How American colonial ideals shaped command, discipline, and honor in the U.S. Armed Forces
In the summer of 1775, a Virginia gentleman-planter was given command of a New England army laying siege to British-occupied Boston. With his appointment, the Continental Army was born. Yet the cultural differences between those serving in the army and their new commander-in-chief led to conflicts from the very beginning that threatened to end the Revolution before it could start. The key challenge for General George Washington was establishing the standards by which the soldiers would be led by their officers. What kind of man deserved to be an officer? Under what conditions would soldiers agree to serve? And how far could the army and its leaders go to discipline soldiers who violated those enlistment conditions? As historian Seanegan P. Sculley reveals in Contest for Liberty: Military Leadership in the Continental Army, 1775–1783, these questions could not be determined by Washington alone. His junior officers and soldiers believed that they too had a part to play in determining how and to what degree their superior officers exercised military authority and how the army would operate during the war. A cultural negotiation concerning the use of and limits to military authority was worked out between the officers and soldiers of the Continental Army; although an unknown concept at the time, it is what we call leadership today. How this army was led and how the interactions between officers and soldiers from the various states of the new nation changed their understandings of the proper exercise of military authority was finally codified in General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s The Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, first published in 1779. The result was a form of military leadership that recognized the autonomy of the individual soldiers, a changing concept of honor, and a new American tradition of military service.
Revolutionary War general Thomas Posey (1750-1818) lived his life against the backdrop of one of the most dramatic periods in American history. Posey, who played a minor role in the actual War for Independence, went on to participate in the development and foundation of several states in the transappalachian West. His experiences on the late 18th- and early 19th-century American frontier were varied and in a certain sense extraordinary; he served as Indian agent in Illinois Territory; as Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky, as U.S. Senator from Louisiana, and as Governor of Indiana during its transition from territorial status to statehood.
His biographer speculates on the contrasting influences of Thomas's ne'er-do-well father, Captain John Posey, and the family's close friend, General George Washington. Posey's progress is then followed as he raises his own family in the newly formed nation. Of particular interest is an appendix containing a detailed analysis of evidence available to support popular 29th-century speculation that Thomas Posey was, in fact, George Washington's illicit son.
A well-disciplined army was vital to win American independence, but policing soldiers during the Revolution presented challenges. George Washington’s Enforcers: Policing the Continental Army examines how justice was left to the overlapping duties of special army personnel and how an improvised police force imposed rules and regulations on the common soldier. Historian Harry M. Ward describes these methods of police enforcement, emphasizing the brutality experienced by the enlisted men who were punished severely for even light transgressions. This volume explores the influences that shaped army practice and the quality of the soldiery, the enforcement of military justice, the use of guards as military police, and the application of punishment.
Washington’s army, which adopted the organization and justice code of the British army, labored under the direction of ill-trained and arrogant officers. Ward relates how the enlisted men, who had a propensity for troublemaking and desertion, not only were victims of the double standard that existed between officers and regular troops but also lacked legal protection in the army. The enforcement of military justice afforded the accused with little due process support.
Ward discusses the duties of the various personnel responsible for training and enforcing the standards of behavior, including duty officers, adjutants, brigade majors, inspectors, and sergeant majors. He includes the roles of life guards, camp guards, quarter guards, picket men, and safe guards, whose responsibilities ranged from escorting the commander in chief, intercepting spies and stragglers, and protecting farmers from marauding soldiers to searching for deserters, rounding up unauthorized personnel, and looking for delinquents in local towns and taverns.
George Washington’s Enforcers, which includes sixteen illustrations, also addresses the executions of the period, as both ritual and spectacle, and the deterrent value of capital punishment. Ward explains how Washington himself mixed clemency with severity and examines how army policies tested the mettle of this chief disciplinarian, who operated by the dictates of military necessity as perceived at the time.