History of the United States Army

History of the United States Army

From its formation in 1775, the United States Army has been the primary land based portion of the United States military. Though not solely used as a military force, sometimes helping in domestic violence and disaster situations, the Army's primary responsibility has been the fighting of land battles and military occupation. First founded in response to a need for professional soldiery in the American Revolutionary War in order to fight Red Coat soldiers of the British Army, the US Army has had several major periods of service including the War of 1812, American Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War. After the Cold War ended, the US Army has had considerable involvement in UN and NATO peace-keeping efforts as well as the recent War in Iraq and the War in Afghanistan.



Continental Army

Storming of Redoubt #10 during the Siege of Yorktown.

The Continental Army consisted of troops from all 13 colonies. When the American Revolutionary War began at the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the colonial revolutionaries did not have an army. Previously, each colony had relied upon the militia, made up of part time citizen-soldiers, for local defense, or the raising of temporary "provincial regiments" during specific crises such as the French and Indian War. As tensions with Great Britain increased in the years leading up to the war, colonists began to reform their militia in preparation for the potential conflict. Training of militiamen increased after the passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774. Colonists such as Richard Henry Lee proposed creating a national militia force, but the First Continental Congress rejected the idea.[1]

On April 23, 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress authorized the raising of a colonial army consisting of 26 company regiments, followed shortly by similar but smaller forces raised by New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. On June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress decided to proceed with the establishment of a Continental Army for purposes of common defense, adopting the forces already in place outside Boston (22,000 troops) and New York (5,000). It also raised the first ten companies of Continental troops on a one-year enlistment, riflemen from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia to be used as light infantry, who later became the 1st Continental Regiment in 1776. On June 15, the Congress elected George Washington as Commander-in-Chief by unanimous vote. He accepted and served throughout the war without any compensation except for reimbursement of expenses.[2]

The initial orders from Congress authorized ten companies of riflemen. However, the first full regiment of Regular Army infantry, the 3rd Infantry Regiment was not formed until June 1784.[3]

After the authorization of the creation of a Continental Army, Congress, on 16 June 1775, created multiple departments to help support the operations of the Army. These four departments would later be renamed as Corps: the Adjutant General's Corps, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Finance Corps and the Quartermasters Corps. Congress later authorized both the creation of Field Artillery and Cavalry units in November 1775 and December 1776 respectively.[3]

Broadly speaking, Continental forces consisted of several successive armies, or establishments:

  • The Continental Army of 1775, comprising the initial New England Army, organized by Washington into three divisions, six brigades, and 38 regiments. Major General Philip Schuyler's ten regiments in New York were sent to invade Canada.
  • The Continental Army of 1776, reorganized after the initial enlistment period of the soldiers in the 1775 army had expired. Washington had submitted recommendations to the Continental Congress almost immediately after he had accepted the position of Commander-in-Chief, but these took time to consider and implement. Despite attempts to broaden the recruiting base beyond New England, the 1776 army remained skewed toward the Northeast both in terms of its composition and geographical focus. This army consisted of 36 regiments, most standardized to a single battalion of 768 men strong formed into eight companies, with a rank and file strength of 640.
  • The Continental Army of 1777-80 was a result of several critical reforms and political decisions that came about when it was apparent that the British were sending massive forces to put an end to the American Revolution. The Continental Congress passed the "Eighty-eight Battalion Resolve", ordering each state to contribute one-battalion regiments in proportion to their population, and Washington was subsequently given authority to raise an additional 16 battalions. Also, enlistment terms were extended to three years or "the length of the war" to avoid the year-end crises that depleted forces (including the notable near collapse of the army at the end of 1776 which could have ended the war in a Continental, or American, loss by forfeit).
  • The Continental Army of 1781-82 saw the greatest crisis on the American side in the war. Congress was bankrupt, making it very difficult to replenish the soldiers whose three-year terms had expired. Popular support for the war was at its all-time low, and Washington had to put down mutinies both in the Pennsylvania Line and New Jersey Line. Congress voted to cut funding for the Army, but Washington managed nevertheless to secure important strategic victories.
  • The Continental Army of 1783-84, was succeeded by the United States Army, which persists to this day. As peace was closed with the British, most of the regiments were disbanded in an orderly fashion, though several had already been diminished.

