This is the first volume of a monumental two-volume study of the U.S. Army officer corps along the southern and western borderlands of the United States from the era of the War of 1812 to the era of the Mexican War. Watson chronicles the army's efforts, as seen from the eyes of army officers on the frontier and not from Washington, to extend and maintain U.S. national sovereignty in the vast frontier regions of the young and rapidly expanding nation. It is not an institutional history but rather a detailed and magnificent study of the relations of the officer corps with the outside world, as they labored under difficult conditions to carry out national diplomacy, to avoid and engage in numerous conflicts, maintain peace, and secure the expansion of U.S. borders. In short, the officer corps was a mediator between national policy and diverse local inhabitants, agents of [End Page 449] national policy along a very dynamic and volatile frontier. Watson ably demonstrates that during the period in question, national security and expansion prevailed as the primary policy initiative and foundation for the behavior of the officer corps, as it encountered numerous obstacles from the foreign powers Britain and Spain, nonstate actors (filibusters, smugglers, pirates), belligerent American frontiersmen, local politicians, native populations, and maroons. Once the European menace had subsided, internal pacification and dispossession of the Indians, in the wake of white encroachment, became the norm; peacekeeping replaced conquest. Beyond a doubt, the author shows that the U.S. Army during the period from 1810 to 1821 was anything but weak and ineffective, and it was thus capable of and quite successful in extending power across the continent.
Two distinct phases of evolution characterized the army officer corps during this period. First, from 1810 to 1820, officers were veterans of the War of 1812 who owed their position to political connections and regularly exhibited sectional loyalties; it was an officer corps noted for its institutional instability, belligerent and energetically aggressive attitudes and policies, and consistent transgression of constitutional subordination to civilian authorities. After 1820, however, as international security concerns greatly lessened along the American frontier, combined with changes in domestic politics and the exit of veteran officers for domestic pursuits, the army officer corps evolved, as it acquired professional cohesion, responsibility, and expertise, and it became strictly subordinate, responsive, and accountable to national civilian authority. After 1820, primarily because of the U.S. Military Academy, the officer corps became insulated from partisan politics and economic interests, which granted substantial autonomy in internal development and administration.
But Watson's study is more than an analysis of the army officer corps; it is also an invaluable, detailed account of the entire southern frontier during the first two decades of American history. From the Texas-Louisiana border, to the Alabama-Florida frontier, to the Missouri Valley and the Upper Mississippi, all of the numerous conflagrations, [End Page 450] events, and colorful people contributing to the story of the volatile, dynamic American borderlands come alive. As such, it is a must-read for any course on the southern borderlands during the early nineteenth century.
From a historiographical perspective, Watson stands with those scholars who see Andrew Jackson—often referred to by the author as the "Tennessee tornado" and the "Tennessee typhoon"—as the instigator, violator, and transgressor. Watson argues that Old Hickory consistently acted contrary to orders from his civilian authorities, usurped constitutional civilian authority, conducted invasions without authorization, upheld sectional interests contrary to national policy, even while arguing that Jackson's actions and policies were in accordance with popular will and also sound national policy. The Madison and Monroe administrations, albeit sympathetic to Jackson's objectives, were negligent in restraining the frontier generals, incapable of extending their authority over them, and seemingly confused as to national direction. But Watson undermines this assessment by consistently acknowledging the unswerving support of Madison and, especially, Monroe, both tacit and outright, for such activities. While Watson sees the...