Military education, as we understand the term today, had little to no significant meaning in eighteenth-century America. The individual colonies and, after the Revolutionary War, the newly formed republic had no established system to educate soldiers or officers. Indeed, no infrastructure even existed to begin such a process. Compared to the formalized education military officers received in Europe, American officers learned their profession in several unconventional ways: service with a foreign military, militia training, self-education, or a combination of all three. Eventually, a more uniform system for educating officers emerged after Congress created the Continental Army, and General George Washington assumed command.
Most prominent American military figures of the revolutionary era had an ad-hoc military education. General Henry Knox owned a bookstore and kept a large inventory of military literature. Using these works, he mastered artillery and engineering, which helped supplement his hands-on experience with a local artillery unit.1 General Nathaniel Greene, who was born a Quaker, received very little formal education but was an avid reader of military works.2 By contrast, General Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga, had retired after a successful career in the British army. When Gates sided with the colonies, General Washington appointed him as an adjunct general because of his experience and the lack of professional soldiers available.3
Like most of his subordinates, Washington also had a makeshift military education. Washington’s military education began when his brother, Lawrence, was named Adjutant General of the Virginia militia. Following Lawrence’s death, because of Lawrence Washington’s connections and his own success surveying, Governor Robert Dinwiddie named George Washington to an adjutancy, with the rank of a major in the militia, a position he was unlikely to have held otherwise.4
George Washington credited holding command early in his career and his time as a surveyor with his later ability to understand the terrain during military engagements and move his troops accordingly.5 The British army famously denied Washington a commission, despite his service during the French and Indian War, which would have given him access to a more formalized military education. Instead, Washington acquired his education by reading and via his experience as a militia commander on the frontier.
Washington possessed a large personal library, which he relied on extensively to supplement his hands-on training. His library included many technical military works, as well as others that indirectly related to military subjects. Among this collection was A Treatise of Military Discipline, by Humphrey Bland, which British officers viewed as the preeminent military handbook of the eighteenth century.6
Reading was so important to Washington’s military education that in 1757, when he became commander-in-chief of the Virginia militia, he immediately ordered his company commanders to “devote some part of your leisure hours to the study of your profession, a knowledge in which can not be attained without application; nor any merit or applause to be achieved without a certain knowledge thereof.”7
Washington was a firm believer in the close order drill and discipline that the British army was famous for and sought to implement a similar training regimen in the Virginia militia and later in the Continental Army. The men in the Continental Army were experienced in drill, though there was no standard followed by all; choice of which drill manual to use was left to the regimental commanders.8 To this end, in 1778, Washington appointed a former captain in the Prussian Army, Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin, Baron von Steuben, to develop a formal treatise on American drill and maneuvers called the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States. Steuben drilled the men at Valley Forge by instructing in how to stand, dress their ranks, march with precession at a “common step” of seventy-five paces per minute, and other practical necessities.9 To Steuben, the actions of manipulating a musket and bayonet were considered the least important element of their training. The manual developed by Steuben was inclusive of the bare essential elements for soldiers to know and by March of 1778, the entire army at Valley Forge began their retraining. This treatise, commonly known as the Blue Book, as derived from the cover of its 1779 edition, was written to be easily understood by officers of all literary skills.10 With its widespread distribution, it replaced the British manual of arms that the Continentals had used to that point.
Baron von Steuben compiled the treatise on close order drill over the harsh winter at Valley Forge and submitted it to Washington in 1779. Washington approved the work overall but made several suggestions based on his own experiences. “I very much approve the conciseness of the work-founded on your general principle of rejecting everything superfluous,” he explained, “tho’ perhaps it would not be amiss in a work of instruction, to be more minute, and particular in some parts.”11 Washington knew that simpler wording and detailed instructions would be easier for the soldiers to understand and implement. This uniquely American manual of arms was the genesis of a more formalized military education in the early republic.
Efforts to formalize American military education continued in the postwar era with Washington’s proposal for a national university to be located in the capital, along with a military academy.12 Though Washington proposed no specific curriculum, it is highly likely that complex military subjects like artillery and engineering would have been taught there, as they were at the United States Military Academy at West Point, which President Thomas Jefferson established in 1802.
Robert E. Lee
George Mason University
1. Henry M. Ward, “Henry Knox,” American National Biography Online (2000): http://www.anb.org/articles/02/02-00202.html.
2. Paul D. Nelson, “Nathaniel Greene,” American National Biography Online (2000): http://www.anb.org/articles/02/02-00148.html.
3. Paul D. Nelson, “Horatio Gates,” American National Biography Online (2000): http://www.anb.org/articles/01/01-00316.html.
4. Jessica E. Brunelle, "The Youth of George Washington," in A Companion to George Washington, 1-14, edited by Edward G. Lengel (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 2, 10-11.
5. Jason E. Farr, "The Unlikely Success of a Provincial Surveyor: George Washington Finds Fame in the American Frontier 1749-1754," in ibid., 16.
6. Oliver L. Spaulding Jr, “The Military Studies of George Washington,” American Historical Review 29 (1924): 3.
7. “Instructions to Company Captains, 29 July 1757,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-04-02-0223, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 4, 9 November 1756?–?24 October 1757, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984, pp. 341–346.
8. Paul Douglas Lockhart, The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of The American Army (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2008), 92.
9. Ibid., 100.
10. Ibid., 191.
11. Amanda C Isaac, Take Note! George Washington the Reader (Mount Vernon, VA: George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2013), 14.
12. “From George Washington to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 8 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0361, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789?–?15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 543–549; “From George Washington to United States Congress, 7 December 1796,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-00063, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: this is an Early Access document from The Papers of George Washington.
Brumwell, Stephen. George Washington, Gentleman Warrior. London: Quercus, 2012.
Higginbotham, Don. George Washington and the American Military Tradition. Mercer University Lamar Memorial Lectures no. 27. Athens: University Georgia Press, 1985.
Isaac, Amanda C. Take Note! George Washington the Reader. Mount Vernon, Va.: George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2013.
Lengel, Edward G., ed. A Companion to George Washington. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
Lockhart, Paul Douglas. The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of The American Army. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2008.
Spaulding, Jr, Oliver L. "The Military Studies of George Washington.” American Historical Review 29 (1924): 675-80.