed emigration until the Army made suitable preparations. Soldiers repaired buildings at Fort Smith, which became a supply station during their trek. Likewise, Fort Towson was reestablished near the Red River to protect the new arrivals. Within four years, 12,800 Choctaw relocated to Indian Territory.
Compared to other emigrating tribes, the Chickasaw of northern Mississippi fared better on their journey westward. Though initially agreeing to a removal treaty in 1832, they delayed its implementation while a number of exploring expeditions collected information about their destination. Five years later, Chickasaw leaders completed an agreement with the Choctaw of Indian Territory known as the Treaty of Doaksville. Prodded by federal officials, the former began migrating that year to lands purchased from the latter.
The Creek of Alabama, however, presented a greater challenge to the War Department. Signed in 1832, the Treaty of Washington gave tribal members the option of either migrating to Indian Territory or receiving allotments in Alabama. As tensions mounted, opponents of removal fled to Georgia. During 1836, roving bands clashed with state militia. Secretary Cass ordered General Thomas S. Jesup to send his troops into action, but General Scott arrived in due time to assume direct command. They divided their forces to trap the Creek, although Jesup moved first. He captured a war leader, Eneah Micco, as well as 400 warriors. While some bands accepted removal peacefully, military operations continued for weeks in Alabama and Georgia. Under armed guard, approximately 800 warriors were handcuffed and chained together for travel. Before the year ended, the number of Creek removed to Indian Territory reached 14,609.
Thanks to legal challenges that delayed federal action, the Cherokee passively resisted the removal policy of the Jackson administration. A minority faction of Cherokee signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, but the principal chief, John Ross, refused to endorse it. The next year, Secretary Cass dispatched General John E. Wool to Georgia and instructed him to force the Cherokee into submission if hostilities erupted. Instead, Wool attempted to protect them. In fact, he faced a military court of inquiry that September for ostensibly trampling on the rights of the states. Although 2,000 Cherokee departed for Indian Territory immediately, the vast majority refused to move.
The Army took action during 1838, when President Martin Van Buren ordered General Scott to collect the Cherokee still residing in the South. Although Scott encouraged his troops – mostly militia – to show humanity and mercy, atrocities abounded. They rounded up thousands at bayonet point and herded them into military stockades. During the winter months, at least one-quarter of the Cherokee died. Before arriving at Fort Gibson in Indian Territory, more than 18,000 men, women, and children endured the “Trail of Tears.” Even if the Cherokee tragedy was not entirely of the Army's making, the devotion and empathy of a few good men did little to end the suffering of the innocent.
Considered the last of the Five Civilized Tribes in the South, the Seminole frustrated the Army's efforts to remove them from the Florida Territory. In 1832, Colonel James Gadsden, a former adjutant general of the War Department, negotiated the Treaty of Payne's Landing with a handful of Seminole leaders. The next year, a tribal delegation visited Indian Territory and signed an agreement to settle near the Creek.
Refusing to accept removal, a Seminole named Osceola led a violent but effective guerrilla campaign of resistance. On December 28, 1835, he directed a small party to murder a federal agent just outside of Fort King. At the same time, he dispatched another party to carry out the Dade Massacre. A month later, General Scott took charge of Army regulars and Florida volunteers. He was succeeded by a series of commanders, who scoured the swamplands in search of the Seminole. Even after the capture of Osceola under a white flag of truce, his followers continued to resist removal for years. Called the Second Seminole War, the fight lasted until 1842. It cost millions of dollars and the lives of 1,600 soldiers. Exactly 2,833 Seminole were removed to Indian Territory, but a small number remained in the Everglades afterward.
Before Congress transferred Indian affairs to the Interior Department in 1849, the task of removal appeared tantamount to war. Many echoed the sentiments of Major Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who called the negotiations for the treaties “a fraud on the Indians.” Irrespective of their doubts about the coercive efforts, Americans in uniform implemented federal policies that devastated Indian communities in the U.S.
