Research Paper: Non-Commissioned Officers in the American Army


Traditionally non-commissioned officers (NCO) played a vital role in American army as well as in command of other western armies.

Despite the common origin, the institution of NCO’s in the US differed significantly from its European precursors. The historical development of NCOs in the US led to the enlargement of their duties, improve the discipline of NCO and American army at large, and eventually resulted in heroic actions of some outstanding representatives of the NCO corps. Naturally one of the critical elements which contributed to such a success of NCO was training that led to the growing professionalism of American army.

In fact, gradually NCO became a backbone of American army though at the beginning non-commissioned officers were not numerous and consequently their role was not so significant.

Nonetheless, the necessity to create professional and mobile military led to the progress of NCO. At the same time, it is also hardly possible to underestimate the role of NCO at early years of American independence, for since late 18th century NCO was an essential link between commissioned officers and ordinary soldiers. Moreover, NCO corps may be proud of some of its representatives who became real heroes and inscribed their names in the history of the American independent nation.

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It is a great pleasure to greet everyone interested in the history of the American army and its probably the most important part the NCO corps since the knowledge about the past creates the basis for the strength at the present moment and better perspectives for the future. In this respect, non-commissioned officers seem to be an essential part of American army of all times, and it is hardly possible to presuppose that in the future they will disappear. This is why it is extremely important to study the development of the NCO institution as one of the most efficient units of the American army.

At the same time, the analysis of the development of NCO corps could contribute to better understanding of the main reasons for its success. At this point, it is necessary to underline that those heroes that NCO corps provided for the American army appeared in the result of efficient training, high discipline, and proper performance of their duties. On the other hand, non-commissioned officers may be considered as an essential element that harmoniously links soldiers and commissioned officers making the management of the American military forces highly efficient.

Naturally, all these aspects, notably duties, training, discipline, and heroes would be discussed later, but it is necessary to point out that it is impossible to make an efficient analysis without researching the works of specialists working on this problem. Basically, I would focus on the works of two specialists who are well-known for their profound knowledge of the problem of NCO and the history of American army, notably they are William Gaenoe and his work “History of the United States Army”, which supplied me with ample amount of information concerning the historical background and role of non-commissioned officers and their life, and Oliver Knight and his work “Life and Manners in the Frontier Army”, where the author explored the real life of American army.

On profound reflection, it is possible to estimate that NCO played a crucial role in the building the mighty and robust American army up.


Speaking about non-commissioned officers, it is primarily necessary to point out that in 1778 little standardization of NCO duties and responsibility already existed. It means that this unit had been standardized and structured to improve the efficiency of the army management with the help of non-commissioned officers since the efforts of commissioned officers only were obviously insufficient. At that epoch, there were standardized duties and responsibilities for corporals, sergeants, first sergeants, quartermaster sergeants, and sergeants major, which were NCO ranks of the period (Gaenoe 1999).

It is also essential to underline that the existing duties implied the high level of responsibilities of non-commissioned officers. Consequently, the selection of non-commissioned officers was meticulous and it was not an easy task to become one of NCO.

To better understand the duties of non-commissioned officers it would be better to divide them by rank. According to William Gaenoe (1999), the sergeant major served as the assistant to the regimental adjutant. He kept rosters, form details, and handled matters concerning the interior management and discipline of the regiment. The quartermaster sergeant assisted the regimental quartermaster, whose duties he assumed during the quartermaster’s absence. Also, it was his duty to supervise the proper loading and transport of the regiment’s baggage when on the march (Gaenoe 1999).

The first sergeant enforced discipline and encouraged duty among troops, maintained the duty roster, made morning report to the company commander, and kept the company descriptive book, in which he listed the name, age, height, place of birth, and prior occupation of every man enlisted in the unit (Gaenoe 1999).

Finally, sergeants and corporals were supposed to instruct recruits in all matters of military training, including the order of their behavior regarding neatness and sanitation. It was in their duties to survey the outbreaks of disturbance which had to be punished. They also comprised the listing of sick which was to be forwarded to the first sergeant (Gaenoe 1999).

