The Trust’s Teacher Institute: The American Way of War

Kris at TI 2018.jpgAs a precursor for the rest of the conference, where we’ll be spending so much time talking about two different wars, Kris White kicked off the American Battlefield Trust’s Teacher Institute with an overview of “The American Way of War.”

“That title isn’t mine,” admitted Kris, the Trust’s education manager. “It comes from a book published in 1977 by Russell Weigley.” American Way of War: from wars of limited to scope to wars of annihilation argued that in the days prior to the Civil War, America fought wars of limited scope; afterwards, America fought wars of annihilation.

Kris took a moment to lay out the central notions about early American wars: 

  • The army lacked proper military training for officers and men.
  • The army lack cavalry
  • The army lost more battles than it won.
  • Artillery did not play a major role in most early wars.
  • Until the Civil War, we were unable to out-produce our enemies
  • Some claim Americans couldn’t stomach high numbers of casualties

“Since Weigley’s book came out, historians have reexamined his thesis,” Kris said, explaining that he’d use Weigley’s book as a framework for his program.

Kill You at Christmas
Kris said this is the American Way of War, too!

Kris also took a moment to explain the emphasis on Napoleonic-style tactics for moving large groups of men around the battlefield. Much of that directly related to a commander’s ability to communicate with his men. “I can pick up my phone and call Tokyo right now,” Kris said. “Back then, you were limited: the speed of the fastest horse, as far as the eye could see, or as loud as the voice can reach.

Soldiers did still use earthworks on occasion, though—a common misperception. Many people think that innovation came about during the Civil War. “Look at the misnamed battle of Bunker Hill,” Kris pointed out: the Continentals atop the hill fought from behind earthworks.

In the country’s earliest days, America couldn’t make up its mind as to whether it wanted a standing army and navy or not. The heavy-handed presence of the British army in the 1760s and early 1770s made Americans shy about a permanent, professional soldiery. Instead, Americans preferred a model based on militias—bands of defenders that could come together from a community for a temporary period of time in a common cause. “Many of those units will hold it in their charters that they can’t fight beyond a certain distance,” Kris pointed out, stressing the limited scope of militia power.

“George Washington, who started a world war of his own—the French and Indian War—created a European-style army for America when he took command of the troops around Boston,” Kris explained. Washington had served in the British army and had quit, but he’d learned from that experience and applied it to Continental forces.

Washington claimed he didn’t want the military role, but as Kris pointed out, Washington was the only person to show up at the Continental Congress in a military uniform, sending an obvious message.

After the war, officials argued for a scaled-down army of only 700—a regiment of volunteers that would serve for one year. Washington, in contrast, argued for an army of 2,600. By the early 1800s, the army would get up to about 10,000 men, largely in response to Napoleon’s conquests in Europe. France, at the time, owned a large swath of land on the American continent.

Kris credited the creation of that army to “Thomas Jefferson, one of the great hypocrites of American history.” Jefferson had been one of the earliest voices opposing a large army—and then he became president.

Not only did Jefferson advocate for a larger army, he established the West Point Military Academy. “He created West Point because there were too many Federalists in the army,” Kris said. “This was one of his ways of compensating for that. Here you see the army used as a political puppet.”

West Point was first and foremost an engineering school, with no expected term of service in the army after graduation. Eventually, they upgraded the curriculum to study “the masters” of warfare, with more attention to military history and strategy/tactics.

Napoleon was the man to study, Kris said. “The British want you to remember the old, defeated Napoleon,” Kris said. “A cartoonish Napoleon. Most Americans only know Napoleon from Waterloo. That’s the Napoleon the British want you to remember.”

But Napoleon won 53 of the 60 he battles he participated in. That’s the guy to study, Kris said. “More books are written about Napoleon than anyone else,” he added.

Kris outlined other major influences on American military theory and practice, too. “Antoine-Henri Jomini greatest impact on the U.S. army aside from Napoleon,” he said. “His nine military principles are still used by the army today.” Outlined in Jomini’s book The Art of War, the principles are objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity. Dennis Mahan brought Jomini’s work to America.

Kris also mentioned Carl von Clausewitz, the “genius of military theory.” “Von Clausewitz is often credited with being an influence on Grant and Lee,” Kris said, “but he was never translated from German until the 1870s.”

By the end of the Civil War, nearly 2.5 million men would serve as Union soldiers; a million men served as Confederates. “It was a scale we’d never seen before,” Kris said. “It was a new war with the same old tactics. Both sides used the same manuals. They’re both doing what the other side was doing, which was the same old thing everyone had always been doing. This is why the Civil War lasted so long.”

Finally, the North began to out-produce the South. As just one example, he cited rail lines and telegraph lines. The north had 22,000 miles of rail line and 45,000 miles of telegraph. There were 23,000 miles of telegraph line in south. Over the course of the war, the North added 4,000 miles of railroad and 4,000 miles of telegraph; in the south, the number of miles of each actually decreased.

“The goal of the Confederates was to win the war by not losing,” Kris said, and then his voice took a sarcastic dip. “Great plan.”

After the war, the military theorist who had the biggest impact was Emory Upton, a Union brigadier general who went to Europe to study military theory. His Military Policy of the United States “laid it on the line,” Kris said. Among its controversial conclusions: Politicians get in the way of creating an effective army.

The government scaled back the army and navy after the war. “After the Civil War, the navy takes the lead in innovation,” Kris said, “in part because they were scaled down so intensely.” The navy went from 700 ships to only 54.

TR on T-Rex
TR’s way of war

“Teddy Roosevelt would eventually tie U.S. military superiority to the navy,” Kris said. Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, sent round the world, sent a strong message about America’s military power. Even today, when trouble breaks out in a hotspot, the U.S. sends in a carrier group as a show of force.

To wrap up, Kris re-assessed Weigley’s assumptions.

“The U.S. adapts, enemy to enemy,” Kris said. “It’s never just a war of annihilation. We rarely use overwhelming force to win.” As an example, D-Day was actually an attack to liberate France, not an attack to invade Europe. the Nazi’s outnumbered Allied forces.

“Between 1775 and 1930s, we were not innovators in warfare (technology and tactics), as many would have you believe,” he said. By the time the Second World War came along, we became more adaptive, although at first we weren’t always the best. Kris quoted Churchill, who said “The U.S. usually got it right—after trying everything else first.”

One major advantage we do have: “Americans wage war with tenacity.” There, he quoted Revolutionary War general Nathaniel Greene: “We fight, we get beat, and we fight again.”

He also contested the idea that Americans couldn’t stomach high casualty rates. Americans are against sustaining useless or wasted casualties.“It’s bad leadership we can’t stomach,” he said. “We can take the casualties, but officers can’t just throw lives away.” He pointed out that American lost an average of 900 men per day in World War II; the Soviets, by contrast, averaged 12,000 per day. “And they were in the war a heck of a lot longer than we were.”

Finally, he concluded, “Politicians and the military may never agree on the size of our peacetime force.”

With the table set, conference participants will have a larger frame of reference not only for discussions of military history but how political and social considerations have tied into that. With two wars to cover over the next couple of days—the Revolution and the Civil War—Kris’s talk will make it easier for participants to begin drawing connections between the two, between them and other periods of U.S. history, and with other work in their classrooms.


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