Reforming the Militia
As the industrial revolution transformed towns and cities across the U.S., a rising middle class tended to perceive the organized militia as a waste of time, energy, and money. In most communities, mustering days started with a roll call but degenerated into a drinking festival. Some trained with nothing more than brooms, giving rise to the derisive sobriquet “cornstalk militia.” Fines for absences from drill imposed a greater burden on individuals without financial means, especially immigrants and debtors. The working class, moreover, failed to qualify for exemptions devised by state and local governments. Due to indiscipline and neglect, the militia system and its compulsory service requirements all but faded from civil society.
Congress received a number of proposals with recommendations for improving the militia system. In 1826, the Barbour Board conducted a comprehensive review and concluded that compulsory service produced far more men than the states could train properly. Given the uneven record of performance in combat, the enrolled units often disappointed senior commanders. Notable deficiencies included inadequate weaponry, incompetent leadership, and inconsistent regulations. The review offered several recommendations for reform, but members of Congress refused to interfere with the prerogatives of the states.
In 1840, the Van Buren administration offered a new plan to nationalize the state militias, although critics condemned it as unconstitutional and costly. Crafted by Secretary of War Poinsett, it called for dividing the militia into three categories: the mass, the active force, and the reserves. In place of the obligatory mustering days, it would facilitate the formation of volunteer companies. Though Congress balked, the states embraced aspects of the plan.
Throughout the antebellum period, states debated militia laws in constitutional conventions as well as in legislative sessions. Delaware repealed several militia fines as early as 1816, and in 1831 the state abolished the individual mandate to serve altogether. Massachusetts eliminated requirements for the militia in 1840, followed by Maine, Ohio, and Vermont in 1844. That same year, New Jersey abolished imprisonment for nonpayment of militia fines. Given the democratic urges associated with the political climate, many other states followed suit.
Compulsory service in the militia persisted longer in southern states with slave patrols. Responding to episodes of fear and unrest, patrols in Virginia helped to quell Nat Turner's revolt during 1831. Typically, patrol membership drew from militia rosters, which shifted the costs of maintaining chattel slavery away from slave owners to citizen soldiers. The burdens were not shared equally by all members of the communities, because exemptions, substitutions, and fines augmented the social composition of the patrols.
Patrolling in the South varied over time and by location. Rural patrollers rode mounts while on duty, but urban patrollers moved on foot. The planter elite in the countryside owned the horses, which reinforced aristocratic distinctions within the militia companies. Towns and cities tended to hire permanent patrols, either paying them directly or offering them tax breaks. Some communities resorted to committees to appoint and to supervise patrolling, whereas others simply relied on the courts.
Though widely disparaged, patrols attempted to locate and to return runaway slaves. If warranted, they searched slave quarters for concealed weapons, stolen goods, and unauthorized occupants. Likewise, they interrupted gatherings near the roadways and in the brushes and routinely detained blacks without a pass. Arbitrary and harassing behavior abounded. Moreover, they responded violently to rumors and to signs of insurrection. Incidents of physical beatings and sexual abuse became routine. Drinking and rowdiness seemed common whenever militiamen patrolled in the South.
In almost every state east of the Mississippi River, voluntary militia companies gradually supplanted the state militia system in size and stature. The market economy, expedient transportation, massive immigration, and urban growth generated complex changes in the nation that prompted segments of the population to affiliate voluntarily. Veterans and other model citizens often received charters from states and municipalities to organize themselves into paramilitary units. Acting as highly selective social clubs, the existing members screened candidates and voted on prospective inductees. By-laws established rules and regulations regarding eligibility, dues, officers, uniforms, weapons, equipment, training, and exercises. Through social networks at a local level, the call to military service remained a vibrant part of American life.
