- A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington’s Army
The American Revolution has re-emerged as an area of vital scholarly interest in recent years, much of the best work coming from historians who have focused their research on the War for Independence. This new volume by Caroline Cox aptly fits this description. The author tackles certain vital issues relating to the Continental army, including the make-up and values of the common soldiery and officer corps; military justice and punishment; diseases and the practice of military medicine; death and burial of fallen troops; and rules and realities relating to prisoners of war.
Cox begins her investigation by discussing what she calls "the unthinking decision to divide the army into officers who were gentlemen and soldiers who were not" (p. 2). As such, the make-up of the Continental army reflected class attitudes in the colonies as well as the social composition of [End Page 230] European armies. The author then relates this basic social-economic split to each of the topics that form the core of her analysis. She discusses the fixation of officers on personal honor, even as soldiers dealt with far more fundamental matters of survival. She finds major differences in punishments meted out to soldiers (everything from floggings to running the gauntlet and, in extreme situations, execution) as compared to officers (from public or private reprimands to dismissal from the service). The same pattern held true in regard to the army's health, with ranking medical officers spending as much time haggling over who was in charge of what as actually providing treatment for the sick and wounded. In the delivery of health care, concludes Cox, "the needs of officers always took priority over those of soldiers" (p. 121). In matters of death and burial, the officers once again mattered the most. Rarely did anyone record the names of soldiers who died from some horrible disease or who lost their lives in battle. Officers, on the other hand, invariably represented "the named" among "the war dead" (p. 170) because society viewed them as legitimate exemplars of self-sacrifice. Whenever possible, fallen officers received decent, Christian burials. In the handling of prisoners, the officers again benefited from their higher status, both in living conditions while incarcerated and in exchange agreements. Because of their keen sense of gentlemanly honor, officers rarely sought to escape or break their parole arrangements. As for captured patriot soldiers, who invariably suffered in fetid circumstances (one need only to think of the British prison ship Jersey), they too had to consider whether "the honorable thing to do was to choose death rather than serve with the British" (p. 235). Most accepted death as the least obnoxious alternative, one of many "small steps" taken by lower status persons in the service "to protect and defend a more refined sense of dignity and honor than the world would allow them" (p. 249).
Cox has written a thoughtful, challenging book that reckons with major social assumptions and cultural constructions as they applied to Continental forces in Revolutionary America. Although few scholars will accept all of her findings, none should deny this book's significance. A Proper Sense of Honor represents a valuable addition to our ever expanding comprehension of the realities of fighting, as well as of those who fought, for independence during the American Revolution.