Improving the U.S. Army

By Kristopher Hickok, Army Heritage MuseumMarch 3, 2010

The War of 1812 presented many of the same general problems that plagued the military during the Revolution. The Army in particular experienced logistical deficiencies, overburdened officials with too many responsibilities, and poor governmental oversight. Major reforms were needed in order to establish a stronger military foundation not only in a time of war, but also during peace. Certain reforms would take several years to establish from the time of their Congressional approval. Nonetheless, the Army and the military as a whole underwent a significant reorganization. The creation of the General Staff and the Commanding General of the Army were two of the most prominent reforms to be established.

The creation of a general staff garnered serious consideration since Secretary of War James McHenry said in 1798, "The appointment of general officers is important, but of those of the general staff all important." However, it was not until 1812 to 1821 that the General Staff was firmly instituted into the grain of the United States military. The general purpose of the staff was to gather a body of officers whose job responsibility is to plan and prepare the Army for war. The General Staff did little to positively impact the deficiencies that were present during the War of 1812. Its creation was only in its infant stage, and it was not until the war was over that firm establishment took place which would last until the 20th Century.

A legislative act in March of 1813 was instrumental in the organization of the General Staff. Section 4 of this legislation details the appointment and rank procedures that would follow in the placement of an officer within the staff. Section 5 gives the Secretary of War the authority to define and prescribe the respective duties of the officers in the staff. Secretary of War William H. Crawford expressed in 1815 that "a complete organization of the staff will contribute as much to the economy of the establishment as to its efficiency." Secretary Crawford further conveyed his favor in a defined stationary staff in which composition does would not change with peace and war. By 1821, the General Staff consisted of the Adjutant General's Office, two Inspectors Generals, the Quartermaster Department, the Commissariat of Subsistence, the Medical Department, the Pay Department, and the Corps of Engineers.

Among other reforms within the Army during this same time period was the creation of the position of Commanding General of the United States Army in 1821. This position and individual presided over the Headquarters of the Army, which existed parallel to the General Staff. Since 1783 the senior-most officer was simply known as the Senior Officer of the United States Army. The new title gave at the very least a more impressive tone to the responsibilities of the position. Initially the powers of this position were not well established but became well defined over time. Primarily, the general consensus was that the Commanding General of the Army oversaw the field units, especially the artillery and infantry.

The first officer to be appointed to the position in 1821 was Maj. Gen. Jacob J. Brown, who had also been the Senior Officer since 1815. He had earned great distinction in the War of 1812 at Ogdensburg in 1812, and in the Niagara campaign of 1814. Maj. Gen. Brown was born in Bucks County, Penn., and had a rather short military career. He received his first commission as a captain in 1807 and only served until 1828, when he died in Washington, D.C. Brown was succeeded as Commanding General of the Army by Maj. Gen. Alexander Macomb from 1828 to 1841, and then by Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott from 1841 to 1861. Lt. Gen. Scott retained that high office while simultaneously commanding the principal American Army in the field in 1847 during the Mexican War.

The War of 1812 prompted widespread nationalistic emotion throughout the United States. The government as a whole had the support of its citizens to make the necessary reforms. It was the duty of the military establishment to improve upon and make the fighting force better equipped to win wars.

Following the War of 1812, Congress authorized the active peacetime strength of the Army to be increased to 12,000, which would be slightly reduced in 1821 due to a poor economy. Nevertheless, this was the highest number of Soldiers maintained during peace, which further indicates an enormous effort to create the most professional organization possible.

ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.

Related Links:

A Working Bibliography of MHI Sources: Army General Staff

Audio/video: Improving the U.S. Army