With a growing affinity for volunteerism, Americans joined together in public displays of ardor. The more exclusive units added terms such as Invincibles, Avengers, or Terribles to their nomenclature. In some cases, troops accentuated their identification as cavalry, artillery, or grenadiers, thereby distinguishing themselves from the mass of infantry. For others, the ethnicity of the rank and file influenced cohesion in addition to heraldry. Membership sustained political, social, or economic aspirations while visibly indicating loyalty to the U.S. The purchase of extravagant uniforms, special accouterments, and colorful flags exemplified pomp and circumstance. For example, the Pioneer Rifles of Rochester, New York, paraded with a tall beaver hat, a green coat, a high collar, large cuffs, and white pants. Another unit in New York was the first to adopt the title of the National Guard. Its use of the name began in 1824 during a visit to New York by the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution.
The volunteer militia movement enabled an armed citizenry to affirm a sense of patriotism, camaraderie, and discipline. Armories provided finer weaponry to the dues-paying members and offered public space to share with a community at large. Company fellowship permitted individuals to exult in a grand spectacle, even if their proficiency seemed more fictive than real. Gesturing to the crowds, gentlemen of property and standing showed their martial spirit. Indeed, the elected officers viewed their eminent positions as avenues for personal advancement. Hence, militia reform effectively diminished the compulsory features of military service while accentuating the civic-mindedness of American democracy.
The Old Navy
The industrial revolution transformed naval warfare in Europe, but the Navy of the U.S. remained a relatively small maritime force. Squadrons of ships operated in the Pacific, in the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas, along both coasts of South America, and along the East African coast. While extending the global reach of American power, the Navy primarily protected the nation's commercial traffic over the blue waters.
Representing major industries in the U.S., American whalers, sealers, and traders stretched the limits of the nation's strategic concepts. Mindful of free enterprise, the Navy conducted basic scientific research in the western and southern Pacific. Moreover, it contributed to the mapping and charting of the world's oceans. Sailing in 1826 from New York, the U.S.S. Vincennes became the first American naval vessel to circumnavigate the globe. Looking outward rather than simply westward, the U.S. began to demonstrate the kind of Pacific consciousness that excited merchants for the rest of the century.
The first naval intervention in Asia by the U.S. occurred in response to an act of piracy during 1831. Outraged by an attack on an American merchant ship, the Friendship, President Jackson vowed revenge. He dispatched Commodore John Downes, who commanded the Pacific Squadron, to the coast of Sumatra with 260 marines. The U.S.S. Potomac arrived at Quallah-Battoo on February 5, 1832. Downes ordered landing parties ashore to strike four forts along the coast. Skillfully, the marines and the sailors surprised their targets with a combination of hand-to-hand combat and cannonades. The joint land and sea operation ensured that no defenders of the forts survived, leaving the village of Quallah-Battoo in ruins. With two Americans dead and 11 wounded, Downes admittedly failed to locate the original perpetrators of the piracy. Nevertheless, he was hailed as a masterful commander by the Navy Department.
The Navy Department also authorized the official United States Exploring Expedition, which Congress finally agreed to fund in 1836. Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, an expert navigator and chart maker, commanded the expedition from 1838 until 1842. During the first national effort at global reconnaissance, Wilkes's expedition visited Samoa and charted the ice and coastline of Antarctica. During a four-month stay in the Fiji Islands, two of his officers were killed. In retaliation, Wilkes ordered the killing of over 50 islanders.
Attentive to detail, the team of scientists accompanying Wilkes studied oceans, weather, geology, and astronomy. In addition to gathering intelligence about Hawaii and the Philippines, they produced an accurate topography of the Pacific Northwest. With great enthusiasm for the harbors, Wilkes foresaw the potential of the West Coast to “fill a large space in the world's future history.” After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the naval expedition ended in New York. In sum, Wilkes sailed over 85,000 miles and studied more than 280 islands. Despite court-martialing him for illegally punishing his crew, the Navy Department deemed his military venture a great success.
During 1842, the Navy Department officially disavowed the aggressive moves of Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones. As the commander of the Pacific Squadron, he sailed into Monterey in anticipation of a major war between the U.S. and Mexico. He demanded the surrender of California while holding the harbor at gunpoint. Though he soon sailed away, American audacity exposed Mexican vulnerability.
