Hershler, N. The Soldier’s Handbook for Use in the Army of the United States.

Washington: GPO, 1900.

As every veteran knows, when you enlist in the armed forces you discover you have a large number of new regulations and procedures to bone up on, and quick. They always give you a manual to aid in your learning and this is the U.S. Army’s version from immediately after the War with Spain. If you lost it, you had to pay for it, too — 45 cents, close to a day’s pay for a private — unless it was “lost through no fault of the man.”

Some things never really change in the army, including the admonition to respect one’s superiors and obey lawful orders and the prohibition against being drunk on duty or sleeping at a sentry post. But there are a number of points in the Handbook that will startle a 21st-century enlisted man. The first of these is the very first paragraph on the first page, U.S. Statute 1996, “Rights as Citizens Forfeited by Desertion.” Since its enactment in 1865, after a sixty-day grace period, a deserter from the armed forces was considered “to have voluntarily relinquished and forfeited their rights of citizenship” — and that applied to all native-born soldiers. Other things simply strike one as odd: “When an enlisted man without arms passes an officer he salutes with the hand farthest from the officer.” (Saluting with your left hand?) And woe betide the solider who “takes his arms apart except by permission of a commissioned officer.” “Wasting ammunition” could get you court-martialed. (So could “behaving indecently or irreverently at any place of divine worship.”) But one wonders how often the demand that “no officer or soldier shall use any reproachful or provoking speeches or gestures to another” was actually enforced, or “using any profane oath or execration.”

Also, “attempts to beautify of change the finish [or arms and equipment] were prohibited,” which my career-officer father would have chuckled at. One of his biggest gripes when he commanded a battalion was young soldiers who itched to jazz up their gear or their fatigue uniforms.

A student of military history will be interested to note that the highest NCO ranks (following Sergeant Major, still the senior rank) are Quartermaster Sergeant, Commissary Sergeant, and Ordnance Sergeant, all of whom outrank “mere” line sergeants. Education was also an important part of the soldier’s working life, to include “not just the elementary branches, but . . . any subjects for they may have an aptitude, or which they can pursue with advantage to themselves or to the service.” At the same time, it’s interesting to note that non-citizens who made a legal declaration of intent to become a citizen were welcome to enlist — as long as they could “speak, read, and write the English language.” Literacy was not required of the native-born, however, and there are numerous cases in the Handbook where one could swear before witnesses to the accuracy of information if one was unable to write it down and sign it.

On the other hand, promotion beyond the rank of private included passing examinations in English grammar, arithmetic, algebra, U.S. history and geography, and military regulations, as well as a rigorous medical exam. All this added up to a maximum of 1,200 points, including 200 points for “moral character and antecedents,” which one has to wonder about. A score of 70% qualified you to be considered for promotion, and then you simply had to hope that an actual vacancy was available.

Much of the second half of the volume constitutes a ready-reference for signaling and codes by flag, lantern, and telegraph, the basics of first aid (“When a ball enters or goes through the muscles or soft parts of the body alone, generally nothing need be done. . . .” and “being under water for four or five minutes is generally fatal”), taking care of one’s general health (“If the soldier comes into camp much exhausted a cup of hot coffee is the best restorative” and “the soldier should remember that association with lewd women may disable him for life”), and — of course — a blank Last Will and Testament, to be filled in at leisure.

This is a useful and eye-opening little volume for anyone with an interest in either social or military history. My own grandfather entered on a career in the service shortly after its publication, too, so there’s a certain amount of time travel involved for me in reading it. Happily, it’s available as a free download online as a PDF file.

Published in: on 4 December 2014 at 6:29 am  Leave a Comment  
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