National Archives | RG 393

RG 393


In 1821 the Army of the United States consisted of seven regiments of infantry and a corps of artillery composed of four regiments posted throughout the United States.  One hundred years later the size of the Army had increased tremendously with a consequent increase in the number of posts, camps, and other field installations where the various components were stationed.  In 1920 the U.S. Army was stationed not only in the continental United States but also in its overseas possessions.

For purposes of administrative control of the field army, a territorial(or geographical) command structure was established whereby the United States, and later its overseas possessions, was divided into Army commands designated as territorial divisions and departments.  The number of departments or divisions and the areas they embraced varied according to the circumstances of the frontiers of the United States.  The Army commands were established by the President, and the assignment of commanders and distribution of troops were determined by the War Department.

Before 1813 the United States had upon occasion been divided into Army commands, but during that year the organization of the Army of the United States and its field installations on a geographical command basis became a permanent concept.  By a War Department general order of March 19, 1813, the United States was divided into nine military districts, increased to 10 on July 2, 1814.  On May 17, 1815, this organization was changed and the United States was divided into a Division of the North and a Division of the South, with five military departments under each division.  Again by a War Department general order of May 17, 1821, the United States was divided into two geographical commands: an Eastern Department and a Western Department.

The division of the U.S. Army field commands into the Eastern Department and the Western Department lasted until May 1837 when the United States was again divided into two divisions- Eastern and Western-with numbered military departments under each division.  Except for the period from July 1842 to April 1844, when the division organization was removed as a superior command over the military departments, the partition of the United States instituted in 1837 remained until 1848.  During this period there were, however, frequent changes in the number of departments and in the areas encompassed by these departments.  In October 1848 a Pacific Division was added to the two existing divisions.  Rearrangement of the number of departments and the areas under each continued until October 1853 when the division organization was completely removed, the number of military departments was reduced to five, and the designations were by name rather than number.

After October 1853 there were frequent changes of names and areas of jurisdiction, and the number of departments increased and decreased as the military requirements of the United States varied.  The largest number of changes occurred during the Civil War and immediately thereafter.  Except for the short period between July 25 and August 17, 1861, when three military departments reported to the Division of the Potomac, the division as an intermediate command between the departments and the War Department was not reinstituted until October 1863.  Although a Division of the Mississippi was established in October 1863 and several additional divisions were established thereafter, at no time until March 1869 did all departments report to a superior division headquarters.  But between June 1865 and August 1866 all departments except the Department of Washington reported to a superior division.  During the brief existence of the Division of the Southwest from May 17 to June 27, 1865, established under General Sheridan for the special purpose of restoring Texas and part of Louisiana to the Union, no military department was subordinate to it.

Military government was instituted during the Civil War in occupied areas of the South where required.  In May and June 1865 President Johnson appointed provisional governors for the Southern STates.  By an act of March 2, 1867 (14 Stat. 428), Congress divided the 10 Southern States into five military (reconstruction) districts, each to be commanded by an Army officer with both civil and military powers.  The establishment of these five reconstruction districts had the effect of abolishing four existing military departments (Potomac, South, Arkansas and Gulf) and replacing them with four military districts (1,2,4, and 5, respectively).  The 3d Military District was a completely new command.  The military districts had the same level of responsibility as the former military departments.  For a brief period the 1st and 4th Military Districts were placed under military divisions, and in March 1870 the last military district, the 5th, was abolished.

After March 1870 the pattern of command structure was more consistent.  Between 1870 and 1920 there were three periods when the military division was established as a superior command over the military departments: March 1870 to July 1891, December 1903 to April 1907, and May 1911 to February 1913.  During the intervening periods all military department, with three exceptions, operated directly under the War Department.  The three exceptions were: (1) the Departments of the Gulf and South, which operated from January to November 1872 independently of division supervision, (2) the Department of West Point, an independent command, and (3) the overseas military departments, under divisions between December 1898 and February 1913 (whose records are not a part of the record group described in this inventory).

On August 20, 1920, under War Department General Order 50, the six existing geographical (often referred to as territorial) departments in the continental United States were abolished, and in their place nine corps areas were established.  Except for Puerto Rico, which was placed in the Second Corps area, lands outside the continental United States remained under the previously established overseas departments.

During the War of 1812, the war that brought about the geographical command concept, there was no Commanding General of the Army.  This function was carried out by the Secretary of War; thus the commanders of the military departments reported directly to him.  In 1821 Secretary of War Calhoun, feeling the need of a single commanding general for the Army, appointed Gen. Jacob Brown as commanding general, and the commanders of the Eastern and Western Departments reported to General Brown.

