Analysis of an Evolving National Military Identity in Defense (War of 1812), in Offense (the Mexican War) and in Total War (the Civil War)

Paul Andreas Fischer
American Military History

Analysis of an Evolving National Military Identity in Defense (War of 1812), in Offense (the Mexican War) and in Total War (the Civil War)


America is one of the only nations in the world that, since the Declaration of Independence, has remained unoccupied by foreign forces, and with the exception of the Reconstruction period in the Southern states, has been consistently demilitarized within the borders of the United States. A critical component of this internal state of pacifism is a vigilant and, when necessary, militant foreign policy executed with unparalleled efficiency. Even periods of peace at home and abroad show how deeply rooted military action is in the American consciousness, culture and people. By examining how Americans remain prepared for a state of war, and use diplomatic tactics as well as military policing actions to ensure a safe global state of affairs for American citizens and for international trade it is possible to determine the American way of war.
An analysis of this approach to foreign aggression, allies and the visceral defense of certain ideals written in the constitution and espoused by the American people without preference to cultural or racial identity would seem to be an implicitly simple task. However by separating military and civilian historical progress in America, many of the major sociological, cultural and underlying motives for conflict would be ignored. In fact, American military tradition is the result of centuries of an evolving nuanced national identity, protecting from and embracing at the same time influences and power across the world in the form of allies, enemies and frequently through observation. “Speak softly but carry a big stick” in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, exemplify the commitment to achieving national security through words, while still having the means, in his case the US Marines, to back American claims.
From the Revolution through the industrialization of the American continent, the United States has watched the ancien regime crumble under Bonaparte’s fist and then edged, or rather barged its way into the group of great powers that dictated trade, commerce, and cultural interactions across the globe. Today the most powerful army and economy in the world has a sense of obligation and responsibility that has transcended manifest destiny to once again re-evaluate the nature of the symbiotic relations between nations as currency, hammer, and gun have all been developed to the point where a world responsibility is no longer in the theoretical realm of religion or emperors, but a gritty reality in the hands of democratically elected leaders sworn to uphold the egalitarian values and enforce the freedom that characterizes the foundational pillars of American power. Starting with analysis of the success by which America has repulsed economic and military foreign control both as a fledgling nation and as a great power it is possible to see how this history affects current American  foreign policy and intervention. The American way of war is characterized as much by its constitution in times of peace and transition as it is defined by the periodic times of war and conflict.

Early roots of American army professionalism: the transition from armed citizens of the newborn republic to the “expandible” army of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.

