By William R. Trotter
Our preparation in material, equipment, [and] knowledge of the art of war…is as limited and inefficient as theirs [i.e., the armies of Russia, France and Great Britain] is powerful and ready…As a nation, other than in resources and the general intelligence of our people, we are without the elements of military knowledge and efficiency of sudden emergency…We possess a nucleus of military knowledge in this country barely sufficient for the wants of our army in time of peace.
-- Major Richard Delafield, in a report submitted to John B. Floyd, Secretary of War for President James Buchanan, early 1861
Well into the Nineteenth Century, the American people had deeply ambivalent feelings about the institution of a large standing army. Partly, the reason was ideological - too many citizens still thought that "Big Full-time Army" equated with "Redcoats" (after all, it seemed the British were always fighting with somebody or other, if not the French then with the indigenous inhabitants of some God-forsaken colonial dung-heap with a name like "Waaziristan", and that army hadn't been used to actually defend the British homeland since, oh, Ten-Sixty-Six A. D., so there seemed to be some kind of weird connection between having a large professional military caste and having endless, bloody troubles in far-away places no sane Yankee would care to visit, much less attempt to colonize; and the traditional American resentment of taxation generated an allergic reaction to the expense of raising, training, and maintaining an army large enough to guarantee the nation's freedom from hostile invaders. On the other hand, most citizens were generally supportive of that freedom, which meant that some kind of ready-to-fight professional army was necessary. One of the harshest lessons we learned in the Revolutionary War was that a good army cannot be raised, supported, and commanded on-the-cheap, which was the natural corollary to our naïve assumption that a citizens' militia could beat a disciplined, cold-blooded professional army in a stand-up fight because its people were naturally gifted in the handling of firearms and would be motivated by fervent patriotism. "Fervent patriotism" had usually proved to be worth two disciplined volleys before the Redcoats got close enough for the militia to see how sharp the points of their bayonets were and how resolutely their ranks closed as they stepped over the bodies of the soldiers unlucky enough to be felled by a Kentucky long-rifle - usually not enough bodies to even the odds before the Red Coats got within charging range, at which point most of the militiamen felt their fervent patriotism melt away like snow in July.
By 1850, almost everyone who'd lived through it realized that the War of 1812 had been an almost criminally unnecessary affair, which had been ignited by some American politicians' fantasies about annexing Canada and had really not had a damned thing to do with the occasional impressment of hapless sailors into the Royal Navy. The first 18 months or so of that war had only taught us the same lesson all over again. The tiny professional army - which, in theory, was supposed to quadruple in size as soon as the militia was summoned to active duty, had put up a mostly ineffectual show and those militia troops who did bothered to show up were too confused about their country's motives and too hobbled by their woeful lack of training, obsolete equipment, and mediocre leadership to serve reliably as a force-multiplier. With a few duly noted exceptions, most militia units served as nothing more formidable than speed-bumps when ordered to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Regulars athwart the British line of advance; and even if they were too young ever to have faced a bayonet attack, they had certainly read about how terrifyingly good the enemy was at that sort of thing, and so were already primed with fear before they heard an angry shot.
The first generation of ironclads were not very graceful-looking, but they heralded a swift revolution in naval warfare. (The French iron-plated frigate, "Le Gloire", launched in 1859.)
