It is Rudyard Kipling who famously called the Noncommissioned Officer Corps the backbone of the army. The Noncommissioned Officer as we know him today is a remnant of the organizational structure of the traditional European army, especially as it existed during the Hundred Years’ War. At that time, non-commissioned officers were drawn almost exclusively from the upper ranks of society and as can be expected, had far different duties than contemporary officers. It is also worth noting that there was almost no interaction between officers, who were predominately aristocrats, and the conscripted foot soldiers who came from the lower classes.
The Noncommissioned Officer’s role was to serve as a kind of liaison between the two groups, and to maintain order in the camp. Non-commissioned officers had almost no authority of their own, however, and during battle their duties were limited to maintaining firing discipline. In this analysis, I will chart the history of the American Noncommissioned Officer from his humble roots in the European system through the important role played by the NCO Corps in the American Civil War. Along the way, I will discuss the training and tactics employed by NCOs.
NCOs were already a part of American military culture in the Jamestown colony, where the first American militia was formed. “The militia structure, in which an entire town formed a single company, emphasized the need for noncommissioned officers. The local militia quickly divided into squads, each with its own NCO, to share the burden of rotating guard duty" (Fisch et al. 3). The colonial militias remained in existence until the time of the Revolutionary War, when they were by and large incorporated into the George Washington’s Continental Army.
Warfare in this period was characterized by linear tactics, in which armies would face each other in long lines and exchange fire. NCOs held the positions at the ends of the line and directed the timing of volleys. Linear tactics remained the standard until after the American Civil War. The role of the NCO was greatly expanded under the direction of General-Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, the German who was appointed second inspector general of Washington’s army in 1778. Von Steuben introduced a new rigor to the training of soldiers: “As the Continental Line prepared to enter the decade that culminated in victory, von Steuben’s drill manual, or the ‘Blue Book’ as it was popularly known, for the first time gave the American army an armywide standard of training, organization, and tactics" (Fisher 34). Von Steuben emphasized the importance of NCOs in implementing these new policies, writing in the Blue Book that: The choice of noncommissioned officers is an object of greatest importance: The order an discipline of a regiment depends so much on their behaviour, that too much care cannot be taken in preferring none to that trust but those who by their merit and good conduct are entitled to it.(34).
One of the innovations von Steuben introduced was aiming on the firing line. While British soldiers on the line did little but point and shoot, Americans had more accurate French-made muskets and thus had the liberty of taking aim at their targets. NCOs became responsible for training in marksmanship and for implementing that training on the battlefield. In addition to the sergeants who led squads and directed things on the battlefield, von Steuben was a passionate advocate for the importance of the sergeant major. Attached to a company or regiment, the sergeant major handled many of the administrative duties required to run an efficient unit. The sergeant major was an expert soldier whose primary role was to implement the orders of the captain or major to whom he was attached. Two centuries later, in the 1960s, the role of sergeant major would become even more prestigious, as Sergeant Major of the Army became highest non-commissioned rank in the Army and this individual assumed responsibility for a wide range of Army operations (Gillespie et al. 9).
Von Steuben’s Blue Book, along with a French-influenced text by William Duane, the Handbook for Infantry, remained the standard reference of American military organization for another two decades after the end of the Revolutionary War. During War of 1812, von Steuben’s work was deemed outdated and Brigadier General Winfield Scott led a reform effort. Scott, a brigade commander on the Canadian frontier, had the unfortunate task of training a huge number of fresh recruits for a campaign across Niagra. Unlike von Steuben, Scott chose to emphasize the transition from marching to fighting. NCOs took on a key role in regulating the gait and structure of a march, and so “instinctively developed the pace and cadence so important to maneuvering linear formations." A group of NCOs attached to each regiment, called the color guard, were largely responsible for signaling maneuvers to the troops. Scott’s emphasis on the column to line movement derived mainly from Napoleonic tactics. Napoleon’s army was known for the speed and accuracy with which it executed complex formations, even under fire.
In the thirty intervening years of relative peace that followed the War of 1812, NCOs had taken on numerous new responsibilities. The dearth of combat opportunities meant that NCOs became increasingly involved in logistics, planning, exploration, and engineering tasks. Increased time for training led to a remarkably well-disciplined NCO Corp, made up primarily of career military men. In 1842, the size of the Army was reduced by one-third. But the number of NCOs did not change significantly. During this period the NCO Corps saw increased specialization, as many NCOs became dedicated experts in just one or two military disciplines. If an NCO saw combat during this interwar period, it was with Native Americans, either during the Seminole War or in any of a number of small skirmishes on the Western frontier. Protecting settlers in the Great Plains was one of the primary roles of this period’s army, but major fighting with Native Americans would not take place there until the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century.
While Winfield Scott’s innovations came too late to have a major impact on the outcome of the War of 1812, they were implemented to great effect during the brief Mexican-American War of 1846-47. Scott’s primary reason for adopting Napoleonic tactics was to bring large amounts of firepower down upon an enemy. The well-trained American soldiers were able to do just that during campaigns at Veracruz, Palo Alto, and Monterrey. The high level of training of American NCOs also proved extremely valuable. As one scholar notes, “During the Mexican War battles like Molino del Rey, an outnumbered American force gained victory by applying the concept of combined arms operations. These tactics succeeded in part because career NCOs within the ranks of infantry, artillery, and dragoon regiments mastered the necessary skills of working together. (Fisch et al. 7). During the war, soldiers learned many new non-linear tactics, including amphibious assault and house-to-house, street-to-street urban fighting. These would both prove useful in the upcoming Civil War.
Almost all of the NCOs in the Army remained loyal to the North after the outbreak of war in 1861. In contrast, nearly one-third of the commissioned officers defected to the South. Experienced NCOs were essential to the Union’s war effort, as they provided the discipline necessary to lead large groups of inexperienced conscripts and volunteer militiamen into high-casualty situations. Nothing in the previous fifty years of American military history could have prepared these NCOs for the kind of fighting that took place in the great Civil War battles, though. The number of soldiers involved in these battles was much higher than any previous ones on American soil, and the number of casualties exponentially so.
For training, officers and NCOs relied during the first year of the war largely on two older texts, Winfield Scott’s 1854 Tactics and William Hardee’s 1855 Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics. Scott’s book had been rendered useless by the wide introduction of accurate rifled muskets, and Hardee was a Confederate defector, so a new manual, Silas Casey’s U.S. Army Infantry Tactics, was adopted in 1862. Casey’s manual still emphasized linear tactics, which proved disastrous given the new military technologies used during the Civil War. Accurate infantry weaponry, in particular, meant that firing lines produced theretofore unheard of numbers of casualties. Casey did foresee a high number of casualties in the coming conflict, however, and the result was yet another change in the role of the NCO Corps. The long and incredibly violent battles of the Civil War meant that it was more than possible for large parts of the chain of command to be wiped out. NCOs were trained to give orders and assume command in the absence of officers, and as such became increasingly self-reliant.
Over the course of the next century, this trend would continue, as NCOs took on more and more leadership roles. Prior to 1865, the primary role of the Noncommissioned Officer was to relay orders and monitor the activities of regular soldiers. After the Civil War, however, NCOs would often lead independently acting squads with specialized missions. Today, the emphasis in combat has shifted from regiment and company level confrontations to more flexible platoon and squad level operations, leading to a greater role for NCOs in the field. Yet NCOs remain, and will remain, the backbone of the Armed Forces.
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