The concept of a small professional military force that is easily expandable into an army capable of maintaining prolonged and extended wars has its roots in the American Revolution.     In General George Washington’s call for a Standing Army, the recognition that “a large standing Army in time of Peace hath ever been considered dangerous to the liberties of a Country” (Major Problems 99) reflects on American paranoia of the danger of a military state, and has been incorporated into the national identity of the United States since then. At the time, the concept was possible by the unique armed nature of American citizens, by the Civil War and World Wars through today. American industry allows the United States to expand the army to millions of soldiers in an extremely small period of time.
A critical step in the transformation of this defensive source of military power to one able to project power in offensive campaigns was the establishment of military academies such as West Point for the study of engineering and later specifically military strategy. This was called for as well by Washington (99), but saw the first testing in Indian wars and especially in the War of 1812, where it would not be an exaggeration to say that these regulars saved the American republic. The War of 1812 saw successful repulsion of numerous British offensives by a small number of regulars under the command of Brigadier General Winfield Scott, but also saw the failure of Washingtonian militia and volunteers as well as an inability to incorporate a larger number of new recruits into a viable fighting force that is ineffective in the defense of the capital. Most importantly, a new facet of American military, the offensive campaign, was emerging.
Already a success by the war of 1812, in defending New Orleans and capturing Florida from Spain in 1814, General and future President Andrew Jackson dictated how this fundamental concept of an offensive campaign was necessarily a part of the American military tradition. By emphasizing the importance of projecting power to ensure national security, the seeds of later offensive military campaigns were initiated. The United States had won its independence in an offensive war, in that militiamen had to organize to capture and take commercial and population centers from the occupying British and then defend them against waves of British and later Hessian regulars. While the distance of the Atlantic allowed a primarily defensive foreign policy, by the wars of Napoleon, the war of 1812 brought a realization to American leaders that the actions of foreign belligerents and powers could have real effects on the freedom of the United States. In his orders to the second division, addressed as “the free born sons of america” Jackson calls for “the conquest of all the British dominions upon the continent of North america.” This marks a new solidarity of support for the American mission (Major Problems 107). This “crusade” is a foreshadowing to the terminology of Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine and is a major turning point for American military demands and missions. While the North Eastern secessionist movement made offensives into Canadian territory logistically impossible the success of Scott’s regulars at Niagara and of Jackson’s troops in the defense of New Orleans, tragically fought after the signing of a peace treaty, showed that the United States was a power that could defend itself in a prolonged war fought against the most powerful nation in Europe on any terms including at sea. There is a possibility that with the success of American regulars at repulsing British offensives, a campaign into a starved and embargoed Quebec might have had a certain level of success. Unfortunately the New England states refused to cooperate. Issuing an embargo against Great Britain consequently failed which meant that British Canadian soldiers were still fed with American cattle throughout the war, over twenty percent of trade remained in place, and Jackson’s envisioned Canadian offensive never took place. The end of the war saw a return to the status quo with Great Britain, but the United States emerged adopting Jacksonian expansive conceptualization of war as a tenet of American identity. His broad justification for the conquest of British territories, the need to fight for the “reestablishment of our national charector, misunderstood and vilified at home and abroad” (107) establishes new grounds for warfare and a new military objective in the 19th century.
After this, with the contributions of John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian and the tenth Secretary of War, and his military cadre, service becomes a lifetime professional occupation for officers at and above the rank of Sergeant, the means to accomplish the new American mission will be available. This new approach meant that by the Mexican War trained officers were available on a squad level to provide leadership and advice, and the relatively small corps of 10,000 officers was quickly expanded into an effective fighting force of 50,000 in a remarkably small period of time.
While in the war of 1812, the US navy had been effective against a single British ship, in small sea battles and providing some tactical advantage, in the Mexican-American war the offensive campaign makes indispensable use of naval superiority in one of the first truly successful and complete offensive campaigns in American history. By putting a stranglehold on Mexican forces in the Gulf of Mexico and reinforcing the army at critical points on the way to Mexico City, the navy was able to ensure quick and total victory in a viciously unpopular war. With the annexation of vast swathes of Mexican lands, this war marked a new era of American expansion and military objective: manifest destiny. While there is a strong urge to claim this is a unique incident in America’s overwhelmingly defensive nature, it is more of a distinct facet that continues to this day in American foreign relations. This is seen in the propensity of American politicians and warhawks to, once an offensive campaign has begun, declare total war and seek the total subjugation and capitulation of their opponents.

Civilian control of the military, made possible by (possibly) “free security”

