America and Her Citizen Soldiers

This week is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay, aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63). (We remember things like that here at the Whiskey bar.)

The events of Sept. 2, 1945, closed a bloody chapter in the book of World War II, although history always has additional pages to write.

You’ve probably seen photos like this…

American sailors witness Japanese surrender

American sailors witness Japanese surrender. National Archives.

It’s quite a cast, those men standing on the armor plate of that mighty warship.

Surrounding the surrender table was an assemblage of senior U.S. and international officers of great historical significance. Americans included Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Adm. Chester Nimitz, Gen. Jonathan Wainwright and many more…

Witness to the proceedings were a multitude of midgrade and junior officers and enlisted sailors, hanging on every perch to catch a glimpse.

Indeed, this particular photo illustrates an important point. Namely, how the vast majority of Americans who fought World War II were not of the “professional” military class.

Instead, the people who did most of the fighting weren’t career military officers or troops. They came from across the land, answered the call, wore a uniform and served the nation in time of need.

This opens another chapter of U.S. history, one that still resonates. That is, the historical seeds of U.S. victory in World War II were planted long before the surrender in Tokyo Bay, back in the 1810s to be exact.

It began with a disagreement over the Napoleonic-era curriculum at West Point. And absent that, American history would’ve played out quite differently.

One man believed that America’s soldiers ought to know more than just engineering skills and artillery firing tables. He wanted a nation of “citizen soldiers,” well-versed in science, history, literature and even foreign languages.

The man lost his argument with the Army brass, and the fate of the nation changed forever.

Let’s dig into this…

We’ll begin in America of the 1790s, a new nation attempting to take its place in the world.

In the country’s first decades, U.S. leaders confronted a series of military challenges, including the Whiskey Rebellion, frontier wars and even a mini-war with France. They concluded that the federal government needed a national level military academy in which to train officers for the Army.

Beginning in 1794, young men who wanted to serve as military officers trained at Fort Clinton, New York. It was a high spot on the west bank of the Hudson River, north of New York.

The place was also known as “West Point.” And in 1801, President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill establishing the U.S. Military Academy there.

During its first decade, West Point had few standards for admission, curriculum or length of study. Indeed, cadets ranged in age from 10–37 years and attended anywhere between six months–six years.

Initially, much of the training at West Point focused on parade ground drills, and much of that was modeled on Napoleonic methods imported from Europe.

Then during the War of 1812, U.S. troops suffered defeats at the hands of British, Canadian and native forces. It drove home the point that Army officers required better training, particularly in the fields of engineering and artillery.

In 1814, the secretary of the Army appointed a West Point faculty member to run the school, a lieutenant of engineers named Alden Partridge.


Alden Partridge, citizen soldier.

Partridge was born in 1785 and raised in Norwich, Vermont. His father had served in the Revolutionary War, fighting at the Battle of Saratoga.

From 1802–05, Partridge attended Dartmouth College, and then transferred to West Point, where he graduated in 1806. Immediately, Partridge was assigned by the Army to teach mathematics and engineering to cadets.

Partridge was more than good at math; he was a polymath. He read history and literature, studied religion and developed a keen understanding of nature and the outdoors. Among other things, he also focused on physical conditioning and led cadets on long marches and rigorous military exercises.

It’s worth noting that Partridge is responsible for the classic “Long Gray Line” that is a hallmark of West Point. It’s a simple story, actually…

When Partridge assumed command, there was no blue cloth available with which to make uniforms for the cadets. So he ordered a large amount of gray cloth from suppliers in New York. And thus began a sartorial tradition that carries on even today.

In 1817, when the time came to turn over his duties as superintendent, Partridge refused to pass command to an officer who was junior to him, Sylvanus Thayer, about whom much more could be written.

Partridge was court martialed for insubordination but acquitted. And then he resigned from the Army.

With Partridge gone, Thayer quickly transformed West Point into a college of engineering, the first in America. The school offered a tight, military engineering curriculum, on top of various military drills and routines.

Now out of the Army, Partridge returned to Norwich, Vermont, and in 1819 established his own college. It was a private school that he called the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy. (Eventually, the name changed to Norwich University, and it’s now located in Northfield, Vermont.)

These two schools – West Point and Norwich – illustrate an intellectual and political distinction in American education of the time, with fallout to the present: that of the “professional” military class versus the idea of a “citizen soldier.”

Partridge read history, particularly about ancient Rome. He was concerned that a national military academy like Wes41t Point would turn out an elite, narrowly focused, professional (and perhaps praetorian) class of military officers who might become a danger to the Republic.

Instead, Partridge believed that military training should be dispersed among the states. He viewed the means of true national defense as a widespread “well regulated Militia”… Yes, that idea of Second Amendment fame.

Partridge believed that American military-themed education should touch a large body of the country’s citizens and instill a strong sense of what he called “military habit.”

Partridge proposed a federal type of arrangement, to establish military “departments” in all of the states. Each state would run a program to train leadership cadre for the militia; again, here’s that Second Amendment idea in play.

In essence, Partridge wanted the nation to educate a broad swath of its population in military matters, teaching these subjects as part of a more general education at college or university.

