The Delafield Commission and the American military profession
Gruber, Ira D.
Doctor of Philosophy
The American regular army gained permanence in the early nineteenth century after overcoming numerous social and political obstacles, most notably a strong militia tradition. The War of 1812 and its aftermath established conditions for professional reform. The army now had a mission: to prepare for another seaborne attack from Europe. That sense of purpose allowed the officer corps to grow in collective ability, institutional autonomy, and corporate identity. The army developed an ethic of responsibility to the state. Intellectually, however, officers derived professional expertise primarily from French sources, mainly in military engineering. The U.S. Military Academy reinforced those trends and fostered "a system and habit of thought" in the officer corps. The profession, maturing quickly in other ways, remained intellectually adolescent. In 1855 Secretary of War Jefferson Davis dispatched Major Richard Delafield, Major Alfred Mordecai, and Captain George B. McClellan to Europe and the Crimean War to seek the newest professional expertise. The Delafield Commission was the most ambitious military observer mission to date, the first sent to observe on-going war. During the year-long tour they traveled throughout Europe and exemplified the characteristic traits of the professional officer corps--corporateness and responsibility. The Delafield Commission was a milepost in the history of American military professionalism. Most noteworthy were the reports that the commissioners wrote after their return, wherein they published a wealth of information useful to their respective branches. Yet the reports manifest the limits of antebellum professionalization: "a system and habit of thought" circumscribed their efforts. The commissioners demonstrated a narrow particularity that focused attention on technical details. They discarded the army's francophile paradigm, but quickly replaced it with an equally uncritical adoration of the Russians. They made reform suggestions, but mostly reaffirmed the status quo, especially the felt necessity for preparing for a European invasion. They refused to reach outside parochial branch interests to collaborate on a single report addressing broad issues of military policy and strategy. The mid-nineteenth century army's best minds were as yet incapable of synthesizing their European observations with their own experiences to create a uniquely American professional expertise.