That year, the Navy Department established a center to maintain marine chronometers, accurate charting, and navigational equipment for sailing. Located in Washington D.C., the Naval Observatory kept naval officers informed about the latest advancements in oceanography, astronomy, and other sciences. Confined to shore duty by a leg injury, Matthew Fontaine Maury served as the superintendent for almost two decades. The Naval Observatory provided exploring expeditions with useful information about maritime hazards, weather patterns, wind currents, and ocean basins.
Compared to the advanced navies of Europe, the maritime technology of the U.S. lagged in development. Although commercial steamboats plied the inland waters of North America, the Navy remained tethered to sails on the high seas. Vexed by the winds of change, most officers disregarded the utility of the noisy, dirty steamships. In 1835, Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson finally acted on a project for a steam frigate. Launched two years later, the U.S.S. Fulton was a 130-foot, 700-ton ship powered by two engines that drove side paddle-wheels. Thereafter, Congress provided funds for two paddle-wheeled steamers, the U.S.S. Mississippi and the U.S.S. Missouri, and for the first screw-propeller warship, the U.S.S. Princeton.
On February 28, 1844, the U.S.S. Princeton participated in a firing demonstration on the Potomac River. Over 400 dignitaries attended, including President John Tyler, Secretary of State Abel B. Upshur, and Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer. Captain Robert F. Stockton commanded the steamship, which carried the two largest guns in the naval arsenal – 12-inch cannons that could fire a 225-pound cannonball 5 miles using a 50-pound charge of gunpowder. One cannon was dubbed the Oregon, and the other thePeacemaker. During the third firing, the latter's breech suddenly exploded. The accident left a gruesome scene of heads, limbs, and other body parts strewn about the deck of the warship. Eight of the dignitaries perished, including Secretaries Upshur and Gilmer, but President Tyler survived the blast unharmed. Though dismayed by the tragedy on the Potomac, the Navy continued its gradual conversion to steam technology.
Lacking a formal program for professional training, the Navy offered midshipmen little more than a life of debauchery at sea. Crews suffered rough justice under the high-handed authority of commanders, who administered floggings, lashings, rationings, and hangings. On board full-fledged warships, salty officers demanded teamwork, deference, and routine. In port, the best recruits attended shore academies to learn the naval sciences needed to complement the practical skills acquired on sea duty. For instance, a naval lyceum, museum, and library operated at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Opening in 1839, the Naval Asylum School at Philadelphia provided a shore-based training environment, where midshipmen studied for their lieutenant's examinations. Journals such as the Army and Navy Chronicle provided professional forums in which to disseminate new information, to express common concerns, and to discuss best practices. Even so, naval education relied mostly upon apprenticeships for learning on the job.
In 1842, the inadequacies of the system became apparent on board the U.S.S. Somers, a naval brig housing an experimental school for apprentices. Sailing from New York on September 13, the sleek 103-foot craft was commanded by Captain Alexander Slidell MacKenzie. It carried 110 men and boys on a cruise to the coast of Africa, although its design comfortably accommodated no more than 75. Infractions on board resulted in floggings with the colt, a one-stranded, less damaging version of the cat-o'-nine-tails. Worst of all, 19-year-old Philip Spencer seemed impervious to military discipline. A hard-drinking college dropout, he received an appointment as a midshipman largely because his father, John Canfield Spencer, headed the War Department.
On the return voyage, MacKenzie accused Spencer of plotting mutiny. Accordingly, the reckless youth planned to kill the officers, take the brig, and become a pirate. Instead, he was arrested and chained to the bulkhead on the quarterdeck. Two accomplices, Elisha Small, a senior petty officer, and Samuel Cromwell, a boatswain's mate, faced charges as well. Following a dangerous mishap with the rigging, MacKenzie charged four more subordinates as collaborators. On December 1, 1842, he executed Spencer, Small, and Cromwell by hanging them from the main yardarm. After the captain and his crew reached New York without further incident, a court of inquiry exonerated MacKenzie of wrongdoing. Regardless of doubts about the handling of the case, the Somers affair marked the first mutiny in U.S. naval history.
