This book by J.P. Clark, an active duty army officer who has previously served on the history faculty at West Point, examines how the U.S. Army prepared for war from 1815 to 1917. Clark focuses primarily on the intersection of two key debates within the U.S. Army which resonated during this century: how (and, early on, whether) the officer corps should be educated to prepare the service for war; and how to organize the broader army to prepare for war, i.e., whether regulars, volunteers, or militia were most appropriate for America’s Army. Clark’s focus is clearly on the officer corps, which held the strongest opinions about the character of the army it would be commanding in war.
Clark divides the officer corps of his chosen century into four generations, each defined by a confluence of three factors: its fundamental, shaping experiences; the institutions in which it matured; and the societal and cultural trends surrounding it. The foundational generation largely completed its service prior to the Civil War, save for old lions such as Winfield Scott who still clung to power, relevance, and a steady income at a time when military pensions had not yet been mandated. This generation was succeeded by the Civil War generation, which eventually gave way to the post-Civil War composite generation. Finally Clark discusses the progressive generation, which oversaw the entry of the U.S. Army into modernity.
Clark’s argument in tracing this repeated changing of the guard is simple, but significant. Despite members of each generation sharing common foundations—experiences, institutions, and societal context—the generations were not monolithic blocks but were wracked by constant debate about how best to prepare for war. As the guard changed from old to new, intergenerational debate occurred. At the nexus of these debates were assumptions related to two contentious issues: 1) the nature and character of war and command in war: and 2) whether it was possible to prepare an officer for his responsibilities in war.