The Army and the Early Republic
The end of the War of 1812 and of the Napoleonic Wars marked the dawn of the so-called Age of Free Security. Abandoning its ambitions on the territory of the United States, Great Britain used its naval supremacy to keep the peace at sea. This stance not only insulated America from European quarrels but also enforced the American Monroe Doctrine, a warning issued by President James Monroe against further European interference in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. The Army continued to construct coastal fortifications against the receding threat of seaborne invasion, but it turned its main focus to the South and West, where many Americans were moving in search of new lands and opportunities. At times the Army served as a buffer between these restless settlers and the Native Americans. At other times the government directed it to move the tribes, forcibly if necessary, from their lands. The tragic removal of the Cherokees from their ancestral homeland in the Southeast to present-day Oklahoma was a case in point. The Army fought tribes that refused to turn over their lands to the settlers when directed by
the federal government to do so. With the final collapse of Tecumseh’s confederacy during the War of 1812, the Native Americans of the Old Northwest posed little obstacle to expansion. In Florida, however, regulars and militia achieved only a partial success in driving the Seminoles from their homelands in two bitter wars spanning the period from 1817 to 1842.
Its value as a frontier constabulary notwithstanding, the Regular Army of the early Republic needed to show its practical utility. The nation faced almost no external threat, and, in an age dominated by the self-made military hero and president, Andrew Jackson, many looked down on the professional military. Nevertheless, as one of few national institutions in a young republic of great size, small government, and dispersed population, the Regular Army was in a good position to contribute to national development. Soldiers proved especially well suited for exploration, given their organization, discipline, training for survival in a hostile environment, and ability to display governmental authority in a way that civilians could not. Army officers such as Stephen H. Long and John C. Fremont earned fame through their expeditions into the Missouri Valley, Rockies, Great Basin, and Southwest, making maps and gathering data that helped open those regions for transit and settlement. Until 1835 West Point was the only school in the country to produce qualified engineers, and its graduates played a vital role in the national economic development of the 1820s and 1830s. When local governments and civilian contractors could not meet demands for internal improvements—especially with respect to transportation—the Army stepped into the breach. Army engineers surveyed for roads, canals, and railroads and often supervised their construction. They were similarly instrumental in river and harbor improvements. In Washington, D.C., Army engineers built aqueducts, bridges, and public edifices, notably the Capitol dome, the Washington Monument, and the Smithsonian’s main edifice.
The Army of the Jacksonian era made other significant contributions. Army doctors contributed to medical knowledge through the establishment of the Army Medical Library and work in such areas as smallpox vaccination and the study of digestion. The surgeon general directed hospitals to collect data on weather conditions for medical use and thus encouraged the evolution of a national meteorological system. The Industrial Revolution in the United States was spurred by the Army’s use of interchangeable parts in the manufacture of arms. Under the leadership of Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, the War Department completed the organization of a bureau system that it had begun during the War of 1812. Despite Jacksonian notions that a true
military commander need only rely on his natural talents, the Army developed professionalism in its officer corps through a reformed course of instruction at West Point and establishment of branch schools and professional journals.
The Army’s new professionalism made it an effective instrument in support of American expansionism during the 1840s. In 1846 President
James K. Polk stationed Bvt. Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor with an army of about 4,000 men near the Rio Grande to pressure Mexico into accepting that river as the boundary between the two countries. When war erupted in May, Taylor’s force quickly showed its professional mettle. At Palo Alto, Reseca de la Palma, Monterr ey, and Buena Vista, regular enlisted men demonstrated their toughness and resiliency, and the new officer corps provided skillful leadership, particularly with respect to the artillery. Volunteer regiments that had grown out of the militia system also generally served with distinction. Farther north, Col. Stephen W. Kearney’s Army of the West secured California and the future Arizona and New Mexico for the United States. In spite of these victories, Mexico continued to resist, and American leaders concluded that a direct strike at Mexico City was necessary. During Winfield Scott’s brilliant march on the Mexican capital in 1847, American soldiers again displayed fine fighting qualities at Veracruz, Cerro Gordo, Churu busco, and Chapultepec, and their officers distinguished themselves as scouts, engineers, staff officers, military governors, and leaders of combat troops. Many of these officers—including Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, Thomas J. Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and George B. McClellan—would command the armies that would face each other when North and South went to war fourteen years later.