Partridge’s idea came to limited fruition during his lifetime. Two examples of colleges that adopted the Partridge model are the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), established in 1839, and The Citadel in South Carolina, established in 1842.

Eventually, Partridge’s idea of widespread collegiate-level military training became a reality via what we today call the “Reserve Officers’ Training Corps” (ROTC). And more on that in a moment…

Along the way, though, from 1819–1854, when he died, Partridge turned Norwich into a well-regarded military college that in many respects rivaled or exceeded the standards of West Point.

Partridge’s Norwich accepted students from across the country, including many from Southern states. The Norwich curriculum was a combination of strict military discipline and drills, coupled with a strong academic program of math, science, history and language.

West Point was always an institutional arm of the U.S. Army, and it hewed to its mission. It graduated and commissioned officers with strong backgrounds in military studies. Famous graduates of the pre-Civil War era included no less than Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee.

Across the Hudson River and in Vermont, per Partridge’s pedagogy, Norwich grads were also militarily suited to serve in the U.S. Army. But their education also offered the option to seek out a career in the fast-developing U.S. civilian economy of the era.

To be sure, many Norwich grads went into the Army, where their services were needed. In that era, the Army required more officers than West Point could supply…

That is, as the U.S. expanded west in the first half of the 1800s, the Army was tasked with many missions. These ranged from combat such as a series of Indian wars and the Mexican War to civil engineering efforts and pure exploration and mapping of new lands.1

Thus, Army billets were available for well-trained grads of Partridge’s Norwich.

At the same time, many Norwich grads went into civilian life and established or worked in businesses that helped the country grow.

One such business sector was railroading, and one particularly famous Norwich grad was Grenville Dodge (Norwich class of 1851).

After leaving Vermont, Dodge went to Iowa and worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, where he met the company’s legal counsel, an aspiring man named Abraham Lincoln.

When the Civil War broke out, Dodge knew who to contact and quickly received a presidential appointment to the Union Army. Over time, Dodge distinguished himself in combat. Eventually, he became the head of Gen. Grant’s “intelligence” unit (today it’s called G-2).

As the war progressed, Dodge was tasked by President Lincoln to survey a route west for a transcontinental railway. When the war ended, Dodge continued his efforts as chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad.

Indeed, that’s Gen. Dodge in the photo below: the man on the right, shaking hands at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

Grenville Dodge (right, shaking hands). Yale University Library.

Grenville Dodge (right, shaking hands). Yale University Library.

So Norwich has a fair boast that one of their “citizen soldiers,” Gen. Dodge, built the transcontinental railroad. And among other things, Dodge City, Kansas, is named after this fellow…

As mentioned, Partridge died in 1854. But his legacy survived in the form of the 1862 Land-Grant College Act.

This Civil War era law created a system to establish colleges and universities across the U.S., per legislation written by Justin Smith Morrill, a congressman from… Vermont. Indeed, the man lived all of 12 miles from Norwich.

The “Morrill Act” was heavily influenced by the ideas of Alden Partridge. One key point was to dedicate federal lands to fund a system of colleges to teach mechanical arts, agriculture and “military tactics.” This concept was straight from a pamphlet Partridge published in 1841.

Within a generation of the Land-Grant law, the U.S. vaulted to the top of the world in terms of numbers of people receiving a university-level education, particularly with strong emphasis on science and engineering. This is, of course, how nations create economic success.

Meanwhile, the requirement for military training of young men transformed every new Land Grant school into a potential source of officers for the Army.

The “military tactics” requirement of the Morrill Act transformed with the times. During World War I, and at the behest of universities across the country, the Army restructured the program to create a so-called “Citizen’s Military Training Corps,” now called ROTC.

Also after World War I, in 1926 the Navy adopted a similar military training program for colleges and universities (NROTC), and the Marine Corps followed along in 1932.

Which brings us back to the deck of USS Missouri, 75 years ago this week.

Almost all top U.S. brass of World War II were career military and West Pointers (MacArthur and others, although George Marshall was a VMI man). Or on the Navy side, they came from Annapolis (Nimitz and more).

But tens of thousands of American line officers – the ones who did much of the fighting – were trained under ROTC or NROTC, in universities across the country.

Plus, during World War II, those university-level “military tactics” programs rapidly spooled up to train millions of other Americans in everything from radar and cryptology to first aid.

Looking back over the broad scope of time, the U.S. never fully adopted Partridge’s idea of national-scale militia training through state-level “departments.”

But that Second Amendment concept of “well regulated Militia” did manage to take root in American life. First, it was military training at Norwich and other military colleges. Then at Land Grant colleges via the Morrill Act, and eventually ROTC.

Lieutenant of engineers Partridge, a West Point math professor, may have been court-martialed in 1817, but he left a deep intellectual legacy…

Little could Partridge have known that a century and more later, his ideas would be critical to the U.S. winning the war against Japan and bringing the Second World War to a close.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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1 See William Goetzmann (1966): Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West

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A Harvard-trained geologist and former aide to the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Byron King is our resident gold and mining expert, and we are proud to have him on board as the managing editor of Whiskey & Gunpowder.

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