Army, United States

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ARMY, UNITED STATES, came into being on 14 June 1775 by an act of the Second Continental Congress. The new Continental army sustained the patriot cause in the American Revolution and established several important traditions, including subordination of the army to the civilian government, reliance on citizen-soldiers (militia, volunteers, draftees, and organized reserves) to bolster the regular army in wartime, and a quick return to a small core of professional soldiers during peacetime. The pattern of American war—a sudden and massive buildup of army manpower and material after years of neglect, quickly followed by an equally rapid and sweeping demobilization with the outbreak of peace—persisted for the next 175 years. Breaking with tradition, the U.S. Army after 1945 remained large and in a high state of readiness even in peacetime due to the Cold War. Even with the disintegration of the Communist bloc in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Army has remained the preeminent army in the world.


Historically the U.S. Army has performed a variety of missions, among them homeland defense, expeditionary military efforts, scientific and humanitarian duties, and the restoration of domestic order.

The army's most fundamental mission is to safeguard the lives, property, and territorial rights of the United States and its citizens. The army was called to homeland defense against the forces of Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and the War of 1812 (1812–1815). One might also include in this category the American Civil War (1861–1865), although the federal government led by President Abraham Lincoln never recognized the southern Confederacy as a sovereign state. However, it took nearly four years of bloody conflict before the federal Army of the Union subdued the rebellious eleven southern states and restored, in fact as well as in law, the political integrity of the nation. Following the Civil War, the increasingly close relationship between the United States and its two neighbors, Canada and Mexico, gave the nation a high degree of continental security, although the army continued to man dozens of coastal installations. The army also served a constabulary role on the expanding frontier, which frequently brought it into conflict with Native Americans.

U.S. foreign policy, especially since the late-nineteenth century, has often required the army to fulfill international missions. Expeditionary armies fought in major declared wars such as the Spanish-American War (1898), World War I (1917–1918), and World War II (1941–1945), as well as large-scale but undeclared wars including the Korean War (1950–1953), Vietnam War (1957–1975), and Persian Gulf War of 1991 (1991). The army has intervened to rescue American citizens (such as the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900) and mounted campaigns to retaliate for the loss of American lives and property, including the Punitive Expedition into Mexico in 1916–1917, an unsuccessful attempt to capture the bandit Francisco (Pancho) Villa. In the twentieth century, the army has fought counterinsurgency wars (such as in the Philippines in 1898–1899, Central America and the Caribbean between the 1910s and 1930s, and Southeast Asia in the early 1960s) and acted as a peacekeeping force in dysfunctional societies (such as Haiti in 1994 and Bosnia in 1995).

The army has promoted scientific discovery and national development. The U.S. Army academy at West Point, founded in 1802, has helped train generations of engineers and scientists. When the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase, it was an army expedition led by two officers, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark, which first explored the territory in an epic three-year journey (1804–1806). As the nation expanded from east to west over the next several decades, army engineers surveyed for roads, canals, and railroads and constructed bridges, public buildings, telegraph lines, and aqueducts. The most famous and complex engineering project the army oversaw was the Panama Canal, completed in 1914. Between the 1880s and 1918, the army also helped survey and administer the emerging system of national parks to promote conservation and recreation. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the army played a central role in developing the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program to give men work on conservation projects. In the Cold War era, the army contributed to the space program and researched new materials and technology that also had consumer applications.

In times of great civil disorder, the army sometimes helped civilian agencies restore public authority and safety. It dispersed the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 in western Pennsylvania when angry farmers rebelled against excise taxes on liquor and stills, attempted to stop a guerrilla war between pro-and antislavery forces that began in Kansas in 1854, and mobilized to stop the violence and destruction of property during the great Railroad Strike of 1877. Between 1863 and 1877, the army also acted as an administrator and constabulary force in the South during Reconstruction, supervising the reintegration of the confederate states into the union, distributing aid to former slaves through the Freedmen's Bureau, and enforcing (albeit with limited effect) the new rights of black citizens. Nearly a century later, when the federal government enforced the racial integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, paratroopers helped enact the law. In times of dire emergency, the army has contributed manpower, expertise, and equipment to cope with natural disasters such as tornadoes, floods, forest fires, and earthquakes as well as man-made disasters such as riots and terrorist attacks.


The organization of the army has changed dramatically since 1775, influenced by tactical innovations, technological improvements, and financial and political debates within the government.

During the American Revolution, the basic tactical unit was the brigade, composed of several regiments each recruited from a specific colony. Each brigade of between 1,000 and 2,500 men was either named for its commander or given a numerical designation. Most Continental soldiers were infantry, supported by a smaller number of artillery and cavalry units. Commanders relied on a few personal aides to carry out staff work, and many officers were chosen on the basis of their social standing, political connections, or financial resources. The support elements, such as quartermaster and medical details, were typically formed on an ad hoc basis with civilian laborers.

Immediately following the Revolutionary War, the army shrank to a mere 718 men because Congress saw a large standing army as inimical to democracy and ruinously expensive. However, the continued threat from hostile Indians and European powers with territorial ambitions in North America convinced Congress to gradually expand the army, while the new Constitution passed in 1789gave the federal government more power to legislate and tax on behalf of national defense. In the years between 1792 and 1796, the army expanded to more than 5,000 men organized into a single legion, a mixed tactical formation with infantry, artillery, and cavalry. The legion proved to be unwieldy, however, and in 1796 the army adopted the regiment as its basic tactical formation, a system of organization that would persist until the twentieth century.

During the War of 1812 against Great Britain, volunteers and federalized militia supplemented regulars to form ad hoc field armies, often with minimal logistical support and widely divergent standards of discipline and drill. Although Congress authorized the army to grow to 35,000 men, with an additional 50,000 volunteers and

100,000 militia, the actual size of field armies was rarely more than several thousand during any campaign.