The Somers affair led to the reassessment of shipboard training and disciplinary procedures by the Navy Department. Ostensibly, midshipmen needed a safe and structured environment for training before they entered the disorderly confines of a ship at sea. However, the proposals for a consolidated school on shore became entangled with the efficacy of applied learning versus theoretical study in the naval profession. Furthermore, the question of appropriations sparked debate in Congress about whether or not the U.S. intended to overhaul its “Old Navy.” To provide a suitable education for responsible leaders at sea and on shore, the Navy aspired to establish a special academy.
The Navy lacked its own academy until 1845, when Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft founded a campus at an abandoned military post. While also serving as the Secretary of War, he transferred control of Fort Severn in Annapolis, Maryland, from the Army to the Navy. On his authority as the Secretary of the Navy, he designated it as the place where midshipmen awaited orders. Meanwhile, he ordered those returning from sea duty to report to Annapolis for proper schooling. To protect them from the dangers of idleness, he directed that they receive a regular course of study at their common residence. After tapping the faculty and staff at the school in Philadelphia, the new location opened that October with 50 students and seven professors. Returning from its recess, Congress accepted what Bancroft wrought and soon granted money to the Navy Department for renovating the buildings. Five years later, the facility at Annapolis officially became known as the U.S. Naval Academy.
Profession of Arms
In a time of peace with foreign nations, the expertise of the American military improved significantly. The War Department organized review boards, compiled tactical manuals, and established training programs. Evincing a heightened sense of merit, service members elevated their profession with the formal study of warfare.
During the early nineteenth century, the federal government hailed service members as the repositories of civic virtue. In 1818, Congress bestowed a pension on veterans able to show proof of nine months of service during the American Revolution. The costs grew excessive, however, and Congress revised the statute to require proof of economic need as well as prior service. Congress passed a new pension law in 1832 that reduced the prior service requirement to six months while removing the provision regarding economic need. Four years later, the widows of veterans were allowed to receive the pension on behalf of their deceased husbands. Although many passed away without collecting any pension, the U.S. established an important precedent in acknowledging the status of veterans.
As the U.S. grew, the Military Academy at West Point constituted the center of gravity for the armed forces. Although the graduating classes remained small, the academy educated an officer corps with a degree of success. The first commissioned officer selected specifically as the superintendent was Captain Alden Partridge, who held the position until 1817.
Following a court-martial for disobedience and mutiny, Partridge chose to resign his commission from the regular Army. Accordingly, he denounced West Point for producing an officer class at odds with the egalitarian examples of the greatest commanders such as George Washington and Andrew Jackson. In 1819, Partridge founded the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy at Norwich, Vermont. His curriculum advanced the study of the liberal arts while underscoring the sciences for subsistence agriculture and civil engineering. Likewise, he advocated field exercises as an extension of the classroom environment. His “American System of Education” inspired the establishment of six more private military institutions. Driven by his lifelong opposition to the elitism of West Point, Partridge assisted in the founding of the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel.
From 1817 until 1833, Captain Sylvanus Thayer served as the superintendent of West Point. Two years before assuming the position, the War Department sent Thayer to Europe to study foreign military schools as well as canals, harbors, and fortifications. He returned with books, manuals, and ideas to revitalize West Point. Consequently, Thayer raised the admission standards and improved the curriculum. To impart tactical training, he appointed an Army officer as the commandant of cadets. Because of his continuing emphasis on civil engineering, West Point graduates contributed mightily to the construction of railroads in the U.S. At his behest, annual examinations of the cadets occurred before a civilian group known as the Board of Visitors. He also instituted the merit roll, which permitted him to rank each cadet within a class based upon four years of work. Upon infractions of the superintendent's rules, demerits lowered a cadet's standing. Before punishing offenders, he announced: “Gentlemen must learn it is only their province to listen and obey.” He never married, for West Point remained his only passion. For his achievements, Thayer was dubbed the “father of the Military Academy.”