In addition to the Continental Army regulars, local militia units, raised and funded by individual colonies/states, participated in battles throughout the war. Sometimes, the militia units operated independently of the Continental Army, but often local militias were called out to support and augment the Continental Army regulars during campaigns. (The militia troops developed a reputation for being prone to premature retreats, a fact that was integrated into the strategy at the Battle of Cowpens.)

George Washington used the Fabian strategy and hit-and-run tactics, hitting where the enemy was weakest, to wear down the British forces and their Hessian mercenary allies. Washington led victories against the British at Trenton and Princeton, and then turned south. With a decisive victory at Yorktown, and the help of the French, the Spanish and the Dutch, the Continental Army prevailed against the British, and with the Treaty of Paris, the independence of the United States was acknowledged.

Early national period

After the war the Continental Army was quickly disbanded as part of the American distrust of standing armies, and irregular state militias became the new nation's sole ground army, with the exception of a regiment to guard the Western Frontier and one battery of artillery guarding West Point's arsenal. However, because of continuing conflict with Native Americans, it was soon realized that it was necessary to field a trained standing army. The first of these, the Legion of the United States, was established in 1791.

19th century

War of 1812

The War of 1812, the second and last American war against the British, was less successful than the Revolution had been. An invasion of Canada failed, and U.S. troops were unable to stop the British from burning the new capital of Washington, D.C.. However, the Regular Army, under Generals Winfield Scott and Jacob Brown, proved they were professional and capable of defeating a British army in the Niagara campaign of 1814. Two weeks after a treaty was signed, though, Andrew Jackson defeated the British invasion of New Orleans. However this had little effect; as per the treaty both sides returned to the status quo.

Westward expansion

Between 1815 and 1860, a spirit of Manifest Destiny was common in the U.S., and as settlers moved west the U.S. Army engaged in a long series of skirmishes and battles with Native Americans east of the Mississippi River that the government then uprooted and removed west of the Mississippi River or on to reservations.

Following the annexation of Texas, the U.S. Army also fought the Mexican–American War (1846–1848), which was a defining event for both countries.[4] The U.S. victory resulted in acquisition of territory that eventually became all or parts of the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming and New Mexico. The acquisition of these new territories resulted in more wars with the Native Americans west of the Mississippi.

Civil War and aftermath

The Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the American Civil War

The Civil War was the most costly war for the U.S.[citation needed] After most states in the South seceded to form the Confederate States of America, CSA troops opened fire on the Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, starting the war. For the first two years Confederate forces solidly defeated the U.S. Army, but after the decisive battles of Gettysburg in the east and Vicksburg in the west, combined with superior industrial might and numbers, Union troops fought a brutal campaign through Confederate territory and the war ended with a Confederate surrender at Appomatox Courthouse in April 1865. Based on 1860 census figures, 8% of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6% in the North and 18% in the South.[5]

Following the Civil War, the U.S. Army fought a long battle with Native Americans, who resisted U.S. expansion into the center of the continent. By the 1890s the U.S. saw itself as a potential international player. U.S. victories in the Spanish-American War and the controversial and less well known Philippine-American War, as well as U.S. intervention in Latin America and the Boxer Rebellion, expanded American influence.

Twentieth century

Soldiers from the U.S. Army 89th Infantry Division cross the Rhine River in assault boats, 1945.

