After 230 years, the 'Blue Book' still guides NCOs

By Sgt. 1st Class Brian M. Shay, Army Sustainment CommandNovember 2, 2009

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During the early American Revolutionary War, there was very little standardization or guidance for the duties and responsibilities of the noncommissioned officer. The Continental Army lacked strong central command and was made up of state-run militias operating independently of each other. Each militia operated by its own rules and regulations.

In 1777, a Prussian officer named Friedrich Von Steuben volunteered to help. General Von Steuben's influence almost instantly helped to establish the identity of the U.S. Army.

Von Steuben volunteered his military experience through Benjamin Franklin, who wrote a letter of recommendation to George Washington. In 1778, Von Steuben met Washington for the first time at the winter camp in Valley Forge, Penn. Washington was instantly impressed with Von Steuben's military bearing and forceful personality.

By mid-March 1779, Von Steuben personally started training a 100-man guard company in the basics of soldiering. This unit still exists and is known today as The President's 100. In a short time, Von Steuben proved his ability as a drill master through his exceptional tact and experience. For these efforts Washington appointed him the Inspector General of the Army. Later that year, Von Steuben began organizing his ideas into print.

In 1779, Von Steuben's publication, "Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States," was ready to be printed. Due to the war, however, there was a scarcity of paper. The first printer decided to bind the book with the blue paper he had on hand. This is how the book got the nickname: The Blue Book. In March of 1779, Congress endorsed it and ordered it to be used throughout the Army. Many of the state militias also adopted the Blue Book. In 1792, Washington pushed through the Uniformed Militia Act, which included the use of Von Steuben's regulations.

The Blue Book's guidelines on personnel management replaced the British model of class and station. Instead, Von Steuben melded all the ranks into a unified force, founded on an inflexible but even-handed chain of command. Von Steuben simplified his writings, putting in plain language what needed to be learned, how to teach it, and why. The U.S. Army's discipline nearly matched that of the best professional European armies.

The Blue Book remained the official guide to military training and maneuvers until it was replaced in 1812. Many of Von Steuben's writings are still in use in today's manuals, such as FM 3-21.5 Drill and Ceremony.

The usefulness of the Blue Book led to the publication of the first official Noncommissioned Officer Guide in 1904. The latest edition of the guide, FM 7-22.7, was published in December 2002. The current guide provides important information, such as the history of the NCO Corps and the importance of NCO professional development, and defines the roles of the NCO. Duties and responsibilities of the NCO in 1779 compared to now have largely remained the same. Prior to The Blue Book, NCOs were selected, but received no formal training for the positions they held. With clear-cut guidance, NCOs could accomplish what was expected of them.

In 1779, there was no formal method of selecting qualified people to serve as NCOs. Regimental commanders noticed certain traits in people and promoted on this merit alone. The Blue Book emphasized the importance of selecting quality soldiers for the NCO Corps.

From the Revolutionary War to World War II the NCO received his promotion directly from the regimental commander. This meant NCOs who transferred regiments would lose their rank as an NCO, unless special permission was granted by the general in chief of the Army. This allowed the stripes to stay with the regiment.

Today there is a selection process. NCOs are evaluated on their military performance and knowledge. This allows for the selection of the best of the best and changing units does not take the NCO's stripes away.

There have been many changes in the NCO Corps since The Blue Book was first written in 1779. Rank structure, the selection process and training of the NCO have greatly improved. Yet the majority of the responsibilities remain the same. NCOs continue to train and take care of Soldiers, and the Army has recognized the importance of a strong, professional NCO Corps. As long as the Army continues to select and train quality NCOs, we will remain the "Backbone of the Army."