Preface to 1st Edition

From earliest times one might have expected to find at departmental headquarters a uniformed commander of the whole Army. Such ruling considerations as structure, organization, discipline, and leadership-the very essence of military operation-ordained commanders at every level and invested them progressively with advancing rank, expanding numbers of subordinates, and increasing measures of responsibility and authority. Yet logic, for a number of reasons, stopped short of the top, and over the early course of American history the role of the United States Army’s senior officer was often uncertain, frequently shifting, and variously perceived by the incumbent, his service, and his superiors. The long road to regularization of the title and function, and to final acceptance of the official as a chief of staff rather than a commanding general, was marked by passion and controversy as well as by statesmanship and good will.

It is understandable that some measure of experimentation and revision in military command, staff, and structural relationships occurred in the early years of the Republic as the young nation developed the organization, methods, and means that would permit it to function effectively. But the War Department’s search for the proper role for its uniformed leader extended well beyond a reasonable trial period, the more surprising because of the intimate executive, legislative, and constitutional involvement in the process. From 1775, when the Continental Congress elected General George Washington as the first commander of the Army, until 1903, when Congress legislated Secretary of War Elihu Root’s reforms and Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles retired taking the designation of commanding general with him, the senior officer’s title fluctuated, the office lay vacant for two extended periods, the incumbents absented themselves on occasion, and a lively controversy rattled along, rising and falling with the play of events and personalities.

Even the introduction of the Root reforms, the designation of the senior officer as a chief of staff rather than a commanding general, and the installation of Lieutenant General Samuel B. M. Young under the new title, did not still the differences over the assignment of functions and the lines of authority. Pulling and hauling continued as the chief of staff sought to consolidate his position at the center of power, the General Staff strove to establish control over planning and policy, and the technical services fought to retain their traditional control over special functions and fields and their direct access to the departmental secretary. It required sixty years, periodic legislative spurts, subordination of the military departments within the Department of Defense, and some culminating reforms by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara to resolve the fundamental problems and place the Army and its senior officer on a sound institutional and functional footing.

By and large, the Army’s top soldiers have been able men who worked their way up the career ladder to reach the summit of their profession. As in any walk of life, they moved in a competitive environment. Strong-willed and ambitious soldiers have vied for the title, responsibility, authority, honor, and opportunity for service embodied in the senior officer’s position. As William Shakespeare pointed out, "’Tis deeds must win the prize," and indubitably those who succeeded invested a lifetime of dedicated and distinguished service on the way to the top. Yet so did many of their fellows, and to such qualifications as seniority, longevity, and accomplishment must be added the kinds of considerations that inspired President John Quincy Adams to bypass Generals Winfield Scott and Edmund Gaines to select General Alexander Macomb to command


the Army; President Theodore Roosevelt to jump General John J. Pershing over 862 more senior officers for promotion from captain to brigadier general; and President Jimmy Carter to move General Edward C. Meyer around 17 more senior officers to be his Army chief of staff.

It is not the purpose of this book to provide a history of the Army, the War Department, or the General Staff; those subjects are dealt with in such existing works as American Military History edited by Maurice Matloff, From Root to McNamara: Army Organization and Administration, 1900–1963 by James E. Hewes, Jr., National Security and the General Staff by Otto L. Nelson, Jr., and History of the United States Army by Russell F. Weigley.

The present work focuses upon the Army’s senior officer. Although this generic designation has been used throughout in alluding to incumbents of all periods and dates irrespective of formal or informal practices at any given time, the titular line of succession also has been divided arbitrarily into two categories that are nicely descriptive of the contradictions that dogged the senior officer position for many years. Thus incumbents of the early period (1775–1903) are called commanding general, even though two of the officers were not generals and the title was not formalized until 1821; those of modern times (1903–1995), generals all, are merged under the title chief of staff, the designation formalized in 1903 and still in use today. An introductory essay traces the development of the position, highlights the organization and operation of the office, and reviews some of the associations and connections of a unique body of military figures.

The central element of the book is the catalog of senior officers in the line of succession: each is represented by a color portrait and a concise biographical sketch. Considerations of style and format have dictated the approach used in the biographies, which have been scaled roughly to uniform size despite variations in the terms of office, substance of service, and celebrity or distinction of the incumbents. The treatment is telegraphic and factual rather than narrative and analytical; seniority in rank and position is the common denominator.

