Colonel Arthur Wagner – a man ahead of his time
In the West Point class of 1875, Arthur Wagner was a rather unremarkable graduate – number 40 out of 43. In fact, he was probably better known to the faculty there for his misbehavior than for his academics. Based on his later academic and military successes, it is probably safe to state that Cadet Wagner matured late.
Nevertheless, once commissioned, he served with the 6th Infantry for six years, spending much of his time on the American frontier, participating in the Indian wars.
However, his destiny was the classroom, not the frontier. After campaigns in California, Colorado, Montana, Dakota, Colorado and Utah, he served briefly at Louisiana State University as the chair of Military Science and Tactics and then spent four years teaching at East Florida Seminary where he wrote a prize-winning essay. This early success would become the hallmark of his future military career. He finally rejoined his regiment in 1885 at Fort Douglas, Utah, but not for long.
A year later, the regiment moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and Wagner landed once again at an academic institution: the fledgling Infantry and Cavalry School, precursor of Command and General Staff College, or CGSC, at Fort Leavenworth. He would spend more than a decade there as an assistant instructor in the Department of Military Art, but he would not leave the school as he found it. Wagner and a few other progressive young officers would transform the school into a respected military educational institution whose graduates proudly called themselves “Leavenworth men.”
1st Lt. Wagner recognized a need for texts on the art and science of war that drew upon the American experience, rather than solely those written from a European perspective. Specifically, he wanted to provide lessons from the American Civil War. But these texts didn’t exist. Additionally, Wagner felt the school should be teaching “applied” military history – using historical examples to prompt students to think critically about alternative military responses.
Mindful of his own struggles at the military academy, he strove for realism in the curriculum, replacing rote memorization with wargames, map maneuvers, and tactical rides heavily infused with historical examples. When he couldn’t find acceptable texts on tactics, he wrote them.
Wagner’s most famous works were “The Service of Security and Information” (1893) and “Organization and Tactics” (1895). The first texts reflecting the American experience, these became standard reading throughout the Army school system for decades.
Written eight years after the establishment of the Military Information Division, or MID, his first book stressed the importance of intelligence-gathering to the commander. Likewise, “Tactics” made the argument for an intelligence officer on the staff of every major field headquarters.
Wagner believed strongly in the connection between security and intelligence, writing in “The Service of Security and Information”: “Information in regard to the enemy is the indispensable basis of all military plans, and nothing but faulty dispositions for the security of an army can be expected if such information is lacking.”
His strong belief in the power of history to teach was evident when he wrote: “If an officer would prepare himself to be of service to his country, he must attentively consider the recorded experience of those who have learned war from the actual reality, and must accumulate by reading and reflection a fund of military knowledge based upon the experience of others.”
In 1897, Maj. Wagner became the chief of the MID. There he greatly increased the collection of information on Cuba, the Philippines and Spain, in anticipation for war with Spain. In 1898 he got to put his long-held beliefs to the test, setting up a bureau of information in the field.
By this time a lieutenant colonel, Wagner was sent to Cuba to establish the first field intelligence organization since the Civil War. In his hunger for more information, he sponsored a number of clandestine missions to gather intelligence on Spain. He commissioned Lt. Andrew Rowan to take a message to General Calixto Garcia deep inside Cuba to learn about the Spanish defenses, a mission that has gained notoriety in its own accord.
After the war ended, Col. Wagner eventually ended up back at Fort Leavenworth as the assistant commandant of CGSC. However, there was a new Army War College in Washington, D.C., and they needed him more. He became the assistant director of the Army War College in 1904. Wagner died from tuberculosis on June 17, 1905, at the age of 52. Ironically, it was the same day that his much-deserved promotion to brigadier general was being processed.
Wagner was a teacher, a visionary, a writer, a Soldier and a leader. His contributions to the Military Intelligence Corps and the military education system, which have endured long past his tragically short lifetime, have made him one of the pioneers of Military Intelligence. He was, indeed, a man ahead of his time.