In the years between 1815 and 1846, the army retained an average strength of little more than 6,000 men, mostly occupied with Indian wars and garrison duty. With the outbreak of war against Mexico in 1846, Congress called for 50,000 volunteers rather than expand the regular army. Through the next two years of conflict, the expeditionary armies in Mexico—the largest was just 12,000 men—were a mixture of well-trained regulars and eager but unruly volunteers.

America's next conflict, the Civil War, exceeded all previous wars in size and intensity. The federal army, only 16,000 at the outbreak of war in April 1861, expanded with a massive stream of new soldiers—volunteers, mostly—and eventually surpassed one million men on active duty in May 1865. The Union organized field armies as large as 100,000 men, and most regiments were made up of soldiers from a particular state or region, often with a distinctive ethnic or racial identity (including the first African-American combat regiments).

The army shrank again quickly after the Civil War, falling to 54,302 in 1866 and then just 27,442 by 1876. When war broke out with Spain in April 1898, Congress authorized a call for 200,000 volunteers, only some of which joined the regulars to see action in Cuba (although more of the volunteers saw action against guerrillas in the Philippines).

The Spanish-American War revealed serious tactical and logistical shortcomings in the army that Secretary of War Elihu Root pledged to reform in 1903. Under his guidance, the army created a general staff—a permanent headquarters of senior-level officers—to develop doctrine and to plan for future conflicts. Although the army made great strides in training and organization over the next decade, it was still far too small for the task when the United States entered World War I in April 1917.

The wartime army drew upon three sources—an expanded regular army, the federalized National Guard, and the draftees of the National Army—to eventually reach a total of 1.3 million men. Forces were organized around a large, "square" division (28,000 men divided into two brigades with two regiments each) to compensate for the lack of officers, to maximize firepower, and to build a unit that could handle sustained combat. The army grew to sixty-four divisions during World War I, forty-three of which deployed to Europe. Airplane and tank units were added during the war, new technologies that would revolutionize the battlefield in the twentieth century.

At the conclusion of the war troop strength declined once again, and by 1922 its size was only 144,000 officers and men. The isolationist and fiscally conservative policies of the 1920s and 1930s kept the army small, but the totalitarian menace of Germany, Japan, and Italy led to its expansion once again with the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. When the United States entered the war in December 1941, there were already 1.6 million men in the army, organized around "triangular" divisions averaging 12,000 men that offered better mobility and command efficiency than the "square" divisions of World War I. In 1943, the air services became a semi-independent branch called the U.S. Army Air Forces. During the war, the army fielded eighty-nine divisions (one light, one cavalry, five airborne, sixteen armored, and sixty-six infantry) within a total strength of 7.7 million personnel. Sixty-eight divisions fought in the European theater and twenty-one in the Pacific.

Although the army shed much of its strength following Japan's surrender in September 1945, the emergence of the Cold War halted and then reversed the decline. The number of active divisions fell from eighty-nine in 1945 to just twelve in 1947—the Air Force also became a fully independent service branch on 18 September of that year—but rising tensions with the communist world and the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 spurred a major rebuilding effort. The army committed eight combat divisions and formally abolished racial segregation in its units during the war. By 1953 it had grown to 1.5 million men, and even when the war ended Congress retained a force of one million on active duty.

Between 1956 and 1960, the army experimented with a "pentomic" division structure based on five battle groups designed to operate on an atomic battlefield. The formation proved unsuitable and a new, more flexible division structure was adopted in 1961. The so-called ROAD division was organized around brigade task forces adaptable to a wide range of missions, ranging from atomic to unconventional warfare.

Between 1961 and 1972, the army fought a major conflict in South Vietnam that required at its peak the equivalent of nine combat divisions and nearly 361,000 men (out of a total strength of 1.5 million), and developed a new kind of "airmobile" division based around helicopters for greater mobility. A drawdown after the war reduced manpower to 650,000 men, and the end of the draft in 1973 transformed the army into an all-volunteer force. Changing social mores and more opportunities in the army led to a growing number of women to join.

After a period of turmoil following Vietnam, the army began to rebuild in the 1980s as tensions rose again with the Soviets. When the Warsaw Pact collapsed in 1989, the army devoted more attention to the unstable Middle East region. Following Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait in August 1990, the army committed

the equivalent of seven divisions and nearly 300,000 soldiers. The Persian Gulf War culminated with the retaking of Kuwait in February 1991, accomplished in fewer than 100 hours of ground combat. In the decade after the war, the army evolved into a smaller, leaner organization—471,000 personnel in 2001—but continued to fulfill a wide variety of global missions, including peacekeeping efforts, special operations training, and preparations for conventional war.

Following the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001, the army began preparing for war against the Al Qaeda terrorist network and its state sponsors. Between October and December 2001, Army Special Forces soldiers played a key role in defeating the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, the primary state sponsor of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, by directing air strikes against the enemy and by helping to organize friendly Afghan troops. When Army conventional forces, particularly from the 101st Airborne

and Tenth Mountain Divisions, began operating in Afghanistan, they enjoyed considerable success in damaging and disrupting the Al Qaeda network, an effort that continues and will likely last for many years.


Hogan, David W., Jr. 225 Years of Service: The U.S. Army, 1775–2000. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2000.

Millett, Allan R., and Peter Maslowski. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. Rev. ed. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Wilson, John B. Maneuver and Firepower: The Evolution of Divisions and Separate Brigades. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1998.

Erik B.Villard

See alsoMilitary Service and Minorities ; Women in Military Service .