The Army and America’s Emergence as a World Power
Following the Civil War and a brief show of force to induce a French withdrawal from Mexico in 1867, the bulk of the Regular Army returned to its traditional role of frontier constabulary. Army officers negotiated treaties with the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other western tribes and tried to maintain order between the Native Americans and the white prospectors, hunters, ranchers, and farmers flooding into the West. When hostilities erupted, soldiers moved to force Native Americans onto reservations. Campaigns generally took the form of converging columns invading hostile territory in an attempt to bring the enemy to battle. Most of the time, the tribes lacked the numbers or inclination to challenge an Army unit of any size. At the Little Bighorn in June 1876, however, they had both, and annihilated Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s 7th Cavalry. This victory proved short lived, as the Army, aroused by “Custer’s Last Stand,” campaigned through the winter to force the Sioux onto their reservations. The combination of Army campaigns with the pressure of advancing white settlement and culture effectively ended Native American resistance throughout the West by 1890.
During the Indian Wars the Army contributed in other ways to the development of the West. On the reservations, soldiers frequently
became involved in the efforts of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to assimilate the Native Americans into white culture. On, Army officer. Capte Richard H. Pratt, established the U.S. Indian Training and Industrial School at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, to teach Native American youth the skills whites thought they would need to survive in a white world. At the same time, other soldiers conducted explorations to finish the task of mapping the vast continent. The surveys from 1867 through 1879 completed the work of Lewis and Clark, while discoveries at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and elsewhere led to the establishment of a system of national parks. Army expeditions also explored the newly purchased territory of Alaska and the northwest coast of Greenland. For ten years between the acquisition of Alaska and formation of a civilian government, the Army governed the Alaska Territory.
With the nation focused on internal development and laissez-faire economic and social policy during the “Gilded Age” of the 1870s and 1880s, the Army had little visibility. When it did intrude on the public consciousness, it was often to maintain order amid convulsions unleashed by the Industrial Revolutions The militia, in the form of the newly organized National Guard, carried the bulk of the responsibility
for maintaining order during the labor disturbances of the late nineteenth century. State governors summoned Guard units on 481 occasions from the Civil War to 1906, mostly in response to civil disorders. On occasion, regular troops also became involved. The widespread riots and destruction of property accompanying the railroad strikes of 1877 led President Rutherford B. Hayes to use regulars to guard federal facilities and to honor requests from governors and federal judges for troops to put down disorders. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 put severe limitations on the use of federal troops in law enforcement, but presidents still authorized the use of regulars on several occasions to keep order during the labor unrest of the 1890s.
Meanwhile, the Army maintained its involvement in other areas of American life. By public demand, Army engineers became more involved in flood control, particularly on the Mississippi River, where they built up the existing levee system. They also continued to work on harbor improvements, constructing lighthouses and improving navigation on the Great Lakes. In response to popular pressure on Congress and the secretary of war, the Signal Corps built thousands of miles of underwater cables and telegraph lines, most of which were open to civilian use. Despite such involvement with public works, with the closing of the frontier the Army generally turned inward to focus on professional development for a war that few civilians believed would ever come.
As the nineteenth century drew to an end, however, the Army again served as an instrument of .merican expansionA Some Americans, notably Theodore Roosevelt, believed that warfare and military service contributed to the moral and spiritual uplifting of men and nations and that it was the duty of the “civilized” white nations to educate the “backward” peoples of Asia and Latin America. Such views—as wellas the desire in some quarters to assert American power on a glo,al stageb lingering attachment to the Monroe Doctrine, strategic considerations of Caribbean stability, humanitarian sentiments, and the desire for new markets—contributed to the American intervention in Cuba’s war of liberation from Spain in 1898. The Army again struggled to organize, equip, instruct, and care for the raw recruits flooding into its training camps. An expeditionary force that included Colonel Roosevelt’s volunteer cavalry regiment landed in Cuba, drove the Spanish from the San Juan Heights overlooking the port of Santiago, and caused an enemy fleet that had taken refuge in the port to flee into the waiting guns of the United States Navy. Other expeditionary forces landed in Puerto Rico and in the Philippnes, following Commodore George Dewey’s victory at the Battle of Manila Bay. With the end of the war and American acquisition of the
Philippines, the Army’s task of establishing American authority over the islands began in earnest. For the next four years, Army troops conducted a series of brutal, arduous counterguerrilla campaigns to carry out President William McKinley’s mandate to “civilize” the Filipinos.
With the expansion of American authority into the Caribbean and the Far East, soldiers became governors. In Puerto Rico and the Philippines, the Army prepared the two new U.S. possessions for a transfer of authority to a civilian regime. In Puerto Rico the transition took only two years, but the Army retained control in the Philippines until 1902, when it had effectively suppressed the insurrectos. Recognizing the value of civic action as a tool of pacification, military commanders there instituted numerous reforms. Improved school systems reduced illiteracy; new railroads, bridges, highways, and communications lines strengthened the Filipino economy; and medical programs reduced disease and lowered the infant mortality rate. In contrast to Puerto Rico and the Philippines, military governors in Cuba during the three-year occupation following the Spanish-American War saw their role as cooperation with Cuban revolutionaries in preparing the island for self-government. They rebuilt the devastated countryside, restored the economy, and introduced reforms in education, municipal government, and the legal system. Army troops issued large quantities of food to meet shortages, and local commanders worked to assure improved sanitation and water supplies.
