The Pecking Order in the Old Army

While bouncing around Fort Monroe on Saturday, I paid a bit more attention to the fort’s architecture than normal.  And this brought to mind the “pecking order” among officers in the pre-war army – often cited as engineer, ordnance, artillery, infantry, and cavalry (with quartermaster worked in there somewhere).  We’ve all heard that each year the top graduates of the West Point class received commissions in the engineers.  Meanwhile the “goats” would go out to ride horses and rattle sabers.  Quite the opposite of our romantic notions of army duties, right?  Why would a newly minted Lieutenant, given the choice, opt for a job that essentially involved laying bricks?

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Bastion Wall of Fort Monroe

Well the answer, at least in part I think, lies in the mission priorities of the “old Army” in those pre-war days.

The Army played many roles in the time period between 1820 and 1860, including frontier defense, border security, Indian removal, civil engineering, beyond just “being” an army designed to fight other land armies.  But the most important task given the Army in that period was coastal defense.

The War of 1812 left, for lack of a better word, a bruise upon the pride of the Army.  The British sacked the nation’s capital rather easily.  Examining the disaster, many looked beyond the failed militia-centric force and noted the freedom of maneuver given the British due to the lack of coastal defense.  Although not stinging quite so bad, the same lesson came forth from examinations of the Revolutionary War campaigns.  For America to win a potential engagement with a European power (which at that time would by nature be defensive), she had to control the waterways. Thus the emphasis on coastal fortifications.

To control the inlets, bays, and anchorages, the Army embarked on a long running fort building program, often called the “Third System” to differentiate from earlier efforts.  Begun during the presidency of James Madison, this program was the largest single line item in most annual War Department budgets (save for perhaps a few years around the Mexican War).  The Third System forts featured masonry construction strongly influenced by the Vauban approach to fortification.  Thus the need for sharp, well-educated engineers to direct the construction.  That is why Robert E. Lee left his mark at Forts Monroe, Pulaski, Hamilton, and Carroll.

But those forts needed armaments.  So in turn the Army sought to produce the most effective seacoast defense weapons within the limits of the technology of the day.  While I’ve discussed at length the long process of putting a proper 6-pdr field gun in the Army’s batteries, that is but a fraction of the effort which went towards perfecting the seacoast guns and columbiads.   Eventually, with some of its best, brightest, and most creative officers assigned to ordnance duty, the Army designed some of the most powerful seacoast guns of the era. Those same ordnance officers pulled double duty inspecting the weapons and munitions issued to the coastal forts – all to an exacting specification to ensure weapons effectiveness.

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Moat and Bridge at Fort Monroe

Of course a well built and armed fort is nothing without a well trained garrison.  The artillery corps expanded from one regiment to four by act of Congress in 1821.  The Army still planned to use militia forces at the coastal forts in the event of war.  But those regular regiments included a substantial number of companies assigned to garrison the coastal forts in peacetime.  Indeed to some degree the “field artillery” suffered as a second priority to the coastal defense needs.

I would go as far to say the emphasis on coastal defenses not only topped the Army’s appropriations and stacked the officer corps, it also left the force “flat-footed” when the Civil War broke out in 1861.  The “old Army” was postured to bristle back at some seaborne threat (the border with Canada only an issue where guys like George Pickett argued over pigs and the like), and could only with due deliberation transform to support an offensive land war.

And this emphasis on coastal defense transcended the Civil War.  We think of the post-war Army with dusty visions of John Ford’s cavalry troopers on the march.  Yet, after the war the Army reverted to the pre-war appropriations patterns.  The Endicott and Taft Boards continued that work into the era of steel and concrete. Only in 1907 was the “field artillery” officially separated from the coastal gunners.  And even then, the Ordnance Branch continued to emphasize the big anti-ship guns to the detriment of field guns.  So much in fact that the Army would fight World War I with foreign designed artillery.

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Endicott Era Battery at Fort Monroe

By the end of that war, the emergence of big-gun dreadnaughts, aviation, and other new technologies limited the value of traditional coastal defenses.  But perhaps more to the point, the Army transformed more into a force for overseas “expeditions,” keeping in pace with the nation’s move to the forefront as a world power.

In short, the pre-war – and I’d submit that definition as “pre-World War I” – Army encouraged a “pecking order” among the branches in part due to the coastal defense mission.    And that is why the “best” officers in that Army did the brick-laying and cannon-inspecting while the “goats” ended up marching with the infantry or on horseback with the cavalry.

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