Applied Military History: Back to the Basics of Expeditionary Warfare


After more than a decade of expansive stability operations in the Middle East, the U.S. Army is embracing a more expeditionary posture. This shift finds America’s primary land power institution returning to its origins as a more modestly sized, but tactically effective, fighting force. During the final decade of the 18th century and throughout the 19th—with the exception of the Civil War—the Army predominantly operated in small garrisons across expanding frontiers while occasionally massing in distant theaters.

As the Army’s first successful major campaign far beyond home territory, the Northwest Indian War of 1794 set a precedent for the expeditionary warfare the Army is embracing now. In this conflict, a combined arms brigade under Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne, a Revolutionary War veteran, deployed to the Ohio territory to prosecute national interests.

Called the Legion of the United States, America’s first standing Army formed in 1792 to contest British influence and Native American control of the lower Great Lakes region after two previous militia offensives suffered devastating defeats. Under orders from Secretary of War Henry Knox to “make those audacious savages feel our superiority in Arms,” Wayne trained a professional force of approximately 5,000 infantry, dragoons and artillerymen in Pennsylvania.

The Legion then marched west beyond support range, secured extended lines of communication, defeated a confederation of Native American warriors at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and ultimately established American dominance in Ohio. The war ended as an instructive, if nakedly aggrandizing, example of the U.S. Army enabling strategic gains abroad and preceded more than two centuries of foreign campaigns.

Small Forces, Distant Theaters

The Legion’s victory on the Ohio frontier is relevant for today’s paradigm and holds lessons for future campaigns where modestly sized American joint forces will again unite in distant theaters. The Army’s tenets of unified land operations contained in Army Doctrine Publication 3-0: Unified Land Operations offer a modern doctrinal framework that can place its first, and largely forgotten, foreign expedition in a comparable and understandable context. Though separated by hundreds of years and dramatic technological advances, the Northwest Indian War is a valuable case study for modern military leaders when it is assessed against the six tenets of flexibility, integration, lethality, adaptability, depth and synchronization.

The first tenet, flexibility, is defined as “a versatile mix of capabilities, formations, and equipment for conducting operations.” The American Army that invaded the Ohio territory in 1794 embodied this fundamental by adopting a unique combined arms profile. While standard European armies were typically structured with pure regiments, Wayne designed his brigade with combined arms “sublegions” that each comprised two battalions of assault infantry, one rifle battalion of skirmishers, one dragoon troop and one light artillery battery.

Similar to the Army’s current modular brigade combat teams, Wayne created a versatile command that could fight both centralized and decentralized. When put to the test, this flexibility allowed him to defeat hybrid indigenous forces throughout the advance, at the decisive engagement and during subsequent clearing operations.

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