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Two centuries for the Army
Question of the Day
This early summer is the 230th anniversary of when American Colonists and British soldiers clashed outside Boston and began the American Revolution in 1775. On June 14 that same year the Continental Congress officially recognized the armed New England farmers and militiamen that had spontaneously gathered at Cambridge, Mass., as a Continental Army and named George Washington its commander.
On this day every year, soldiers around the world commemorate June 14 as the birthday of the United States Army, and remember when Gen. Washington established its standards of honor, discipline and professionalism. These traits have carried the Army through the Revolution, all of America’s wars since, and continue today.
Washington’s standards for order were not just a matter of military pomp. The Americans at Cambridge mustered more than 20,000 militiamen from all over New England, Pennsylvania and New York, but they were an army in name only. Fiercely independent, unruly, and often intoxicated Yankees made up the militia companies, and military control was so loose Washington could barely get an accurate count of the soldiers under his command.
The lack of effective administration left the troops critically short of supplies, and without training they had little ability to organize and fight a large battle. Facing them in Boston were King George’s regulars from the best trained and most powerful army in the world at the time. A British attack would have crushed the American army and the Colonial cause with it.
Washington understood that, despite his soldiers’ independent streak, they had to become a proficient, regimented army if they were to prevail over the professional British soldiers. He immediately established standards for military training and discipline, and enforced the rules through his own iron will.
The first years of the war were difficult for the Continental Army, but Washington’s efforts became evident. In 1779, Americans commanded by Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne seized the supposedly impregnable British stronghold of Stony Point on the Hudson River in a daring night attack, using cold steel only, that shocked the British with its fury. When the 1st Maryland Regiment was almost overwhelmed at the battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781, the highly trained and experienced Marylanders maneuvered expertly, leveled their bayonets and charged the elite British Guards regiment. Lord Charles Cornwallis, the king’s commander on the field, had to fire his artillery directly into the melee, including his own troops, to save his line. Six months later, Washington and allied French troops surrounded Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown in a classic European-style siege. American infantry led by Col. Alexander Hamilton fought hand-to-hand against British regulars when they stormed a key fort in a brilliantly executed night assault during the battle. When the British forces surrendered at Yorktown and offered their swords to the French officers, Gen. Jean Rochambeau pointed them to Washington as the battle’s commander and victor.
Though generations of schoolchildren have been taught we fought the Revolution with the techniques of frontiersmen, it is truer that the fledgling United States Army won the war by fighting as a disciplined, professional force that was able to meet the British on any field. American Continentals beat the British regulars at their own game.
The Army’s history shows the professionalism of the American soldier continued to carry the day against formidable enemies. American troops fought the British to a standstill in the War of 1812. They defeated the massive hosts of Santa Anna in the Mexican War and secured America’s West. When armies of Americans opposed each other in the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee conducted campaigns so brilliant they are still studied around the world. American Doughboys broke the back of the kaiser’s army in the First World War. Their sons lead the way in Europe and the Pacific as GIs in the Second World War, and another generation of soldiers stopped the advance of communism on the Korean Peninsula. In all of these, it was the skill of American soldiers, not our technology or overwhelming numbers, that secured our victories.
America’s unconventional wars, such as in the Philippines and Vietnam, are even more telling. They show the Army can fight with skill, honor and dedication in even the most trying circumstances. The lessons from Vietnam bore themselves out in the Army’s swift victory in the Persian Gulf war.
There is no doubt George Washington would see the same professionalism and excellence that he instilled in 1775 in the soldiers of the 21st century. Today the U.S. Army shoulders the brunt of two difficult wars, maintains a forward presence in nations critical to U.S. interests around the world, and sustains peacekeeping missions largely out of the public eye, all with a volunteer force. Though our wars in the Middle East have provided some shocking images of U.S. soldiers, the Army itself uncovers and prosecutes its mistakes.
Army leaders continue to testify candidly to Congress in a perfect example of their ultimate responsibility to the nation and civilian control. Soldiers hold themselves accountable to their own high standards, fix their problems and continue fighting. Professionalism is evident in the Army’s conduct during failures as well as successes.
It has been popular in the last few years to refer to the Americans who fought World War II as the nation’s greatest generation, and the description has much validity. But on this Army birthday remember that every generation of American soldiers, from the militiamen at Cambridge in 1775 to the troops who patrol Baghdad and Kabul today, has faced the nation’s most difficult tasks honorably and professionally. Remember that George Washington’s standards have persisted as the bedrock for the Army’s strength and perseverance.
Our current crisis against America’s enemies will also persist, but it cannot outlast the spirit of the American soldier. We’ve been doing this for 230 years.
Michael Schellhammer is an intelligence specialist with the Defense Department and a lieutenant-colonel in the Army Reserve with service in the First Persian Gulf war, Haiti, Bosnia and Iraq. The opinions in this article are his own.
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