The question of who really commanded the Army- the Secretary of War or the Commmanding General of the Army- was not settled in 1821.  The first successful attempt to resolve the problem came in 1903 when the Office of the Chief of Staff replaced the Headquarters of the Army.  The commanding general's constitutional position was uncertain, and no statutory authority defined his role either in 1821 or during the long history of his office.  This uncertainty of authority affected not only the relationship between the commanding general and the line commanders in the geographical commands but also the relationship between line commanders and officers of the staff departments in the field.  It also affected the relationship between the Secretary of War and the commanding general and their respective relationships to the staff department chiefs.

Army regulations throughout the years placed the military establishment under the orders of the Commanding General of the Army in matters that pertained to its discipline and military control, but its fiscal affairs were conducted by the Secretary of War through the several staff departments.  Thus it was more or less accepted that the command exercised by the Commanding General of the Army was composed of the aggregate of the several territorial commands established by the President.  Yet the commanding general's control of the territorial departments was limited since the distribution and diversion of the staff department support could clearly influence the operations of the territorial commands. 

In actuality, control of the territorial commanders depended upon the relative weaknesses and personalities of the various Secretaries of War and commanding generals. President Polk directed military operations during the Mexican War due only in part to the fact that Gen. Winfield Scott abandoned the office of commanding general to lead a field army. Twice General Scott fled to New York leaving the WarDepartment completely in the hands of the Secretary of War. At the beginning of the Civil War, Secretary of War Cameron and General Scott attempted to follow a division of labor suggested by Army regulations-Cameron concentrating upon organization and administration of the new armies and Scott determining strategy. When General McClellan replaced General Scott as commanding general in the fall of 1861, McClellan set about to run the War Department. McClellanwas relieved as commanding general in March 1862 with the expectation that he would assume responsibility for military control, but he was content to serve as a translator of the President's plans into military terms and transmit them to field commanders. Thus control of the Army remained with Lincoln and Stanton until General Grant was appointed commanding general in the spring of 1864.

In 1867, during the Reconstruction period, Congress passed several acts that made the military forces in the South-five military districts-virtually a separate Army under Congressional control, as distinguished from the frontier border forces that remained under the Secretary of War. At the beginning of Grant's presidency, Grant approved War Department General Order 11 of March 5,1869, over the signature of General Schofield, Secretary of War,appointing General Sherman Commanding General of the Army and placing the chiefs of staff corps, departments, and bureaus under his immediate orders. This order placed the General between the WarDepartment bureaus and the Secretary of War. By March 27, 1869, Grant's new Secretary of War, John A. Rawlins, convinced Grant that statutes required the Secretary's direct control over the bureaus, and General Order 11 was rescinded except for the part that placed General Sherman in command of the Army. Henceforth, all orders and instructions relating to military operations issued by the President or Secretary of War were to be issued through the Commanding General of the Army.

When Secretary of War Belknap began interfering with Sherman's control of the Army, Sherman departed for St. Louis in 1874, leaving, as General Scott had done, control of the Army to the Secretary of War. In 1876, Secretary of War Taft, eager for Sherman to return and assume the duties of commanding general,  explicitly reserved to Sherman the military control and discipline of the Army under the President even to the extent of placing two staff departments, the Adjutant General's Office and the Inspector General's Department, under the Commanding General of the Army. In 1882 Commanding General Sheridan attempted to gain control over all staff departments as well as the field commands but was rebuffed. On the other hand, General Schofield, having had experience as Secretary of War, upon becoming commanding general in 1888, considered himself a chief of staff and resigned the command of the Army, both line and staff, to the Secretaries of Warwhom he served.

In 1903 the problem was theoretically resolved by the establishment of the Office of Chief of Staff wherein the Chief of Staff was to act as a military adviser to the Secretary of War. The Chief of Staff was to issue, through the Adjutant General of the Army, ali orders and instructions of the Secretary of War, and he was to supervise, under the direction of the Secretary of War, all staff departments and corps, all troops of the line and staff, and all other matters pertaining to the military establishment of the Regular Army. Since this new position impinged upon the authority of War Department bureaus that had long existed as virtually independent bureaus, the problem of control was more nearly settled when, during the Taft administration, Henry  L. Stimson became Secretary of War and was willing to cooperate fully with the Chief of Staff. 

National Archives | RG 393

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