Prior to the 1890s, the United States had largely avoided involvement in overseas politics and conflicts, as it concentrated on conflict at home and on expansion within its own territories. However, the 1890s saw the start of greater American involvement overseas, and beginning with the invasion of Cuba as a part of the Spanish-American War in 1898, “all subsequent wars of the United States were fought overseas” (Killblane, 2014, n.p.). One result of this increasing involvement in international operations was the realisation that better transportation was required for the Army, and in 1899 this led to the formation of the Army Transportation Service.
The Spanish American War, which saw the invasion of Cuba by the United States, was the first of many American international operations, which began to occur at the end of the nineteenth century. The new interest in overseas involvement was driven, in part, in an increased focus on the formation of an American Empire, to rival that of many of the great powers of Europe. Following the upheaval of the Civil War, the United States was ready to test its new national identity by expanding its interests on a global scale (“Maritime Expansion”, n.d., n.p.). These enterprises included, for example, the Philippine American War 1899-1902, which culminated in American colonial rule in the Philippines – the war which preceded this result required an effective naval capability (“Maritime Expansion”, n.d., n.p.). The proclamation of an Open Door Policy with China in the last years of the decade demonstrated the United States’ increasing involvement not only in international conflict, but also in politics and trade, and these interests also required a stronger maritime presence than had previously been possible (“Maritime Expansion”, n.d., n.p.). The inevitable result of the increased pressure on military transportation capabilities would lead to the formation of the Army Transportation Service.

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Of the above interests, it was primarily the military requirements of the nation which formed the greatest incentive for the formation of the Army Transportation Service: “The concept for an Army operated fleet had its origins with the experiences of the military sealift during the Spanish-American War when U.S. flag commercial shipping was found in part unresponsive to the Army’s needs” (Gibson, 2000, n.p.). During most of the nineteenth-century, with American military operations primarily focused on home territory, the Quartermaster’s department handled army transportation such as wagons, boats and railroads (Killblane, 2014, n.p.). However, with little demand for such services, the army was dependent on commercial shipping for most of its maritime presence – as distinct from the Navy, which operated separately – until on 18 August, 1899, the Army Transportation Service was created by the War Department, under the jurisdiction of the Quartermaster (Killblane, 2014, n.p.). This Service consisted of a fleet of ships under the command of the Army rather than the navy, serving Army interests and dedicated to the transportation of Army troops and resources. The ships were owned by the Army, but were crewed by civilian maritime merchants, and the officers were civilians employed by the Army (Jackson, 2009, n.p.). The service provided the Army with a more specialized service than the Navy was able or willing to offer at the time.

The Army’s increased ability to operate effectively overseas had a corresponding impact on American foreign policy. This is perhaps in part why from the late nineteenth century onwards, Imperialist projects overseas gained greater popular justified by the American public, supported by “strategic, economic, religious, and emotional” sentiments (Stewart, 2009, p. 347). Where military effort has previously been expended either in expanding the western boundaries of the United States or in resolving internal conflicts such as the Civil War, the Army now had the capability to operate alongside the Navy “to support America’s new interests overseas” (Stewart, 2009, p. 347).

Despite the obvious advantages the Army Transportation Service provided for the United States Army at this time, it has not received a great deal of recognition or credit, and its influence has waxed and waned over the ensuing decades. Jackson, for example, describes how the service was “somewhat forgotten and neglected after creation” (Jackson, 2009, n.p.), once the initial urgency of the need for it had passed, despite the continued involvement of the service in supporting the Quartermaster Corps. By the start of World War I, the Army Transportation Service was “weak, and had few serviceable ships” (Jackson, 2009, n.p.), but the need for the service again became apparent as global conflict challenged the Army’s resources and abilities, and the Army Transportation Service was once again expanded (Jackson, 2009, n.p.). Nowadays, the service has evolved into the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, reflecting the continuing need of the Army for distinct and reliable transport both overseas and at home (Killblane, 2014, n.p.). From its humble, semi-civilian roots, the service has become an indispensable component of the Armed Forces.

The Army Transportation Service, despite its many changes of name and format, has continued to exist in spirit in the modern armed forces, but it remains to be seen what its future will look like. As Killblane describes, “The loss of functional Transportation Corps companies creates a greater reliance on civilian contractors and results in slowly civilianizing the logistics function, which was militarized in 1912” (Killblane, 2014, n.p.). With an increasing return to reliance on civilian support, the future of armed forces transportation may well be returning to its roots.

  • Jackson, R. (2009) “Army Ships – The Ghost Fleet.” Retrieved from:
  • Gibson, C. D. (2000). “Ships and Men of the Army Transport Service.” Retrieved from:
  • Killblane, R. (2014). “70 Years of the Transportation Corps.” Retrieved from:
  • “United States Maritime Expansion across the Pacific during the 19th Century” (n.d.). Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State. Retrieved from:
  • Stewart, R. W. (2009). American Military History, Volume 1: The United States Army and the Forging of a Nation, 1775–1917. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army.