Figure 5.2 W. G. Wall, West Point, 1821. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Whereas the academy introduced officers to the military arts and sciences, other schools attempted to give them special preparation for service in the combat arms. The first in the U.S. was the Artillery School of Practice at Fortress Monroe, which came into existence during 1824. Two years later, the War Department also established the Infantry School of Practice at Jefferson Barracks. Despite shortages of funding, both contributed to the development of professional military education in America.
After his inauguration in 1829, President Jackson expressed serious doubts about the funding of West Point. Appealing to the Democratic Party, he spoke against the regulatory “tyranny” imposed upon the cadets. His followers also despised the ostensible “monopoly” over the officer corps. A few endorsed a private system of military education, which complemented the ideas of Partridge. Others complained about the large number of resignations tendered each year by West Point graduates, who pursued their fortunes as civilians after obtaining an education at the public expense. Even during the 1840s, members of Congress openly railed against the high costs of the academy but never passed a bill to abolish it.
Given the political climate in the U.S., the academy became a refuge for Army officers devoting themselves to the study of warfare. Many studied the precepts of Antoine-Henri Jomini, who was a Swiss-born general in Napoleon's army. He wrote more than 27 books on strategic thought, but his most notable remained the Summary of the Principles of the Art of War (1838). Influenced by the European Enlightenment, he insisted that armed conflict revealed orderly principles consistent with the military ideals of Frederick the Great. Like the natural laws of the universe, the principles of strategy for him remained timeless and unchanging.
At the core of the West Point syllabus, the Jominian doctrines accentuated a basic strategy in war. First and foremost, an army must bring the maximum force to bear against the decisive point in the theater of operations. At the same time, operating with interior lines of communication permitted concentrated force in relation to an enemy's inferior strength. In addition, maintaining the initiative against the enemy required the rapid and coordinated deployment of forces. In effect, the domination of the battlefield involved a contest for control of geography. Strategy, in other words, reflected the art of making war upon a map.
Eventually, Army officers sought a more realistic approach to making war. A Prussian officer, Carl von Clausewitz, delivered a single great work, On War (1873). Subsequent to his sudden death from cholera in 1831, his wife assembled the book from his manuscripts. His strategic thought seemed attuned to the complex and uncertain manner in which battles unfolded, taking into account both the “friction” and “fog” of war. However, the writings of Clausewitz made no impact upon the West Point curriculum until after the American Civil War.
West Point faculty preferred the writings of General Scott, who traveled to Europe while holding various commands in the U.S. At the direction of the War Department, he authored Abstract of Infantry Tactics (1830). He also composed a three-volume edition titled Infantry Tactics (1835). Because of his attention to every detail and fondness for spectacular uniforms, West Point cadets referred to him as “Old Fuss and Feathers.”
A professor at West Point for almost 40 years, Captain Denis Hart Mahan insisted that the cadets study Napoleonic warfare. Before his appointment, he spent four years at the School of Application for Engineers and Artillery at Metz, where he studied civil engineering and European institutions. Though emphasizing tactical skill and stationary fortification, he also taught a popular course on strategy called “Engineering and the Science of War.” He authored several textbooks, which often resorted to historical examples to convey lessons. His most memorable yet daunting work was titled An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-Guard, Out-Post, and Detachment Service of Troops, and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in the Presence of an Enemy. With a Historical Sketch of the Rise and Progress of Tactics, etc., etc. After publication in 1847, cadets knew it simply by the name Out-Post. Eschewing reckless attacks, Mahan stressed the importance of intelligence, maneuver, and defense in warfare.