Civilian control of the military has been a subject of much controversy throughout American military history, and has its foundations in two key qualities which have been fundamental to the nation’s security from insurrections and foreign invasion alike. Without the ability to quickly draw on a heavily armed and largely skilled civilian force, today through volunteers and in the past using conscript armies, attempts to defend even the mainland would be futile. Connecting to this there is the notion of “free security” which refers to the water walls of the Pacific and Atlantic which make a frigate era invasion of the United States impossible. Even at the height of the British Empire, a full mobilisation of all frigate and sea power could deliver at best an army of 500,000 men to America after a long and still uncertain voyage across the Atlantic (American Way of War, 169). Of course this was an impossibility due to their own imperial obligations and naval missions across the globe. Indeed, it was this inability to provide any significant military support in a timely fashion that proved a critical piece of one of the most defining wars in the United States history, the Civil War.
Enlightened monarchical ideals were disappearing across Europe, and the American experiment was around to stay. In the Napoleonic campaigns the importance of nationalism in patriotic will to fight for a citizen’s nation was proved. America already maintained this sense of national sovereignty and this concept would face its greatest test in the coming War between the States. Ironically, it would prove to be the military’s love of Napoleonic battles and attempts to annihilate the opponent’s army in the battle field that would drive the majority of the war, while civilian oversight by Abe Lincoln first lost thousands of lives in rushed offensives, then ended the war much earlier than his generals such as Maclellan and Meade had expected while they pursued the “anaconda strategy” by replacing them with the implacable offensive generals Grant and Sherman, as General Grant summed his strategy in a letter to his chief of staff, “we want to act offensively” (Major Problems, 166). The ability of Napoleonic conscript armies to give Lincoln the weight needed to pull on a much larger population base than those actively in opposition to Southern secession combined with the inability of European nations who would have loved to see a divided North America to project any significant amount of their substantial power into the United States to ensure that with Lincoln’s death by assassination he had also overseen the official unification, albeit with the destruction of one half, of two radically different cultural and economic systems in America.

The Civil War: Economic precursors and political ignition of latent differences in the national identity into complete war

Deserving at least as much attention as the divide created by war atrocities is the role of political friction and debate in the years running up to and contributing to the Civil War and how breakdowns in communication and cooperation between states in the union made the United States essentially ineffective as an international power. With the invention of the cotton gin after the American Revolution and its widespread adoption in the early 20’s and 30’s, southern cotton production soared while populations stagnated in comparison to the black slaves and white northerners. In essence, a boom of economic power combined with a waning of political power that meant southern leaders were unable to project their profits effectively into any new slave markets (lecture, Buchanan). In the north, conversely, political power grew while the economy become ever more dependant on acquiring slave produced raw materials and exporting industrial goods.
The Southern economy was extremely dependent on trade, had very little industrial capacity, and the military could count on a much lower population to draw recruits from. Many leaders including Jefferson Davis saw themselves as Washingtonian seekers of independence from the financial institutions and industrial wage slavery that they believed existed in the North, and considered many of the tactical and moral problems of separation from the union as similar to those faced by leaders of the American Revolution against Great Britain. After the US economy had rebounded from the banking crises of the 1830’s, it became clear that slavery could remain economically feasible even after the invention of the cotton gin which had depressed the slave market and sparked an increase in production of southern cotton of around four hundred percent in a couple of decades, to around two thirds of the world’s supply, and one of the most remarkable market transformations in economic history. Rather than replacing slave labour with wage labour or drastically reducing the number of slaves in the United States, the easy cheap availability of land in the west meant that the number of slaves rose more quickly than cotton production in the decades before the Civil War (lecture, Buchanan). In the North, a group of radical abolitionists increasingly agitated for more stringent measures against slavery while negotiations between more moderate politicians failed.
This was notably exemplified in the caning of Senator Charles Sumner on May 20, 1856. In addition to showing the political breakdown in the United States’ system of checks and balances as the South retained tenuous control over the Supreme Court and the North made increasing demands as their power increased congressionally and with Lincoln in the White House as well on economic subsystems, foreign and Native American policies, and most importantly slavery. The national tempers flared to violence with debate over the state of Kansas and expanding slavery, both on the streets and on the Senate floor. While South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks took offense at libelous sexual statements made regarding complicity of existing slave states in failing to regulate violence against “free staters” and beat Senator Charles Sumner into debilitation for the rest of his life, John Brown began his notoriously graphic serial murder of Southern settlers in Kansas using weaponry, including broadswords for mutilation, provided by the federal government (lecture, Buchanan). While there were no more than a few thousand combatants and a couple hundred casualties in the border conflicts, an important statement had been made. The days of the gag act and non action on both sides were done for. White men were willing to kill and to die both to free African-Americans, and to keep their property that was the basis of US agricultural dominance.