A word should be said here to explain the inclusion of an acting chief of staff in the line of succession. As the book’s introduction makes clear, executive military continuity was highly irregular in the early period of Army history, and there is little purpose in assessing the acting officials for a time when formal patterns of primary progression, much less secondary, were erratic. On the other hand, there has been increasing formality in this regard since the inception of the chief of staff era early in the present century. Obviously, the Army’s senior officer will be absent on occasion-on a peacetime tour of inspection, on a wartime visit to a battlefront, on a well-earned vacation. In such instances it has been standard practice for a second-level official to act in his behalf. General Bruce Palmer, Jr., vice chief of staff under General William C. Westmoreland, served frequently in an acting capacity during the chief of staff’s absence. Under different circumstances, however, he served as acting chief of staff during the period from General Westmoreland’s retirement on 30 June 1972 until the delayed confirmation of General Creighton W. Abrams, Jr., on 12 October 1972. His status therefore differs from that of two other officers who served as acting chief of staff: Brigadier General Thomas H. Barry, who covered the central office in the closing weeks of 1906 while the chief of staff, Brigadier General J. Franklin Bell, was in the field with the Army of Cuban Pacification; and Major General John Biddle, who presided for six weeks in late 1917 and a similar period in early 1918 while the chief of staff, General Tasker H. Bliss, was in Europe attending meetings of the Supreme War Council. In both of these cases there was a sitting chief of staff, whereas General Palmer acted in his own right during the Westmoreland-Abrams interregnum. Thus his inclusion in the line of chiefs of staff.

For readers who wish to probe more deeply into the history of the United States Army, the Department of the Army, the General Staff, and the lives of the respective senior officers, a select bibliography is supplied. It is by no means exhaustive, but will serve as a starting point. The material available on the commanding generals and chiefs of staff is as uneven as the careers of the individuals involved. Some wrote personal memoirs, and multiple biographies exist on the more prominent figures, while little coverage is available on others of less conspicuous service.

For ready reference, two appendices are provided in chart form. Appendix A displays, in dated chronological order, the Presidents of the United States and the Army’s parallel senior civil and military officials in each administration.


Appendix B is a chronological list of the Army’s senior officer line of succession, including dates of birth and death, period of incumbency, tour length, and age at time of entry into office and, as appropriate, at death.

Readers primarily interested in the paintings reproduced in this work should note that dimensions are given in inches, with height preceding width, and are sight measurements in the frame.

In the Army’s historical office the author has benefited from the intersection of the military and historical professions; perceptive comments and constructive suggestions were advanced by several readers with both backgrounds and perspectives. On the military side the manuscript was reviewed by Brigadier General James L. Collins, Jr., Chief of Military History, and Colonel James W. Dunn, Chief, Histories Division; on the historical side the material was read by Dr. David F. Trask, Chief Historian, and Mr. B. C. Mossman, Chief, Staff Support Branch.

In addition to this internal review, several outside authorities took time out from busy schedules to read the manuscript and bring their expertise to bear. The author expresses his thanks and appreciation to Dr. Edward M. Coffman, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin; Dr. Maurice Matloff, former Chief Historian of the Army, Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (1981–1982), and Visiting Professor (1982–1983) at the United States Military Academy; and Dr. Robert W. Coakley, former Deputy Chief Historian of the Army.

Other members of the staff of the Center of Military History furnished valuable assistance. In the preparatory stages the support provided by Miss Carol I. Anderson and Mr. Joseph K. Mosley of the Center’s library, and by Miss Marylou Gjernes, Curator of the Army Art Collection, was especially helpful. In the publication process the finished product testifies to the high quality of the professional services rendered by Mr. John W. Elsberg, Chief of the Editorial Branch, and his staff, including Miss Joanne M. Brignolo who edited the manuscript. Also deserving of mention is Lieutenant Colonel Adrian G. Traas, Assistant Chief of the Histories Division, for coordinating numerous and complex administrative details within and between agencies.

Externally, essential support and assistance was provided by the staffs of the National Museum of American Art, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Defense Audiovisual Agency, and the Army Audiovisual Center. Numerous libraries, galleries, and historical societies also responded affirmatively and productively to requests for materials and specific pieces of information. Finally, acknowledgments would not be complete without a recognition of the work of the Government Printing Office in the important fields of typography, design, and printing. The completed book owes much to its talents.

Despite the contributions of a wide array of agencies and individuals, the ultimate responsibility for any faults in this book rests with the author. Errors of omission or commission are mine alone.

William Gardner Bell
Washington, D.C


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Last updated 24 February 2006