The nation’s new imperial responsibilities led to perhaps the greatest achievements in the history of Army medicine. Army doctors had already earned distinction for their improvement of frontier community sanitation, and Brig. Gen. George M. Sternberg, the Surgeon General from 1893 to 1902, had won international acclaim for his work in the infant science of bacteriology. Now he and his doctors had to overcome some of the most dreaded diseases of the tropics if the United States was to rule effectively in its new possessions. Mosquito nets helped prevent malaria. In 1899 a medical officer discovered that hookworms were responsible for Puerto Rican anemia. One year later the Medical Department created a commission under Maj. Walter Reed to determine the source of yellow fever. After years of difficult research, including the use of volunteers who contracted the disease, the commission traced its transmission to the Aedes aegypti mosquito, and the Army moved to eliminate the insect’s breeding grounds. As early as 1903, the surgeon general reported that “Yellow fever does not now exist in the United States territory and no case has originated in Cuba for about two years.” In ensuing years, the Army also produced a typhoid vaccine and a simplified test for syphilis.
The conquest of yellow fever made possible the construction of a canal that would link the Atlantic and the Pacific. American leaders had long sought a Central American canal that would save merchant and naval vessels the long, dangerous journey around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. The need became more pressing after the annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines in 1898 and the accompanying expansion of American interests in the Far East and elsewhere around the globe. After President Theodore Roosevelt’s acquisition from Panama of a canal zone, the War Department assumed responsibility in 1907 for building the canal. Col. George W. Goethals was appointed chairman of the Isthmian Canal Commission and chief engineer for the project. Even after Col. William C. Gorgas’ medical personnel had taken measures to control malaria and eliminate yellow fever, Goethals faced near-insurmountable obstacles. The proposed canal would need locks to permit an 85-foot ascent and descent, and the construction workers had to deal with the problem of landslides that would add 25 percent to the amount of earth to be shifted and 10 percent to the cost of construction. Goethals overcame all these obstacles, moving over 267 million cubic feet of earth. In August 1914 the first oceangoing vessel traversed the new Panama Canal.
Expanding American interests abroad required expeditionary fo.ces to protect themr Although the Marine Corps responded to most contingencies in the ,aribbean and elsewhere around the globeC the Army also played a conspicuous role, joining the marines in a peacemaking mission in Cuba from 1906 to 1909 and establishing a presence in China that would last through World War II. In 1900 soldiers participated in the international expeditionary force that relieved the legations under siege by Box.r rebels in Beijinge Closer to home, the Army became involved in the Mexican Revolution. Soldiers and marines occupied the port of Veracruz in April 1914 after an international incident involving American sailors in Tampico. When Pancho Villa’s Mexican rebels killed fifteen American soldiers and civilians in a raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916, President Woodrow Wilson sent Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing’s punitive expedition south of the border in pursuit of Villa. The Mexican government threatened war over the violation of its territory, causing Wilson to call up 112,000 National Guardsmen and to send most of the Regular Army to the border. In the end, the nation averted a major conflict, and Wilson withdrew the punitive expedition.
The Army’s list of missions expanded in the early twentieth century with the Progressive Era and a more active role for the federal government in such areas as political reform, economic regulation, and
conservation. Soldiers had already become involved in conservation through their guardianship of national parks in the 1880s, and they continued in this role until they turned over the mission to the National Park Service in 1918. The first years of the century saw more participation by the Army in humanitarian relief after natural disasters. Americans in the past had been reluctant to involve the federal government—and the Army—in what seemed primarily a state and local concern. Lacking statutory authority and generally deployed far from population centers, the Army had also been hesitant to become involved. On occasion, however, the Army had supplied rations and tents to victims of disasters. In 1906 it played a key role in fighting fires and providing supplies to victims of the San Francisco earthquake, and as the need arose it helped flood and tornado victims and fought forest fires across the country. Signal Corps experiments with aircraft and radio greatly contributed to civilian work in those two fields.
In the face of great public concern about the assimilation of immigrants, the Army proved the workability of the American “melting pot.” Throughout the nineteenth century, it welcomed a high proportion of the foreign-born—mostly English, German, Irish, and Scandinavian—into its ranks. Prior to the Civil War, two-thirds of the Army’s soldiers were immigrants, and the percentage of foreign-born during the ten years after the Civil War remained at 50 percent or higher. In its use and treatment of segregated African American units, such as the so-called Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry, the Army of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected racial attitudes of the time. Nonetheless, despite widespread racial prejudice, African American regiments served with distinction in both the Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War.
The experience of the Spanish-American War, the perception of increased external threats in a shrinking world, and other looming challenges of the new century served as catalysts for a thorough reform of Army organization, education, and promotion policies. After the Civil War, the Army had expanded its school system and supported the new Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program, which eventually would not only supply the Army with a high percentage of its officers but also provide promising youths with educational opportunities otherwise unavailable to them. After the Spanish-American War, a new Secretary of War, Elihu Root, added an Army War College as the apex of the service’s educational system. Secretary Root also took steps to replace the outmoded system of War Department bureaus and a commanding general with a chief of staff and general staff that could engage in long-range war planning. To ensure the rise of
promising officers, he installed a new promotion system. A new militia act laid the foundation for improved cooperation between the Regular Army and the inheritors of the militia tradition, the National Guard. These reforms, as well as some first steps toward joint Army-Navy planning, reflected the emphasis on professionalism, specialization, and organization that characterized the Progressive Era and were in accord with Secretary Root’s conviction that the “real object of having an Army is to prepare for war.”