Academic journal article Military Review

Professional Military Education: Proven in Combat during the Mexican War

Academic journal article Military Review

Professional Military Education: Proven in Combat during the Mexican War

Article excerpt

Professional military education (PME) is a critically important part of building effective military leaders. This fact is sometimes overlooked due to the misguided belief that experience and field service alone will make the best leader. While these items are significant, when combined with PME, they make a more potent recipe for a truly well-rounded military leader. Ultimately, the decisive test of the success of PME is its relevance and application in combat situations.

The Mexican War (1846-1848) occurred in an often-neglected period in America's history. It is mainly remembered and studied by historians for the insight it gives into the early military careers of many famous American Civil War officers on both sides of the conflict. What is not as readily realized is that it served as the validation and true starting point for the further development and implementation of PME for America's armed forces.

History of Early American Professional Military Education

No program of formal military education was established by America upon its independence from Great Britain. Officers were generally selected from the higher echelons of society, and they received their commissions through family connections or purchase.1

This lack of a proper PME program to educate newly commissioned officers was not due to negligence. Many Americans feared the rise of an aristocratic officer class as seen in Europe and were hesitant to implement anything to encourage such a rise. However, then Gen. George Washington adamantly believed in a formal education system for new officers as long as it was appropriately managed. Numerous times, in person and in writing, he declared his desire for the establishment of a formal PME program for the country:

A military academy instituted on proper principles, would serve to secure to our country, though within a narrow sphere, a solid fund of military information which would always be ready for national emergencies, and would facilitate the diffusion of military knowledge as those emergencies might require.2

The establishment of an American PME program began as early as 1795 at a military garrison called West Point, New York. From 1795 to 1797, a military school was established there to educate artillery and engineer officers. Taught by three French officers, the school was short-lived because of funding problems, internal and external tensions due to the foreign instructors, and the competing need for officers on the frontier.3

Though the formal school was no more, West Point remained an Army garrison. Between 1797 and 1802, pressure from a number of American officers and politicians for the establishment of a permanent military academy grew. On 16 March 1802, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (commonly known as West Point) was formally established when Congress authorized the president to organize and establish a school for the Corps of Engineers. West Point underwent a number of changes, reorganizations, and expansions to other branches until the formal establishment of a true curriculum in 1817.4

Curriculum at West Point

All West Point officers who fought in the Mexican War (hereafter, referred to as the MW) were educated and disciplined under the same basic PME guidelines. This was mainly due to the superintendent who served from 1817 to 1833, Col. Sylvanus Thayer.

From its founding in 1802 until 1817, West Point had no formal curriculum or examination system. However, upon assuming his position as superintendent, Thayer, then a major, quickly implemented a structure broken down by battalions, classes, and subclasses, all dominated by areas of study. In a letter to Secretary of War George Graham, Thayer informed him, "on assuming command I lost no time in calling a meeting of the Academic Staff with a view to a new arrangement of the studies and to the classification of the cadets" He goes on to say, "Each professor or other head of a Department is charged to draw up a programma [sic] specifying in minute detail all that is to be taught in his Course" He closed the letter with a note that the end goal of this project was to be a complete four-year study plan, which would be submitted to the War Department for approval. …

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