Military History United States Military Officers
by
Nicholas Sambaluk, Adrienne Harrison
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0156

Introduction

For more than two centuries, Americans have been fascinated by the exploits of US military officers at war. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, most studies written on the lives of individual officers were hagiographic biographies designed to deify men like George Washington and Joseph Warren of American Revolutionary fame. The generation of men that came of age after American independence were, as Joyce Applebee so aptly labeled them, “the first generation of Americans.” These men, the sons of the founding fathers, struggled to define their own sense of purpose in the days of the early republic; those who went on to serve as military officers often used memoirs to tell their stories as a means of establishing themselves as ideal “republican” leaders who would take the fledgling nation of their fathers and expand its boundaries and power to achieve the Manifest Destiny that God himself ordained. Many of those young men eventually commanded the armies of Americans that slaughtered one another on the battlefields of the Civil War. After the guns fell silent at Appomattox, some officers, notably Ulysses S. Grant, wrote memoirs of the war that sought to either tell their own stories, vindicate their conduct, or condemn that of others. These memoirs and biographies served as a part of the educational foundation for future officers. With the dawn of the 20th century and the emergence of the United States as a world power, officers saw their mission change from securing the frontier to spreading American-style democracy through the Spanish-American War. World War I witnessed the advent of new weaponry and tactics that required a fundamental change in military thought and training among the junior officers, who would lead divisions in World War II. The scale and devastation of World War II generated scores of biographies to preserve the legacy of the leaders of the “greatest generation.” Korea and Vietnam forced Americans to accept limits and to face military failure for the first time. That reality produced studies of military officers that are often veiled attacks on, or apologies for, failures in foreign policy. This political undercurrent in scholarship has likewise carried into the work done on officers serving during the Cold War and the War on Terror. This article maps out the major resources and categories for exploring the lives and service of some of the major US military officers over the course of the nation’s history.

Officer Education

The education of US military officers is a rather small field of scholarship, but it is nonetheless important for understanding the development of the American profession of arms. The idea of military academies was very much a European one, and none existed in the colonies that were to form the United States at the time of the American Revolution. At that time, ambitious American officers followed the lead of their British adversaries and read as many military books and technical manuals as they could get their hands on to school themselves in the military art; for this, see Gruber, 2010. Much of the available scholarship centers on the nation’s service academies, most notably, West Point. Crackel 2002 offers a general overview of the first two hundred years of West Point’s history. The most in-depth examination of West Point in its early days is Pappas 1993. A controversial, highly critical examination of West Point since 1902 is Betros 2012. Atkinson, 1989 chronicles the education and service of the West Point class of 1966. Leeman 2010 examines the foundation of the US Naval Academy, and Schifferle 2010 examines intermediate-level education in the interwar army.

  • Atkinson, Rick. The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966. New York: Henry Holt, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    Explores the education and careers of several members of the West Point class of 1966 and illustrates the impact that the Academy had on each man’s outlook on Vietnam and the US Army.

  • Betros, Lance. Carved from Granite: West Point since 1902. College Station: Texas A&M, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    A highly critical examination of the modern West Point. Argues that the advent and increasing importance of NCAA sports has adversely impacted the Academy.

  • Crackel, Theodore J. West Point: A Bicentennial History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    A concise overview of the history of West Point from 1802 through its bicentennial in 2002.

  • Gruber, Ira D. Books and the British Army in the Age of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.5149/9780807899403_gruberE-mail Citation »

    Examines the British military renaissance to outline the books that officers read to enhance their professional development and further their careers. American officers before and during the American Revolution followed this example.

  • Leeman, William. The Long Road to Annapolis: The Founding of the Naval Academy and the Emerging American Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.5149/9780807895825_leemanE-mail Citation »

    Explores the question as to why it took so long to establish the US Naval Academy after West Point was founded in 1802. It considers the debates surrounding the establishment of a professional corps of naval officers against the backdrop of fears of an aristocracy.

  • Pappas, George S. To the Point: The United States Military Academy, 1802–1902. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    Offers an in-depth examination of the development of West Point’s academic program during the Academy’s first one hundred years.

  • Schifferle, Peter J. America’s School for War: Fort Leavenworth, Officer Education, and Victory in World War II. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on the educational development of US officers and the changes to education at the field grade level up to the eve of US participation in the war. The author finds that combined arms warfare was central to conflict from 1918 to 1945 and that officer instruction by the early 1920s was appropriately designed to prepare army officers to win the next conflict.

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