On the eve of the Civil War, the Army policed Native Americans and unruly settlers, conducted surveys for the proposed transcontinental railroad, and kept track of military developments at home and abroad, but it could not remain entirely above the sectional crisis. Northerners increasingly opposed what they saw as the efforts of the Southern “slave power” to extend slavery into the new western territories and to hunt down fugitive slaves in their communities. Southerners worried about growing Northern power and resented Northern interference with the South’s “peculiar institution.” Federal authorities had already called on regular troops to respond to South Carolina’s attempts to nullify federal laws in the 1830s. During the 1850s, the federal government again turned to regulars to control Northern crowds protesting the return of fugitive slaves. In “Bleeding Kansas,” Army troops struggled to keep the peace between proslavery and freesoil factions.
For both the Army and the nation, the Civil War was the defining event of the nineteenth century. The Regular Army, numbering only about 16,000 and depleted by the resignations of Southern officers, was clearly insufficient for the task of restoring the Union after the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861. The rush to the Union colors following President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volun-
teers reflected the country’s tradition of a citizenry ready to spring to arms when the nation was in danger. Within months, the Army increased to almost 500,000 men, and it would grow much larger in the ensuing years. Regular personnel, West Pointers returning from civilian life, and self-educated citizen-officers all did their part in transforming raw recruits into an effective fighting force. The War Department and its supply bureaus undertook to feed, clothe, equip, and arm the armies and otherwise mobilize the Union war effort for the task ahead. For an impatient public that had idealized the natural, irresistible “martial spirit” of Americans, the notion that the new armies required considerable organization and training became acceptable only after the Union Army’s rout at First Bull Run showed the need for more thorough preparation. That belated realization allowed professional Army officers like Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan to begin the arduous effort of transforming volunteers into soldiers.
In its first efforts to restore the Union in 1861 and 1862, the Army achieved mixed results. It secured Washington, D.C., and the border states, provided aid and comfort to Unionists in West Virginia, and, in cooperation with the Union Navy, seized key points along the Southern coast, including the port of New Orleans. Under such leaders as Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, it occupied west and central Tennessee and secured almost all of the Mississippi River. In the most visible theater of the war, however, the Union Army of the Potomac made little progress against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee. After victories at the Seven Days and Second Bull Run, Lee, ably assisted by his chief subordinate, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, invaded Maryland in the hope of encouraging European intervention. The Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, which forced Lee to return to Virginia, reduced that danger, although subsequent defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville brought the Union effort in the East no closer to success than it had been at the start of the war.
After President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation expanded the Army’s mission of restoring the Union to include the emancipation of slaves in the Confederate states, the Army found itself in the middle of a revolution. As Union armies moved through the South, they were followed by a swelling crowd of African American refugees, most of them destitute with few means of survival. The Army gave food, clothing, and employment to the freedmen, and it provided as many as possible with the means of self-sufficiency, including instruction in reading and writing. African Americans in the Union Army were among those who thus achieved literacy. After years of excluding African
Americans, the Army took 180,000 into its ranks. Formed into segregated units under white officers, these former slaves contributed greatly to the eventual Union victory.
After four years of bitter struggle, the Army finally destroyed the Confederacy. In July 1863 Grant’s triumph at Vicksburg gave the North control of the entire Mississippi River, and the Union victory at Gettysburg turned back Lee’s last invasion of the North. The capture of Chattanooga, Tennessee, that fall opened the way for an invasion of the Southern heartland. Appointed commander of all the Union armies, Grant planned not only to annihilate the Confederate armies but also to destroy the South’s means of supporting them. While Grant wore down Lee’s army at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Petersburg during the 1864 and 1865 campaigns, his commander in the West, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, drove through Georgia and the Carolinas, burning crops, tearing up railroads, and otherwise obliterating the economic infrastructure of those regions. Cavalry raids and other Union operations also carried out Grant’s goal of destroying the economic and moral basis for resistance.
The Army’s role in reunifying the nation did not end with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865. To restore Southern allegiance to the United States, the Army had already established military governments in occupied areas, cracking down on Confederate sympathiz-
ers while providing food, schools, and improved sanitation to the destitute. This role continued after the collapse of the Confederacy, when the Republican Congress adopted a tough “Reconstruction” policy to restore the Southern states to the Union. Serving as an occupation force, the Army was the main means of enforcement. For occupation troops in the South, the real problem was not so much the imposition of federal rule as the protection of African Americans and Unionist whites from other Southerners, notably the Ku Klux Klan. Keeping watch over local courts, the Army sought to ensure the rights of African Americans and Unionists, a task that became increasingly difficult as support for Reconstruction waned and the occupation forces declined in numbers. At the same time, military governors expedited the South’s physical recovery from the war. Through the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Army provided relief for both African Americans and whites, providing 21 million rations, operating over fifty hospitals, arranging labor for wages in former plantation areas, and establishing schools for the freedmen. The Army’s thankless but essential role in Reconstruction ended with the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the South in 1877.