In 1910, the U.S. Signal Corps acquired and flew the Army's first aircraft, the Wright Type A biplane.[6]

World War I

A combined conscript and volunteer force, the National Army, was formed by the United States War Department in 1917 to fight in World War I. The National Army was formed from the old core of the regular United States Army, augmented by units of the United States National Guard and a large draft of able-bodied men.

The Selective Service Act established the broad outlines of the Army's structure. There were to be three increments:

  1. The Regular Army, to be raised immediately to the full wartime strength of 286,000 authorized in the National Defense Act of 1916;
  2. The National Guard, also to be expanded immediately to the authorized strength of approximately 450,000; and
  3. A National Army (the National Defense Act had called it a Volunteer Army), to be created in two increments of 500,000 men each at such time as the President should determine.

Much of the identity of these three segments eventually would be lost as recruits and draftees alike were absorbed in all units, so that in mid-1918 the War Department would change the designation of all land forces to one "United States Army". The original segment to which regiments, brigades, and divisions belonged nevertheless remained apparent from numerical designations. For the Regular Army, for example, divisions were numbered up to 25, while numbers 26 through 75 were reserved for the National Guard and higher numbers for divisions of the National Army[7].

At its greatest size the National Army had more than six million men. Promotions within the National Army were quick, with most United States Army officers receiving double and triple promotions within a space of only two years. Dwight Eisenhower entered the National Army as a Captain and was a Lieutenant Colonel one year later. Douglas MacArthur also advanced quickly in the National Army, rising from Major to Brigadier General in two years.

The National Army was disbanded in 1920 and all personnel not subject to demobilization who had held ranks in the National Army were reverted to Regular Army status. George S. Patton, who had been a Colonel in the National Army, returned to the Regular Army as a Captain. Some, such as Douglas MacArthur, maintained their wartime rank in the Regular Army. For those keeping their wartime ranks the reality was, however, that they would usually remain at that specific rank for years. This often resulted in talented officers leaving service in the interwar years.

The Army entered World War I with very large divisions consisting of two Infantry Brigades of two Regiments each with a total of twelve Infantry Battalions per Division.[8]

The United States joined World War I in April 1917 on the side of the Triple Entente (British Empire, France, and Russia). Due to the necessary period of training before the units were moved overseas the first elements of the American Expeditionary Force arrived in June 1917. Their first actions of the Western Front came in October 1917. US troops contributed to the offensive that finally broke through the German lines. With the armistice on 11 November 1918, the Army once again decreased its forces.

World War II

During World War II, the Army of the United States was formed as a successor to the National Army. The Army of the United States operated on the same principles as its predecessor, combining Regular Army, National Guard, and conscript forces into one fighting unit. The Army of the United States also incorporated Reserve forces.

The Army fought World War II with more flexible divisions consisting of 3 Infantry Regiments with 3 Infantry Battalions each.

The U.S. joined World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On the European front, U.S. Army troops formed a significant portion of the forces that captured North Africa and Sicily. On D-Day and in the subsequent liberation of Europe and defeat of Nazi Germany, millions of U.S. Army troops played a central role. In the Pacific, Army soldiers participated alongside U.S. Marines in the "island hopping" campaign that wrested the Pacific Islands from Japanese control. Following the Axis surrenders in May (Germany) and August (Japan) of 1945, Army troops were deployed to Japan and Germany to occupy the two defeated nations. Two years after World War II, the Army Air Forces separated from the Army to become the United States Air Force on 18 September 1947 after decades of attempting to separate. Also, in 1948 the Army was desegregated.

Cold War

The end of World War II set the stage for the East-West confrontation known as the Cold War. With the outbreak of the Korean War, concerns over the defense of Western Europe rose. Two corps, V and VII, were reactivated under Seventh United States Army in 1950 and American strength in Europe rose from one division to four. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops remained stationed in West Germany, with others in Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, until the 1990s in anticipation of a possible Soviet attack.

Soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division man a machine gun during the Korean War

During the Cold War, American troops and their allies fought Communist forces in Korea and Vietnam (see Domino Theory). The Korean War began in 1950, when the Soviets walked out of a U.N. Security Council meeting, removing their possible veto. Under a United Nations umbrella, hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops fought to prevent the takeover of South Korea by North Korea, and later, to invade the northern nation. After repeated advances and retreats by both sides, and the PRC People's Volunteer Army entry into the war, the s:Korean Armistice Agreement ended the war and returned the peninsula to the status quo in 1953.

An infantry patrol moves up to assault the last Viet Cong position at Dak To, South Vietnam after an attempted overrun of the artillery position by the Viet Cong during Operation Hawthorne

During the 1950s, the Pentomic reorganization shifted the basic tactical unit from the regiment to the five-company battle group.


The Vietnam War is often regarded as a low point in the Army's record due to the use of drafted personnel, the unpopularity of the war with the American public, and frustrating restrictions placed on the Army by US political leaders (i.e. no invading communist held North Vietnam). While American forces had been stationed in the Republic of Vietnam since 1959, in intelligence and advising/training roles, they did not deploy in large numbers until 1965, after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. American forces effectively established and maintained control of the "traditional" battlefield, however they struggled to counter the guerrilla hit and run tactics of the communist Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. On a tactical level, American soldiers (and the US military as a whole) did not lose a sizable battle.[9] For instance in the Tet Offensive in 1968, the US Army turned a large scale attack by communist forces into a massive defeat of the Viet Cong on the battlefield (though at the time the offensive sapped the political will of the American public) which permanently weakened the guerrilla force. Thereafter, most large scale engagements were fought with the regular North Vietnamese Army. In 1973 domestic political opposition to the war finally forced a US withdrawal. In 1975, Vietnam was unified under a communist government.

Finishing the Cold War

A "Total Force Policy" was adopted by Chief of Staff of the Army General Creighton Abrams in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and involved treating the three components of the Army – the Regular Army, the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve as a single force.[10] Believing that no US president should be able to take the United States (and more specifically the US Army) to war without the support of the American people, General Abrams intertwined the structure of the three components of the Army in such a way as to make extended operations impossible, without the involvement of both the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve.[citation needed]

The 1980s was mostly a decade of reorganization. The Army converted to an all-volunteer force with greater emphasis on training and technology.[11] The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 created Unified Combatant Commands bringing the Army together with the other four military branches under unified, geographically organized command structures. The Army also played a role in the invasions of Grenada in 1983 (Operation Urgent Fury) and Panama in 1989 (Operation Just Cause).

By 1989 Germany was nearing reunification and the Cold War was coming to a close. The Army leadership reacted by starting to plan for a reduction in strength. By November 1989 Pentagon briefers were laying out plans for 'Operation Quicksilver,' a plan to reduce Army endstrength by 23%, from 750,000 to 580,000.[12] A number of incentives such as early retirement were used. In 1990 Iraq invaded its smaller neighbor, Kuwait, and U.S. land forces, led by the 82nd Airborne Division, quickly deployed to assure the protection of Saudi Arabia. In January 1991 Operation Desert Storm commenced, a U.S.-led coalition which deployed over 500,000 troops, the bulk of them from U.S. Army formations, to drive out Iraqi forces. The campaign ended in a victory for the Army, as Western coalition forces routed the Iraqi Army, organized along Soviet lines, in just one hundred hours.


After Desert Storm, the Army did not see major combat operations for the remainder of the 1990s. Army units did participate in a number of peacekeeping activities, such as the UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia in 1993, where the abortive Operation Gothic Serpent led to the deaths of eighteen American soldiers and the withdrawal of international forces. The Army also contributed troops to a NATO peacekeeping force in the former Yugoslavia in the middle of the decade.

21st century

US and Iraqi Soldiers patrol borders in Iraq.

After the September 11 attacks, and as part of the Global War on Terror, U.S. and NATO combined arms (i.e. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, Special Operations) forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, replacing the Taliban government.

