Men joined the army for many reasons. Some joined seeking advenure or to get away from home Others joined to escape legal entanglements, and still others joined because the army provided a steady income.
Many of the soldiers who joined were unskilled or uneducated. Indeed illiteracy was a common problem in the army. The army also had many recent immigrants in their ranks who joined the army to escape the crowded, impoverished conditions of many of the Northern cities. Many of these immigrants could not speak or understand English.
For whatever reason they joined, many were disappointed in army life. The promises made by zealous recruiters often did not materialize. Diets were bland, quarters often substandard (the quarters at Fort Scott were quite luxurious compared to other frontier outposts), and the hoped for excitement of army life quickly dissolved in the face of hours of drill and monotonous fatigue duties. When soldiers joined the army, they committed to stay for five years.Soldiers joined voluntarily (there was no draft at this time), but they did not leave voluntarily until their enlistments had expired, but many deserted before their five years was up.
New recruits were expected to meet certain requirements. They were supposed to be between 18 and 35 years of age, free, white, able to speak English, and sober at the time of enlistment. The language requirement was often ignored and many young boys in their midteens lied about their age to join the army. Boys as young as 12 enlisted as musicians. At Fort Scott, two brothers, aged 11 and 12 served as musicians in First Dragoons, Company A. Older boys in their mid-teens often lied about their age to join the army. There was also a medical requirement. Doctors were supposed to inspect each recruit to make sure he was healthy. As with the age and language requirement however, many men passed the medical requirement who had physical defects or problems with alcohol.
The training of a new soldier meant the making of someone fit and competent for military life. It involved more than just learning to march and use weapons. It also involved learning to care for one's uniform, correct military deportment and protocol, and adapting to the regimentation of military life. New recruits found that their days were strictly scheduled with a certain amount of time devoted to drill and fatigue duties. Infantry soldiers were often just handed over to their units for training, but in 1837, the War Department ordered all new infantry recruits to training at Fort Columbus, located on Governors Island in New York Harbor.
The training that a soldier went through was called the School of the Soldier. The training consisted of drilling the soldier in marching, standing at attention, and going through the manual of arms.
Standing at attention meant that a soldier stood in the following position which was also known as the position of the soldier:
Marching. This was more or less the position a soldier would maintain during marching. When beginning a march the soldier would begin with his left foot and would carry his left foot about twenty eight inches in front of the right foot and then would repeat the same with his right foot and so on. Soldiers could march in a single file line called a file or they could march in a straight line marching shoulder to shoulder called a rank. If marching in a file, they would march so that the soldier would place his feet exactly in the spot where the soldier in front of him had just lifted his foot from. In other words, he would march in the other soldier's footsteps. If marching in a rank, they would march shoulder to shoulder, all of them stepping at the same time and in the same rhythm.
There were several different ways of turning or facing. If turning while standing, the command would be "left face" or "right face" or "about face". Left face means that you pivot on your heels, keeping both feet together, and turning 90 degrees to the left. Right face means that you do the same thing but turn 90 degrees to the right. In an about face the right foot is placed perpendicular behind the left foot, with the right hand being placed on the cartridge box. You then execute a 180 degree turn by pivoting on your left foot and then bringing the right foot even with the left foot. To turn while marching, you would pivot the desired direction on one heel and then continue with the march.
If marching in a file and the commander wanted his squad to continue marching in file after turning, he would give the command, "By file, left, (or right) march." On the command of march, the soldier at the front of the line would then face the appropriate direction and continue marching, and all soldiers behind him would turn and face at the exact same spot that the front soldier turned at.
If marching in a rank and the commander wanted his squad to turn and march in a file, he would give the command, "By the left flank (or right flank) march." All soldiers would face the appropriate direction at the same time and continue marching. The same principle could be used to turn from a file to a rank.
If marching in a rank and the commander wanted to keep his soldiers in a rank, he would use a command known as right or left wheel. When doing a left wheel, the soldier at the left end of the rank, turns and takes baby steps to the left. Each soldier down the line takes progressively longer strides, so that all soldiers are turning together, all soldiers are still lined up shoulder to shoulder, touching elbows, but no one actually resumes marching until the soldier at the right end of the rank is facing in the desired direction of the march. For a right wheel, the procedure would be reversed.
Another type of marching would be an oblique march, where instead of marching straight forward, the soldiers would march at an angle. An oblique march would often be used to go around an obstacle on an otherwise level field.
The manual of arms* was also part of the school of the soldier but apparently there was no marksmanship training at Governors' Island and some recruits did not handle firearms at all during this initial training period. Much of the weapons instruction was apparently left up to the individual units.
Training, which one might assume to be the primary peacetime duty of a soldier was not given priority, partially because of the lack of available men and the time needed to do that properly. Upon arrival to their new posts, soldiers often found themselves assigned to construction or other fatigue duties that were necessary to the operation of the post, but did not prepare soldiers in the art of war.
* The manual of arms which was part of the school of the soldier consisted of order arms, carry arms, inspection arms, and the twelve count loading and firing procedure. The various commands will not be explained here but the loading and firing procedures can be viewed on the weapons portion of this website.
The information for this section came from The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898 by Edward M. Coffman, copyright 1988 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Used by permission. Information also taken from School of the Soldier by General Winfield Scott. For more information read pgs 156 and 157 of The Old Army.
Last updated: July 24, 2016