Oldest Branches of the U.S. Military

5 Oldest Branches of the U.S. Military

The United States Armed Forces consists of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Air Force. The history of the U.S. military goes hand in hand with the history of the country and dates back to the American Revolution. The Continental Congress established the Continental Army to defend the colonies from the British military and break away from British rule. Immediately after, the Continental Navy and Marine Corps were created to fight the British at sea and on land outside of the colonies.

After the war all three continental forces were disbanded, but Congress decided to establish a permanent military. The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps were followed by the Coast Guard, which started as a service for the Treasury Department. Once the first airplane was invented, the Army established an Aeronautical Division, which eventually became the Air Force. All five branches are still going strong and today, the U.S. has one of the strongest militaries in the world.

5. United States Air Force

Year Established: August 1, 1907 (as a division of the Army); September 18, 1947 (current U.S. Air Force)
Role:  Air, space, and cyberspace warfare
Current Secretary:  Heather Wilson
Total Active Members:  493,315 uniformed personnel; 140,169 civilian personnel
Motto(s):  “Aim High…Fly-Fight-Win”; and “Integrity first, Service before self, Excellence in all we do”
March:  “The U.S. Air Force”


U.S. Air Forcephoto source: Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. Air Forcephoto source: Wikimedia Commons

The United States Air Force is the youngest branch of the U.S. military for obvious reasons – the first successful airplane was not built until late 1903 by the Wright Brothers. The Air Force began as the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Signal Corps on August 1, 1907. Initially, the Aeronautical Division only had kite balloons, but purchased its first airplane from the Wright Brothers in September 1908.

After this, the Aeronautical Division acquired more aircraft and personnel and got to really test its forces for the first time during World War I. In 1926, the Aeronautical Division changed its name to the U.S. Army Air Corps. After the U.S. entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the Air Corps to increase its force to 20,000 planes. The Air Corps proved its prowess during World War II and in 1941 the service changed its name again to the Army Air Forces. Finally, in 1947, the Air Force established itself as an independent branch of the military.


4. United States Coast Guard

Year Established: August 4, 1790 (U.S. Revenue Cutter Service); January 28, 1915 (current U.S. Coast Guard)
Role:  Defense operations; maritime law enforcement; and search & rescue
Current Secretary:  Admiral Karl L. Schultz (commandant)
Total Active Members:  87,569
Motto(s):  “Semper Paratus” (“Always ready”)
March:  “Semper Paratus”


photo source: Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Coast Guardphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

The United States Coast Guard traces its history to August 4, 1790 when Congress authorized Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s proposal to build ten cutters to protect the nation’s revenue. The new service, which was under the control of the Treasury Department, had many names including the Revenue-Marine, before being officially called the Revenue Cutter Service in 1863. One of the earliest jobs of the Revenue Cutters was to suppress piracy and in 1794, the Treasury Department became responsible for maintaining the country’s lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and piers.

Over the years, the Revenue Cutters were given more responsibility, including enforcing maritime laws and helping during conflicts at sea. On January 28, 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service was merged with the Life-Saving Service and the U.S. Coast Guard was formed. The Coast Guard changed again in 1939, when the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which was first established in 1789. Since then, the Coast Guard has been responsible for maintaining America’s lighthouses.


3. United States Marine Corps

Year Established: November 10, 1775 (Continental Marines); July 11, 1798 (current U.S. Marine Corps)
Role:  Amphibious and expeditionary warfare
Current Secretary:  Richard V. Spencer (shared with the Navy)
Total Active Members:  220,500 uniformed personnel; 20,484 civilian personnel
Motto(s):  “Semper Fidelis” (“Always faithful”)
March:  “Semper Fidelis” and “The Marine’s Hymn”


U.S. Marine Corpsphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

United States Marine Corpsphoto source: U.S. Marine Corps

The United States Marine Corps was established on November 10, 1775 to provide extra support to the Continental Navy during the American Revolution. From the beginning, the Marine Corps distinguished itself from the Navy by fighting at sea and on land. The Continental Marines first amphibious battle was at Fort Nassau in the Bahamas. The Marines were led by Captain Samuel Nicholas, who is considered the first Marine commandant.

After American independence was won, Congress disbanded the Continental Navy and the Marines as well. In the following decade, there was increasing conflict at sea and Congress voted to establish a permanent Marine Corps in May 1798. President John Adams signed the bill on July 11, 1798 and the current U.S. Marine Corps was born.


2. United States Navy

Year Established: October 13, 1775 (Continental Navy); March 27, 1794 (current U.S. Navy)
Role:  Naval warfare; power projection; nuclear deference; and sealift
Current Secretary:  Richard V. Spencer
Total Active Members:  424,154 uniformed personnel; 179,293 civilian personnel
Motto(s):  “Semper Fortis” (“Always courageous”); and “Non sibi sed patriae” (“Not for self but for country”)
March:  “Anchors Aweigh”


The United States Navy was established just a few months after the Army on October 13, 1775. The Continental Congress voted to arm two sailing vessels ten carriage guns, as well as swivel guns, and a crew of eighty men. The ships were sent to intercept transports carrying munitions and stores to the British army in America. This was the birth of the Continental Navy, which was needed to push back against the British naval fleet.

After the Revolutionary War, the ships of the Continental Navy were sold and the seaman were let go. However, the 1794 Congress passed the “Act to provide Naval Armament”. The Act authorized Congress to procure and man six frigates. Three of those frigates, USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution, were completed and launched in 1797 – these three ships are considered the beginning of the modern Navy. On 30 April 1798, Congress established the Department of the Navy, to run naval affairs.


1. United States Army

Year Established: June 14, 1775 (Continental Army); June 3, 1784 (current U.S. Army)
Role:  Land warfare
Current Secretary:  Mark Esper
Total Active Members:  1,018,000 uniformed personnel; 330,000 civilian personnel
Motto(s):  “This We’ll Defend”
March:  “The Army Goes Rolling Along”


photo source: Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Armyphoto source: U.S. Army

The United States Army was originally founded as the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, which makes the Army the oldest branch of the U.S. military. The Second Continental Congress established the Army so the original 13 colonies could fight British forces during the American Revolution.

The Continental Army lasted until the end of the Revolutionary War and was replaced by the current U.S. Army on June 3, 1784. Congress initially called this new force the First American Regiment and it consisted of 700 men from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Eight infantry and two artillery companies comprised the regiment. Since then, the Army has participated in every war in the United States as well as both World Wars. Today, the Army has over 1 million active members and Army Reserve personnel.

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