The Army took part in the combined U.S. and allied invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the following years the mission changed from conflict between regular militaries to counterinsurgency, with large numbers of suicide attacks resulting in the deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. service members (as of March 2008) and injuries to thousands more.[13] The lack of stability in the theater of operations has led to longer deployments for Regular Army as well as Reserve and Guard troops.

The Army's chief modernization plan was the Future Combat Systems program. Many systems were canceled and the remaining were swept into the BCT modernization program.[citation needed]

Past Transformations


ROAD- Reorganization of Army Divisions. This shifted all types of Divisions (Mechanised, Airborne, Armor, Infantry and Cavalry) to an identical structure of 3 brigades of 3 battalions (sometimes 4 battalions).

The ROAD division consisted of a mix of nine to twelve armor and infantry battalions assigned to the division to meet the expected needs of the division based on its mission, the likely enemy, the terrain/weather, and other forces available (METT) . Each brigade would be assigned or attached the mix of battalions and companies based on the division commanders estimate based on METT. The ROAD concept was based on the Armored division of WW2 and Korea which was not changed during the Pentomic era. Instead of Brigades, the Armor division had three "Combat Commands", name CCA, CCB, and CCC.

As operations continued, the division commander could and did move battalions and companies as needed by the flow of the battle. The 1st Air Cavalry in Vietnam had nine battalions spread as needed between the three brigade headquarters, but often moved the equivalent of one battalion each day by airlift from one side of the battefield to the other. An infantry battalion in 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam could expect having the number of companies under his command change at least once a day, with companies from different divisions not uncommon.

In the "Heavy" divisions in Europe, a tank or infantry company could find itself moved to other battalions more than once a week, and to another brigade as needed.

Force XXI

A previous reshaping plan was the mid-late 90s Force XXI. One of its initiatives was Task Force 21 (also Task Force XXI), a battlefield digitizied brigade formed for the Advanced Warfighting Exercises in 1997 to test Force XXI concepts, technology, and tactics. The brigade was formed from the 4th Infantry Division (which replaced the deactivated 2d Armored Division in 1992) and the 1st Cavalry Division as early as 1992, with some field testing beginning at Fort Hood in late 1992, early 1993. The 4th Infantry Division units assigned were 3-66 Armor and 1-22 Infantry, both of the 3d Brigade, while 1st Cavalry Division drew soldiers across a variety of support and combat fields.

Technologies tested included Software-defined radios, Applique computers, Ground Surveillance Radar, Satellite radio email systems, and Advanced UAV technology. TF-XXI participated in various Advanced Warfighting Exercises, including WARRIOR FOCUS (1995 #4).

See also

Military history of the United States
Organizations which deal with US Army History
Other topics


  1. ^ Wright, Continental Army, p. 10–11
  2. ^ "June 14th: The Birthday of the U.S. Army". United States Army Center of Military History. June 3, 2010. http://www.history.army.mil/html/faq/birth.html. 
  3. ^ a b "Army Birthdays". United States Army Center of Military History. 31 July 2009. http://www.history.army.mil/html/faq/branches.html. Retrieved 1 June 2010. 
  4. ^ "The US-Mexican War (1846-1848)". PBS
  5. ^ The Deadliest War
  6. ^ Cragg, p.272.
  8. ^ http://www.history.army.mil/books/Lineage/M-F/chapter3.htm#b4
  9. ^ Woodruff, Mark. Unheralded Victory: The Defeat of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army 1961-1973 (Arlington, VA: Vandamere Press, 1999).
  10. ^ Army National Guard Constitution
  11. ^ Shear, Jeff, "America in the Hands of a Professional Military", Miller-McCune, 15 April 2011.
  12. ^ An Army at War: Change in the Midst of Conflict, p.515, via Google Books
  13. ^ U.S. Casualties in Iraq


Further reading

External links

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