The United States operated with two versions of the same military organization during the early period of the Republic. One version consisted of a small peacetime military force that was used to enforce order on the growing western frontier. The other was a national army that was created to conduct war in defense of the Republic. This force was initially the Continental Army during the American Revolution (1775–1783). It was later transformed into a postwar frontier defense force.
The regular army or "regulars" was the governmental institution whose job was to defend the country and its citizens. This military organization consisted of established units that were garrisoned throughout the country.
The Continental Army represented the first attempt to create a national military unit within the former British colonies. This organization was made up of men who either volunteered to serve or were conscripted by their states to serve in this force. It was not uncommon to see both whites and African Americans serving in the same battalions or regiments, especially if the organization was raised in the northern states. The ages of the men ran from eighteen to fifty. Immigrant soldiers were most likely to be either Irish or German in nationality. Women were considered a part of these military units as laundresses attached to regimental companies. Women also accompanied the men into the field and assisted in any medical duties. The armament of these regiments consisted of either French or British weapons, which were either supplied or captured on the battlefield. Their officers ranged from political appointees to veterans of foreign armies.
The army of the new nation was a token force consisting of small numbers of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Regimental officers beholden to the upkeep of their commands recruited the personnel. Many of the soldiers were older men, immigrants, or southerners. These soldiers would face the harsh environment of frontier service, where even their families might find themselves in combat. The War of 1812 (1812–1815) brought an expansion of the national army with the influx of farmers and native-born soldiers from New England. Unlike the peacetime army, this national force consisted of younger men who saw their future in land grants for military service.
social environment and combat
The culture of the army was concentrated around the company, which was the smallest level of the regular military organization. Regular army soldiers operated in a small world, interacting with officers, sergeants, and laundresses. Within these companies, the world of the soldier revolved around the mundane tasks of cooking and basic hygiene. Maintenance of health became an ongoing problem for soldiers in the field because of the rapidity with which disease attacked a unit. In addition, the quality and shortage of food became an ongoing problem for these military units. The regular units also suffered from problems in obtaining enough clothing to ward off sickness. After a particularly harsh campaign, many Continental Army regiments looked worse than their militia counterparts.
For regular units, discipline was the main focus of their training. Through proper discipline, European linear tactics became a lethal force in open country. These tactics thrust rolling waves against an enemy position, with continual strikes. To ensure this discipline, officers and sergeants were ruthless to their privates. This approach was meant to make the privates mentally strong enough to stand in a line of battle to deliver rounds of volley fire on the enemy or to withstand hand-to-hand combat.
The strong application of discipline was one reason for desertions from military units in both war and peace. In addition, the extreme boredom of frontier garrison affected the willingness of men to endure the treatment of their superiors. The use of bounties for enlistment during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 created a class of soldier that used the system for profit through multiple enlistments and desertions.
From 1784 to 1828, the U.S. Army operated as a frontier constabulary for the country's ever-moving western frontier. This deployment forced the officers and enlisted men into becoming a police force to separate the Native American population from the settlers moving into the western territories. The positioning of army units to isolated fortifications along with tight fiscal policies were used to keep the army weakened both internally and politically. Many of the posts consisted entirely of units on the company, battery, or squadron level. In 1818 the regular army numbered roughly seventy-five-hundred men. The U.S. Army maintained sixty-four garrisons, in which units of more than one hundred men of all ranks occupied twenty-three posts. Entire regiments were rarely in the field at one time, except during war.
During times of peace, army life became very ritualistic and extremely lonely for officers and soldiers alike. Much of the time was focused on the maintenance of the post facilities and the occasional patrol. Small, company-sized units were sent out to establish small outposts along trading roads and water routes. Old fortifications were repaired and new ones constructed to protect the local communities. Soldiers were also called upon for construction of civilian buildings and roads. In 1818 the garrisons were ordered to start farming as a cost-saving measure. Several installations were able to raise enough crops to feed their own and other posts and sell the surplus in the marketplace. The fresh food cut the high disease rate of military garrisons, which had previously been issued low-quality food from military contractors.
Recreation on these isolated garrisons during free time was left to the creative minds of the officers and men. Army personnel resorted to activities such as gambling and drinking as a way to deal with the hard work and loneliness. Whiskey was a part of the issued rations for both officers and enlisted soldiers. The alcohol became a tool to deal with the emotional problems of garrison duty. Attempts were made to bring churches, small theater groups, and fraternal organizations like Masonic lodges to these posts. Many times it was left up to officers and enlisted men or their families to create pursuits to relieve the boredom on posts.
The U.S. Army became a tight, isolated community within the growing American Republic. Many men and their families spent their entire lives within the army going from post to post. Their mundane and ritualistic lives were interrupted by violence from time to time on the frontier. Many peacetime soldiers remained close to military garrisons upon leaving the service and formed the basis of many western towns.
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——. "Soldiers in Peace and War: Comparative Perspectives on the Recruitment of the United States Army, 1802–1815." William and Mary Quarterly, 57 (2000): 79–120.
William H. Brown