To say that the first half of that war "went badly" for America would be to voice a grave understatement - the conflict had very nearly undone the Revolution itself. Not until the autumn of 1813 had the United States been able to field troops sufficiently trained and well-enough led to stand up to the better British battalions; and despite the morale-boosting victory at New Orleans (which almost didn't count, since that battle was actually fought after the peace treaty had been signed!) realists had slowly come to accept the fact that we had "won by a coincidence" - that the only thing preventing the British from cleaning our clock permanently had been London's desperate obsession with a closer and far more dangerous enemy by the name of Bonaparte. What an irony - now we were indebted to the French again, despite Bonaparte's addled and half-hearted strategic fumbling in the Caribbean! Yet without the distraction of Napoleon, whose Continental adventures had drained-off the vast majority of Britain's best regiments and commanders (and nearly bankrupted the Crown), there would have been little chance of our young, and in this case recklessly led, nation surviving as an independent country. And we picked up the Louisiana territory for a yard-sale price, too! Such good luck does not happen to any nation more than once in a generation…
Although it was less a "strategic" operation than it was an act of vindictive vandalism, the sack of Washington, D.C., and the torching of the White House, had left a bruise on America's pride that still smarted after the passage of three decades. We had known the British were coming; we had known almost to the inch where their landing would take place; and we knew exactly what road they would take on their march to Washington (not a hot piece of intelligence, really, as there was only one road sufficient to accommodate a large army without turning into a quagmire). Nor had the defenders - hastily assembled from hither and yon, under the command of the hopelessly confused General Henry Winder, fled the field in disgrace at the sight of British steel. In fact, the courage of even the raw militia units won the grudging admiration of the invaders - a chaotic but incredibly ballsy bayonet charge by some 2,000 militia, spurred on by a few hundred uniformed sailors waving cutlasses and striving to look piratical, had actually threatened to break the British left - for a brief period of time. The counterattack had been a spontaneous act, not part of a coordinated assault; if it HAD been the latter, the Americans might have pulled off an upset victory. But fundamental command-and-control was conspicuous by its total absence; Winder had no plan, so when the impromptu charge ran out of steam, the Redcoats quickly and expertly rallied, formed tight ranks, and advanced in relentless precision, closing their files without hesitation even when ragged American volleys tore gaps in their lines. Such implacable professionalism was a fearful thing to see, and impossible to stand up to by ineptly led, barely trained troops. When the defenders' morale collapsed, it went over a cliff; the British cleared the field with almost contemptible ease, and the rest of their march on Washington almost had the atmosphere of an adventurous hike rather than a serious military campaign. The United States' capital was then burned and looted with much whooping and braying (although discipline still prevailed and there was little molestation of the civilians - those few that had remained in town).
The United States may have expanded its territory vastly since 1814, but it was still defended by a professional army that was numerically about the same as it had been on the day Washington was vandalized. In 1850, the standing army numbered about 15,000 men, and it was scattered over an enormous amount of land, mostly in small, isolated forts which at least offered the illusion of protection to the river of settlers traveling west. That mission may have sounded glamorous and manly, but the reality was anything but. It was the sort of duty that consisted mostly of stupefying boredom in a hot, arid wilderness, combined with just enough mortal danger to prevent anyone from ever truly relaxing. When the Indians made a move, they usually did it with no advance warning signs, executed their purpose with stomach-turning savagery, and then vanished back into the prairie vastness or flinty desert mountains whence they had emerged. The Army patrols sent out to counter their depredations usually arrived too late to save the proverbial wagon train and the sights that greeted them were often gruesome enough to make a hardened veteran vomit. Occasionally there would be a skirmish, but seldom a stand-up fight. The Indians may have been illiterate, but they were not stupid. Nor were they in the least intimidated by the flimsy and widely separated network of frontier forts, with their sharp-ended stockade walls and elevated cannon-towers on their corners. If Indians came near a fort, it was for trading purposes, not to lay siege - there is not one recorded instance of Native American forces actually trying to storm or starve into submission a fully garrisoned fort. Relatively few braves had actually seen what artillery could do, but the word HAD gotten around about grapeshot.
It is true that the American Army had performed smartly during its war with Mexico, of that there could be no doubt; but the sputtering Indian skirmishes that were its main preoccupation during the decade following the victory over Mexico were, by professional military standards, little more than a series of skirmishes - often quite vicious in nature, but rarely involving large numbers on either side and usually not requiring much in the way of formal tactics other than the occasional cavalry charge. During the 1850s, the army settled back into its pre-Mexico state of conservative torpor, of slow promotions and reactionary attitudes. For that is what bureaucracies DO, when they are not called upon to deal with crises, especially when they are led by men who have achieved high rank primarily through seniority rather than competitive merit.
To European observers, the United States Army was not only laughably small in relation to the size of the territories it was tasked with defending, it seemed intellectually and professionally stagnant, if not downright backwards; its senior commanders were poorly informed about the manifold and even revolutionary changes that were transforming European armies; indeed, most of them seemed almost indifferent to the very concept of "progress".