Lieutenant Henry Halleck, a Mahan student appointed as a professor of engineering, became the first American to author a full treatise on the strategic thought of warfare. Published in 1846, the Elements of Military Art and Science borrowed heavily from his lectures that resonated with the principles of Jominian doctrines. “Strategy,” Halleck argued, “is defined to be the art of directing masses on decisive points, or the hostile movements of armies beyond the range of each other's cannon.” He posited that only “disciplined troops” would excel in proper tactics, which underscored “the great superiority of regulars” in the combat arms – infantry, artillery, and cavalry. Impressed by America's geographic advantages, he betrayed a cautious tone in respect to offensive campaigning. Accordingly, the primary role of the military remained to defend American soil against foreign attack.
For decades, individuals in the armed forces meditated on the military arts and sciences. A new generation of leaders understood the logistical, strategic, and tactical elements of war while accepting their professional roles as the managers of violence. Attuned to the importance of decisive points on the battlefield, the officer corps prepared to command men in combat.
Awash in a sea of political, social, and economic changes, the American military helped to stabilize the country after the War of 1812. The Army and the Navy prepared for future wars in spite of austerity measures that limited their assets. Even if the skeletal force structure relied upon voluntary enlistments to fill out the ranks, the officer corps on active duty developed a professional outlook. Their strategies, tactics, and logistics adhered to European standards for military conduct, albeit with a growing nation in mind. Although no major wars erupted, they extended the borders of the U.S. southward across Florida and westward to the Pacific. They removed Indian populations from ancestral homelands while building vital infrastructure for internal colonization. As the American people pushed relentlessly to occupy the continent, the armed forces began to invent a new kind of republic.
In the antebellum period, geographic isolation tended to make the American people confident in their own power. Of course, nation-building did not occur by mere happenstance but rather as a result of unilateral policies that employed force to thwart international rivals. Instead of paying a high price for national defense, the War Department invested in a small cadre of regulars to provide leadership to a large number of militiamen. Soldiers used almost any means necessary to pacify the contested frontiers and to achieve the territorial ambitions of the U.S. The rapprochement with Great Britain and the dissolution of the Spanish Empire permitted the Navy Department to keep its sails light. With oceans surrounding most of North America, sailors patrolled the blue waters to ensure unimpeded access to offshore markets. The myth about free security notwithstanding, Americans spread their arms from sea to shining sea.
From service academies to isolated posts, Americans in uniform marched with pride and passion. Service members developed a cohesive identity that bound them together as a distinct entity. Over the decades, they turned inward to build a community of interest based on shared notions of duty, honor, and country. Whatever their station, their common experiences helped to refine the organizational culture of U.S. forces. While tasked with missions that kept them at the forefront of national interests, they fought a handful of small wars at home and abroad. They also conducted operations other than war in thousands of new places, where they found themselves greeting strangers, negotiating treaties, surveying lands, clearing roads, escorting wagons, constructing bases, dredging harbors, or charting oceans. “The ax, pick, saw, and trowel,” complained a young Army officer named Zachary Taylor, “has become more the implement of the American soldier than the cannon, musket, and sword.”
The American military became a powerful tool for nationalism, although it remained at ease in an age of romance. More often than not, the projection of power by the U.S. involved military actions quite different from Napoleonic warfare. While Europeans stood toe-to-toe with one another to conquer space, Americans reached across the continent with few foreign adversaries to block them. By the 1840s, a strategy of passive aggression prevailed in Washington D.C. – whether the administration was called Republican, Whig, or Democratic. Accordingly, the federal government buttressed a defense posture with forts, towers, seawalls, and batteries in hundreds of disparate sites. A cohort of exceptional warriors, who still embodied the ethos of an armed citizenry, served faithfully in locations far and wide. Civil society grew bolder and mightier while harnessing the bountiful resources of North America. If the purpose of the American military was to uphold the martial spirit, then it served its purpose well.
1 Which military actions led to U.S. acquisition of Spanish borderlands?
2 What role did the Army play in Indian removal?
3 In what ways did the Navy inspire nationalism during the antebellum period?
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