United States Army Established

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A Brief History

On September 29, 1789, the United States Department of War established a regular US Army for the first time, a modest force of only several hundred men.  My, how things have changed!  Today we take a brief look at the US Army, just a few words on its history and its current status.

Digging Deeper

The United States was never a country to rely on a large standing army, at least not until the period after World War II when we stood ready to defend the US and the Western allied countries against communist expansionism, notably in the form of the Soviet Union.  Taking a look at several key points in US history, our Army was not very big at all!  In 1861, immediately prior to the outbreak of the US Civil War, the regular Army was a force of only about 16,000, including officers and enlisted men.  Most of that force was scattered across the American frontier in company sized units.  By May of 1865 the number of officers and men enrolled in the US Army was a whopping 1 million men, an incredible increase to match the need of manpower in that bloody conflict.  (The Confederate States Army never peaked at even half that number.  Numbers cited here include those absent from duty as well as those present for duty.)  When the US was finally obliged to enter World War I, the Army stood at a paltry 127,000 men as of April 1917 (and only 98,000 in 1914).  Reliance on the National Guard and Reserves, as well as traditional reliance on militia that could be called up for emergencies had precluded Americans from massing a large standing army, requiring incredibly fast mobilization to a credible force that could compete on the world stage.  (Germany had 11 million men under arms at that time, while Russia had 12 million!)  Using conscription (66%) and volunteers, the United States quickly built an Army of 4.7 million men!  A similar situation faced the United States at the outset of World War II.  In 1939, when the war in Europe exploded, the United States Army had only 189,839 soldiers.  Once again, relying on both patriotic fervor after the Pearl Harbor sneak attack and a robust military draft, the US Army reached a peak of over 8 million soldiers out of a US military machine that numbered 12 million.

Today the draft has been dormant for several decades, and the US Army relies on motivated and highly capable volunteers.  With an active duty American military numbering 1.4 million men and women, the US Army is the largest branch of service with over 471,00 active soldiers and 288,000 Reserves.  (Nearly 300,000 civilian employees augment the uniformed soldiers of the US Army!)  This American juggernaut is equipped with about 5000 M-1 Abrams tanks, the deadliest tank ever created (with about 3000 in storage).  An additional 10,000 fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers keep the foot soldiers highly mobile on any battlefield.  Additional thousands of trucks and various support and utility vehicles make the US Army the most mobile force in world history.  While the US Air Force has around 2000 active duty aircraft, the US Army tops that number with an incredible 3000+ manned aircraft (mostly helicopters) augmented by an enormous number of unmanned drones for both reconnaissance and attack.  Small arms and battlefield gear such as night vision devices and communication systems are state of the art, making our US Army soldiers many more times effective than most potential opponents.  Another notable feature of the US Army today is the number of women in uniform, about 15% of the active force and an even higher percentage of the Reserve and National Guard.

One point of contention that we would like to pick on our brothers and sisters in camouflage: The number of General officers.  The stunning increase in the ratio of Generals to troops is mind blowing, and of itself is kind of a clue that a certain amount of top heaviness must be at play.  For example, when the Army numbered over 8 million in World War II, they had only 1100 Generals over the course of the war (of which about 40 died in combat).  (Note: Total General/Flag officers in the US military during World War II was about 2000 for 12 million men.)  Today, there is 1 US Army General officer for every 1519 enlisted men.  That compares to a World War II ratio of 1 US Army General for every 6,382 enlisted men!  In other words, we have about 4 times as many generals for the size of our Army than we did in World War II, and our Army performed pretty darn well during that conflict.  Other services are not immune to such rank bloat, as the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force have also increased their ratio of Generals/Flag officer (Flag officers meaning Admirals) per number of enlisted personnel.  In the War on Terror in the Middle East, the US military has about 1 officer wearing a star or stars for every 400 troops!  The US Navy has about 1 Flag officer per ship!  Without studying this trend scientifically, we can only guess that this tremendous increase in high ranking officers is not necessarily a good thing.  What do you think?

Today the US Army is the premier land fighting force in the world, certainly more than a match for any conceivable foe.  Today’s soldiers are smarter, fitter, and better trained than at any point in our history, and for the time being they are all volunteers.  We salute the dedicated men and women, in uniform and not in uniform, that make the US Army great!

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you or a family member served in the US Army?  If so, tell us about it.  Please let us know in the comments section below this article

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bluhm, Raymond. U.S. Army: A Complete History. Universe, 2005.

Dickson, Paul. The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940-1941: The Forgotten Story of How America Forged a Powerful Army Before Pearl Harbor. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020.

The featured image in this article, the emblem of the Department of the Army, derived from the seal of the U.S. War Department, is in the public domain.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.