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Chapter 36: Third year as Secretary of War.

Mr. Davis's third report was presented to the House of Representatives December 3, 1855.

The army consisted of 15,752 officers and men — only 2,115 less than the authorized strength — and enlistments were progressing so satisfactorily that the difference was rapidly being overcome. This was the result of the measures formerly recommended by Mr. Davis. Over 10,000 men had enlisted during the year, and over 20,000 had been refused on account of minority or unfitness. Four additional regiments had been recruited and organized.

The removal of the Seminole Indians from Florida was making satisfactory progress.

During the year Indian hostilities in the West, Texas, New Mexico, and the Pacific, had been of frequent occurrence. The Sioux had been chastised in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Indians in Texas guilty of outrages upon frontier inhabitants and emigrants had been summarily punished by the troops sent [503] against them. At the date of the report news had just reached the Department of the outbreak of Indian hostilities in Oregon and the Territory of Washington.

The Secretary again renewed, and with increased emphasis, his former recommendations for a revision of the laws regulating rank and command, and for a reorganization of the army, so that “the right of command should follow rank by one certain and determinate rule; that officers who hold commissions which entitle them to the command of troops should not, at an early period of the service, be placed permanently in positions on the staff which afford no opportunity for increasing military knowledge or confirming military habits; that troops organized, equipped, and necessarily employed for the same service should not be divided into different arms; that those serving on foot with regimental organizations, or bearing muskets or rifles, should not be divided into infantry and artillery, nor mounted men armed and equipped alike be divided into dragoons and cavalry; that engineers should not be divided into two corps, with a nominal distinction of engineers and topographical-engineers, though their acquirements, capabilities, and duties are so entirely alike that it has been found necessary to adopt an arbitrary rule assigning to each a part of [504] the duties of both.” “These propositions,” added the Secretary, “appear too clear to me to need to be enforced by argument, and I hope that the evils which the bare statement of the facts expose will not be suffered to exist after the subject shall have secured the considerate attention of Congress.”

The Secretary also renewed his previous recommendations of a measure for retiring from active service those officers no longer capable of fulfilling its requirements, and for an increase of the compensation of officers in active service, and of the soldiers who by the military signification of certain words used in the statute of August 4, 1854, had been excluded, unintentionally, from the benefits of that act. He recommended an increase of the medical corps and other reforms demanded by the good of the service.

He recommended the establishment at the Military Academy of a Professorship of Ethics and English Studies; for the appointment of an instructor of cavalry, and for the allowance of light cavalry pay to the instructor of artillery.

He called attention to, and recommended the fortifying of the entrance of the Columbia River.

He made another important recommendation which was adopted: “My attention has recently [505] been called to the practice, in the settlement of accounts at the Treasury, of charging sums due in past years to the current appropriations. It is deemed preferable that the settlement of old accounts should be provided for by appropriations for arrearages, and that the practice above referred to be checked, since, so long as it prevails, the appropriations for current expenses must prove insufficient, and deficiency bills be necessarily the consequence.”

The report showed that during the year the manufacture of smooth-bore arms had been stopped; that new models of all small arms had been adopted upon a rifle principle; that many samples of breech-loading rifles had been placed in the hands of the troops for trial in the field, a test deemed necessary before adopting any as a standard weapon; that arms had been distributed to the militia of the States, as prescribed by the law of 1855; that arrangements had been made to convert arms of the old model used by the States into rifled arms of the new model; that the work upon the military roads in Minnesota had made satisfactory progress; that the survey of the Northwestern lakes had been prosecuted with skill and energy; that the reports of the officers employed to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a transcontinental railroad had reported [506] in favor of the route of the thirty-second parallel.

In forwarding the reports of the exploring expeditions the Secretary thus tersely stated the need of a transcontinental railroad for the defence of the Pacific coast in case of war with a maritime power:

The facts developed by these surveys, added to other information which we possess, suggest some considerations of great interest with regard to our territory on the Pacific. They exhibit it as a narrow strip of an average width of one hundred and fifty miles of cultivated land, skirting the ocean for a distance of one thousand miles; rich in those mineral productions which are tempting even beyond their value, and which would be most readily turned to the use of an invader; drained by two rivers of widespread branches, and with seaports lying so directly upon the ocean that a hostile fleet could commence an attack upon any one of them within a few hours of being descried from land; or, if fortified against attack, so few in number that comparatively few ships would suffice to blockade them.

