"I immediately sent Ord a copy of Rosecran's dispatch and ordered him to be in readiness to attack the moment he heard the sound of the guns..." (Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Chapter 28). Often, when we hear a statement made by a famous military leader we attribute that person as being the original source. Successful military leaders are students of history. They learn and apply the lessons of those who have gone before with expectations of repeating successes and avoiding failures. Often this is done without specific realization. Patton referred to this as application of subconscious memory.

In Pecis Politique et Militaire de la Campaigne of 1815, Baron de Jomin stated, "As a general rule, the maxim of marching to the sound of the guns is a wise one." In the Napoleonic and American Civil Wars commanders on both sides are recording as having used variations of this adage. Napoleon ordered a subordinate to "March to the sound of the cannon." In support of Wellington, Prussian Marshall Blucher "marched to the sound of the guns." At the Little Big Horn, Captain Weir asked Benteen for permission to ride to the sound of the guns. In the Hollywood motion picture "They Died With Their Boots On" Errol Flynn frequently used this admonition to portray Custer as a warrior unafraid of combat, determined to bring the fight to the enemy. Although a grossly inaccurate film, it gave new life to the phrase. Whether it be march or ride, cannon or guns, documentation exisits that the maxim was also used by French General Ney, Confederate Generals Forrest and Stuart, and Union Generals Sheridan and Sherman.

The statement was generated out of necessity. During the 18th and 19th centuries severe limitations for field intelligence and observation existed. Speed of communication was dependent on the swiftness of the horse. The use of field glasses was limited to line of sight. Terrain features and vegetation often limited that line to a few hundred feet. Once the battle began, smoke from cannon and muskets (later followed by rifles) restricted observation even further. A battle in progress was not seen, it was heard. The outcome of battles was dependent upon which sides' reinforcements could arrive on scene the fastest and most prepared. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, like a beacon in the night, the combined sound of gunfire would guide in the reinforcements.

Since then, the art of war has incorporated significant changes. The invention of smokeless gunpowder in the 1890s removed the haze over the battlefield. Aerial and satellite observation platforms provide assessments of enemy and allied troop movements far more effectively than any horse cavalry unit could achieve. Laser-guided projectiles and bombs can hit targets with total precision. Today's rate and accuracy of a single infantryman's rifle far that of an entire company in the past.

Some maxims have served their time and now belong to history. Israel Putnam's application of "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes" was very useful at Breed's Hill. Today it is worthy of remembrance, but of no use on the battlefield. Other old saws like "Ride to the sound of the guns" have merit when adapted to the present.

One such worthy remembering was for colonial patriots responding to the sound of the guns in 1775. As word spread throughout New England of shots fired at Lexington and Concord, citizens picked up their muskets and headed to Boston. They were not just responding to the report of gunfire. They were answering the Battle Cry of Freedom. In the now famous patriotic poem "Concord Hymn," Emerson stated "Here once the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard around the world." The "shot heard around the world" echoes to this day. It has been heard on all continents. Every generation of Americans have responded to that shot, and those that followed.

Just as the history of our nation has evolved, as has the application to "Ride to the sound of the guns." Washington's forces were able to defeat a well-trained army with what started out as an untrained citizen military. Eventually, under strong and experienced leadership that also needed time to develop, American warriors proved themselves to be adaptable and able to achieve victory. The "eventually" lasted through six years and three distinctly difference phases, each more bloody than the one it succeeded.

Perhaps the best example of the application of an adapted "Ride to the sound of the guns" is World War II. Once again, our nation was responding to the sound of gunfire. This time it was the sound of guns and bombs in the Pacific, in North Africa, and in Europe. Unfortunately, neither the American military nor industry entered this war in a fully prepared state. Isolationism, military deterioration since World War I, and a false sense of security through promises of peace had weakened our capabilities. Even Britain had allowed itself to become accepting of Chamberlain's "Peace in our time." It was Churchill, not Chamberlain, who realized that true peace is not achieved by making treaties with an untrustworthy adversary, but rather with a strong military capable and willing to engage themselves on a field of battle.

Although engaged in World War II, the United States was able to make use of time and distance to focus itself into a full war effort. It was able to call upon its citizens to ride to the sound of the guns and its industrial might to answer the call to duty. One person who had no doubt of final American victory was Japanese Admiral Yamamoto. He followed his attack on Pearl Harbor with the statement, "I fear all we have done is to awaken the Sleeping Giant and leave him with a terrible resolve." Yamamoto reflected that the American infrastructure was so strong that his nation could only achieve six months of victories, then defeat was inevitable. The following years validated Yamamoto's assessment.

Prior to World War II, Will Rogers stated, "The United States is the only nation that waits until it is in a war to prepare for it." In today's environment, Will Rogers' assessment of national defense should no longer be applied. Conflicts are as much of our future as they are of the past. In his final speech at West Point, MacArthur reminded us of the words of Plato, "Only the dead have seen the end of war." What has changed since the days of Plato and MacArthur is the importance of immediate readiness.

Just as we have learned from our history, so have our adversaries. Never in the last century has the United States engaged in a major conflict like the one that proceeded it. There is no major reason to believe that the next sustained conflict with be like Middle-East ground operations. The speed of intercontinental missiles quickly bridges the span of two oceans; the horror of terrorism is already here; and attacks within cyberspace can be more damaging to our nation's infrastructure than any physical attack yet experienced.

We have entered the age of come-as-you-are battles. This requires our troops having necessary equipment that is functional, their being tactically and technically proficient, and possessing the spirit to fight and achieve victory. Our troops must be able to trust themselves and their leaders. Commands must have unit strengths up while possessing soldiers who are qualified in their specialties, knowledgeable of specific responsibilities, experienced in working with their assigned unit, able to defend themselves in a potential chemical/biological environment, be physically fit, and mentally strong enough to handle the emotions associated with war. Just as tactics and tools of warfare have become more complex, so are the requirements of those who fight the battles. Current adaptation of "Riding to the sound of the guns" means being always prepared to respond on time and on target without advance notice. In a much more technically proficient way, the same expectation that was placed on the minutemen of 1775 is being placed on us today.

©2021 Wes Martin