The noncommissioned officer is the corps of enlisted soldiers that provide the necessary leadership to manage the daily operations of the Army and the other branches of the U.S. military. The development of the noncommissioned officer starts modestly in early U.S. history and grows into a professional body of leaders specializing in small unit leadership and as instructors to new and experienced soldiers and officers in schools throughout the military education system.
The history of the noncommissioned officer originates with the founding of the Continental Army of the American colonies in 1775. Unlike the commissioned officer corps of the colonial era, the body of noncommissioned officers did not copy the customs of the English military. Instead, colonial noncommissioned officers borrowed from Prussian, French and some English military traditions. Although the mix created an American military culture, the practices and standards of the noncommissioned officer were not uniformly enforced or formally expressed.
General Friedrich von Steuben wrote the “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States,” referred casually as the “Blue Book,” in 1779. The Blue Book codified the sphere of responsibility of each noncommissioned officer, which at the time included the ranks of corporal, sergeant, first sergeant, quartermaster sergeant and sergeant major. General von Steuben listed the specific military duties of each rank, which served as part of Army regulations for the next three decades.
Abstract of Infantry Tactics
An 1829 manual titled “Abstract of Infantry Tactics” helped further formalize the role of the noncommissioned officer in the military. The publication established a training program for noncommissioned officers to ensure they all had the necessary soldiering skills of the time. In addition, an education accountability chain ensured that noncommissioned officers received needed training. For example, company level officers ensured all noncommissioned officers received proper training. Sergeants major were responsible for teaching sergeants and corporals and new corporals and sergeants were trained by the first sergeant.
The Civil War
The role of the noncommissioned officer gained importance during the battles of the Civil War. Noncommissioned officers led the front lines of fighting units and carried the identifying flag of their respective regiments. Flags helped commanders maintain control and know the locations of fighting units on the field. In addition, employing open battle formations increased the combat role and responsibilities of noncommissioned officers during wars. Improvements in technology during the civil war like the telegraph and the railroad enabled some noncommissioned officers to learn technical skills necessary for military operations and earn higher pay.
By the time World War I erupted in Europe, noncommissioned officer roles and duties were improved and expanded with the “Noncommissioned Officers Manual.” Years of frontier wars had cultivated the noncommissioned officer into a small unit leader. Preparations for deployments to Europe included noncommissioned officers training 3 million soldiers for active duty and 1 million for duty abroad. The start of World War II saw noncommissioned officers assuming a similar role in training troops for duty in Europe for the second time. Since then, noncommissioned officers have been professionalized through NCO academies to uniformly teach the combat and leadership skills noncommissioned officers need.