Later, during the Civil War non-commissioned officers also carried flags and regiment colors pf their units (Gaenoe 1999). Apparently, it was a hazardous task, and non-commissioned officers could be easily killed. Furthermore, by the mid-19th century, as organizational and tactical changes led to more open battle formations the duties of NCO were enlarged and these changes enhanced the combat leadership role of the non-commissioned officer (Gaenoe 1999).

Thus, it is obvious that gradually, starting from 1775 and till the mid-19th century, the role and duties of NCO changed from purely technical to leading roles in the combat.


Naturally, proper performance of duties by non-commissioned officers couldn’t be based on personal qualities only, but it also needed good training that would improve the physical and moral state of NCO. It is a remarkable fact that there was no training school for NCO until 1824 that could be explained by a relatively low role of NCO, or at least the realization of their importance for the American army was not shaped in a strategic plan of development of NCO, and consequently, training schools were considered unnecessary till that period.

Nonetheless, as the realization of the importance and role of NCO for the army grew, the strategic necessity of special training of non-commissioned officers became obvious. As a result, the first school for the instruction of NCO was opened at Fort Monroe in 1824 (Gaenoe 1998). This school instructed units instead of individuals as it used to be practiced in the past, in the use of artillery. In fact, this school may be perceived as a precursor to modern technical training.

The following year, i.e., in 1825, the first attempt was made to establish a systemic method of selection of non-commissioned officers. Furthermore, the tactic was an important part of training for NCO. For instance, the purpose of instruction of infantry tactics was to ensure that all NCOs possessed an accurate knowledge of the exercise and use of their firelocks, of the manual exercise of the soldier, and of the firings and marchings (Knight 1998).

Finally, it is necessary to point out that non-commissioned officers were trained in both theoretical and practical dimensions. In such a way the gradual changes in training NCOs, which transformed from individual to unit training and resulted in the creation of special schools for NCOs, indicate at the increasingly more important role of non-commissioned offices in the American army.


It is extremely important to underline the role of discipline in the progress of the NCO corps and its development. In fact, it is obvious that one of the primary tasks of non-commissioned officers was to sustain discipline in the army. However, it was quite a difficult duty since, as Knight points out, discipline was the major problem at the frontier since soldiers spent their time in a variety of pursuits, playing cards, organizing horse races. Instead, reading and letter writing was widely supported in the army. However, the habits and use of whiskey made the improvement of discipline in the frontier quite problematic.

To cope with the problem of the lack of discipline, non-commissioned officers often practiced the establishment of ‘the company court-martial’, which though was not recognized by Army regulations (Knight 1998). It allowed to NCOs to enforce discipline for the breaking of minor regulations without lengthy proceedings. Moreover, in the days before the summary court-martial, it proved effective to discipline a man by the company court-martial and avoided ruining his career by bringing him before three officers of the regiment (Knight 1998).

In such a way, non-commissioned officers turned to be able to improve discipline without additional Army regulations and, consequently, they proved their importance for the army and its efficiency.

Conclusion: heroes

Thus, it is obvious that non-commissioned officers’ role gradually increased to the extent that they eventually became a backbone of the American army. However, the NCO-heroes would probably better illustrate basic points mentioned above.

So, in conclusion, it is worth to remind about such heroes as sergeant Elijah Churchill, Sergeant William Brown, and Sergeant Daniel Bissel, who was awarded the Badge of Military Merit, a purple heart with a floral border and the word ‘merit’ inscribed across the center (Knight 1998). They were the heroes of American Revolution. For instance, Sergeant William Brown’s act of heroism occurred during the assault of Redoubt #10 at Yorktown. He led the advance party whose mission was so hazardous it was called the ‘forlorn hope.’ Charging with fixed bayonets, they ignored musket fire and grenades, leaped the barriers surrounding the redoubt, and captured the position (Knight 1998).

In such a way, such heroes contributed significantly to the increasing role of NCOs and proved the necessity of their further development.

Gaenor, William. History of the United States Army, New York: Routledge, 1999.
Knight, Oliver. Life and Manners in the Frontier Army, New York: New Publishers, 1998.

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