The “Anaconda strategy” gives way to total war, and, to conclude, the impact on American ideals of the only (self) occupation of American soil since the Independence War

While Lee and early northern generals would fight the war in a conventional Napoleonic manner tactically, the severity and discordance of political infighting that occurred around slavery, expansion, and the identity of the nation in the decades leading to the conflict were preludes to the necessity of total war, the extended decade long occupation and subjugation of southern populations as well as armies. As the South saw executive and congressional power wane and then become crippled to the point of complete failure in the form of the southern democratic party after the early eighteen hundreds, culminating in the victory of the Free Soil Party’s prodigy, the republican party in Lincoln’s election, the futility of Southern politics became drastically apparent. Without a place even on the ballot in the South, and widespread allegations of racketeering at the ballot box, resentment ran high in these states who officially separated from the Union and demanded the vacancy of Federal bases in Southern territory in 1861. War was declared and a cautious war was fought for several years. “Our army would be invincible if it could be properly organized and officered,” with impetuous officers such as “Stonewall” Jackson, who one by one passed away in duty, the Confederate’s early success would not be repeated as the war wore on and their officer corp did not have the depth provided by West Point in the North.
Finally after the failure of Maclellan and later Meade to make serious headway toward a total victory, Lincoln replaced them with the tenacious generals Grant and Sherman. Lee’s “offensive-defensive” strategy had repulsed numerous northern incursions into confederate territory at the nine day battle and seemed with much smaller relative resources to be dominating the north on the field of battle. General Lee concedes “to our enemies the superiority claimed by them in numbers, resources, and all the means and appliances for carrying on the war” (Major Problems, 157) all of which become integral components to operating a successful total war machine. Without these, war on the civilian population would enrage local populace and give an equal enemy the moral high ground needed to obliterate forces in the field. Sherman’s “drive to the sea” and the march to Atlanta included a complete dismantling of the Southern economy, infrastructure and disruption of civilian populations. Inhospitable civilians ran the risk of having their houses burned, and the railroads were twisted into “Sherman bow-ties” which was meant to slow the transport of military as well as civilian goods. For the duration of American military history from this point forward, the objective would be complete subjugation of the enemy, disruption of their trade, industry and military to the point of annihilation, and the standing army would be modified in nature to reflect that. Air, naval and land forces would need to be efficient and able to project power quickly to any place of conflict or dispute in the world, in doing so catastrophic defensive wars can be avoided.

Conclusion: “War is cruelty”

This change that occurred midway through the Civil War is also seen in other nations across the world at this time, with Napoleonic revolutions versus ancien regime proxies of power. The American way of war has become a global phenomenon. Small professional armies which can train and organize vast conscript war machines in times of need have been proven again and again through the cold war and in the second world war to allow an optimal economic and military flexibility. In the War of 1812, the ability of the nation to protect itself was established, for the first time standing up to British incursions on American rights at sea, as was the importance of regulars and a large seaworthy navy. By the war of Mexican cession, the United States had established itself as a power to be reckoned with and fought to annex vast swathes of land, introducing the necessity to fight for American citizens’ safety abroad. Finally in the Civil War, battles were fought on a scale that rivalled that of Europe, the sea based blockade enforced was made possible by the union’s formidable navy, and subsequent destruction of farmland, plantations, houses and civilian infrastructure changed the nature of war for Americans permanently. Forgetting a national military heritage only leads to remembering the losses felt at the hands of America’s enemies. It is important to realize the importance of the offensive, the total war campaign in avoiding future casualties. In Sherman’s justification for taking war to the civilians: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out” (Major Problems 167).

Works Cited:
Buchanan, Andrew. “Military History of the United States.” American Military History. University of Vermont, Burlington. June 2013. Lecture.
Chambers, John Whiteclay., and G. Kurt. Piehler. Major Problems in American Military History: Documents and Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Print.
Weigley, Russell Frank. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977. Print.

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