This territory is not more remote from the principal European states than from those parts of our country whence it would derive its military supplies, and some of those states [507] have colonies on the Pacific coast, which would greatly facilitate their operations against it. With these advantages, and with those which the attacking force always has of choice of place and time, an enemy possessing a considerable military marine could, with comparatively little cost to himself, subject us to enormous expense in giving to our Pacific frontier the protection which it is the duty of the General Government to afford.

In the first year of a war with any great maritime power, the communication by sea could not be relied upon for the transportation of supplies from the Atlantic to the Pacific States. Our naval peace establishment would not furnish adequate convoys for the number of store-ships which it would be necessary to employ, and steamships alone, laden with supplies, could not undertake a voyage of twenty thousand miles, passing numerous neutral ports where an enemy's armed vessels, even of the smallest size, might lie in wait to intercept them.

The only line of communication, then, would be overland; and by this it would be impracticable, with any means heretofore used, to furnish the amount of supplies required for the defence of the Pacific frontier. At the present prices, over the best part of this [508] route the expense of land transportation alone for the annual supplies of provisions, clothing, camp equipage, and ammunition for such an army as it would be necessary to maintain there would exceed $20,000,000, and to sustain troops and carry on offensive operations under those circumstances, the expense per man would be six times greater than it is now; the land transportation for each field twelve-pounder, with a due supply of ammunition for one year, would cost $2,500; of each twenty-four pounder and ammunition, $9, 00000; and of a sea-coast gun and ammunition, $12,000. The transportation of ammunition for a year for one thousand sea-coast guns would cost $10,000,000. But the expense of transportation would be vastly increased by a war; and at the rates that were paid on the Northern frontier during the last war with Great Britain, the above estimates would be trebled. The time required for the overland journey would be from four to six months. In point of fact, however, supplies for such an army could not be transported across the continent. On the arid and barren belts to be crossed, the limited quantities of water and grass would soon be exhausted by the numerous draught animals required by heavy trains; and for such distance forage could not be carried for their sustenance. [509]

On the other hand, the enemy would send out his supplies at from one-seventh to one-twentieth the above rates, and in less time --perhaps in one-fourth the time — if he could get command of the Isthmus routes.

Any reliance, therefore, upon furnishing that part of our frontier with means of defence from the Atlantic and interior States, after the commencement of hostilities, would be in vain, and the next resource would be to accumulate there such amount of supplies and stores as would suffice during the continuance of the contest, or until we could obtain command of the sea. Assigning but a moderate limit to this period the expense would yet be enormous, the fortifications, depots, and storehouses would necessarily be on the largest scale, and the cost of placing supplies there for five years would amount to nearly one hundred millions of dollars.

In many respects the cost during peace would be equivalent to that during the war. The perishable character of many articles would render it impossible to put provisions in depot for such a length of time; or in any case there would be deterioration amounting to some millions of dollars per year.

These considerations, and others of a strictly military character, cause the Department to examine with interest all projects [510] promising the accomplishment of railroad communication between the navigable waters of the Mississippi and those of the Pacific Ocean. As military operations depend in a greater degree upon the rapidity and certainty of movement than upon any other circumstance, the introduction of railway transportation has greatly improved the means of defending our Atlantic and inland frontiers; and to give us a sense of security from attack upon the most exposed portion of our territory, it is requisite that the facility of railroad transportation should be extended to the Pacific coast. Were such a road completed our Pacific coast, instead of being farther removed in time, and less accessible to us than to an enemy, would be brought within a few days of easy communication, and the cost of supplying an army there, instead of being many times greater to us than to him, would be about equal. We would be released from the necessity of accumulating large supplies on that coast, to waste, perhaps, through long years of peace; and we could feel entire confidence that,--let war come, when and with whom it may, before a hostile expedition could reach that exposed frontier an ample force could be placed there to repel any attempt at foreign invasion.

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Samuel Emory Davis (2)
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December 3rd, 1855 AD (1)
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