Brief History of the NCO
America’s NCO corps just didn’t happen. It evolved over the years, tapping ideas and innovations from many different sources.
The first NCOs or relatives of the breed were probably those exceptional legionaries serving Rome’s empire. They commanded 10 soldiers while assisting their commander in handling his 100 men. The legionaries supervised training, performing administrative and logistical support tasks as they arose.
Long after the Roman Empire fell, standing armies of France’s Charles VII contained regiments and companies. Senior NCOs in the 15th Century were called “corporals” or “lance corporals.”
By the first quarter of the 18th century, other nations had copied this organization.
The origin of the NCO in America’s fledgling Continental Army came about through a combination of factors. The American Army blended traditions of the British, French and Prussian armies into a configuration which became a staunch and effective American institution.
The British military system served as a model for our Army. British Pilgrims from the Massachusetts Bay Colony created the first “militias.” In December 1636 they had formed the first three regiments of a permanently organized militia. These units; the north, south, and east regiment, still exist today in the form of the 181st and 182nd Infantry, the 101st Field Artillery, and 101st Engineer Battalion, Massachusetts National Guard. They are the oldest units in the U.S. Army.
America’s first inspector general, Baron Von Steuben, strongly influenced the shaping of the NCO corps in the Continental Army. He instituted the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, commonly called the “Blue Book.” Von Steuben’s opus officially established the structure of the NCO Corps within the American Army.
The Blue Book set down duties and responsibilities for corporals, sergeants, first sergeants, quartermaster sergeants, and sergeants major, effectively encompassing the NCO ranks of that day. The book also established the qualities a soldier must have to serve in demanding positions. For 30 years, the Blue Book served as the American Army’s regulatory bible.
Many changes in the NCO command structure occurred over the years but perhaps none were so momentous as when the Army became an all-volunteer force in1973. The intent was to build a modern Army upon the principles of personnel management, leadership, motivation and training. Two years earlier, in 1971, the Army took steps to ease the transition by establishing the Basic NCO course (BNCOC), the Advanced NCO Course (ANCOC) and the Sergeants Major Course.
Highly crafted training would now continue throughout a soldier’s career, enabling him to hone professional skills while utilizing the latest technological innovations.
Baron Von Steuben would’ve been proud.
Time has not altered the truth of what Baron Von Steuben wrote at Valley Forge in his REGULATIONS FOR THE ORDER AND DISCIPLINE OF THE TROOPS OF THE UNITED STATES. (This book has become known as “Baron Von Steuben’s Blue Book”.)
“The choice of noncommissioned officers is an object of greatest importance. The order and discipline of a Regiment depends so much upon their behavior, that too much care can not be taken in preferring none to that trust but those who by their merit and good conduct are entitled to it. Honesty, Sobriety, and a remarkable attention to every point of duty, with a neatness in their dress are indispensable requisites. A spirit to command respect and obedience from the men, to teach it, are also absolutely necessary. Nor can a sergeant or corporal be said to be qualified who does not write and read in a tolerable manner.
“It being on the noncommissioned officers that the discipline and order of a company in a great measure depend, they cannot be too circumspect in their behavior towards the men, be treating them with mildness, and at the same time obliging every one to do his duty. By avoiding too great familiarity with the men, they will not only gain their love and confidence, but be treated with proper respect; where as by a contrary conduct they forfeit all regard, and their authority becomes despised.
“Each Sergeant and Corporal will be in a particular manner answerable for the squad committed to his care. He must pay particular attention to their conduct in every respect; that they keep themselves and their arms always clean; that they have their effects always ready; and put where they can get at them immediately and even in the dark, without confusion; and on every fine day he must oblige them to air their effects.
“When a man of his squad is warned of duty, he must examine him before he carries him to the parade, obliging him to take all his effects with him, unless when specially ordered to the contrary.
“In teaching the recruits, they must exercise all their patience, by no means abusing them, but treating them with mildness, and not expect too much precision in the first lessons, punishing those only who are willfully negligent.
“They must suppress all quarrels in the company; and where other men fail; must use their authority in confusing the offender.”
BARON VON STEUBEN: Valley Forge, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the troops of the United States – 1778
The year was 1778; yet, although we phrase things differently today, there is little we can add to the doughty Baron’s instructions for Sergeants and Corporals. Thus the Noncommissioned Officer’s traditional role of service to the nation is older than the Nation itself.