- Class and Race in the Frontier Army: Military Life in the West, 1870–1890
Kevin Adams seeks to produce what he calls “a sociocultural history that situates members of the frontier army within post-Civil War American society” (p. 4). He examines the roles and status of white officers, and white and black enlisted men, as well as the army’s missions, which he notes, following Francis Paul Prucha, Michael Tate, and others, emphasized “nation-building” and drudgery over combat. He concludes that each group showed significant common characteristics, and that their status had two main sources, eighteenth century tradition and the values of post-Civil War society. Officers, according to Adams, were a well-educated, self-conscious elite. White enlisted men existed somewhere between civilian laborers and chattel slaves, and the condition of black enlisted men reflected the inferior position of African Americans in the post-abolition two-tiered racial system.
Overall, Adams asserts that enlisted men, largely unskilled immigrants, constituted an aggrieved class with an egalitarian outlook. As a result they represented “a counterbalance to the frenzy brought by Euro-American expansion into the trans-Mississippi West,…a minor, but real, historical alternative to the well-known excesses of western settlement” (p. 107). As a whole, he contends, the army represented a microcosm of the national movement toward a permanent class-based society. He supports this view with anecdotes culled from four depositories and the books of other historians. Adams barely touched the massive documentation in the [End Page 1342] National Archives, including the court martial records that might have suggested that an egalitarian spirit did not exactly pervade the barracks. His reading of the Army and Navy Journal seems to have been confined to a handful of issues available in his university library.
Adams’s efforts to fit his subject into his framework are not convincing. For example, to illustrate the focus of the officer class on social matters outside the profession of soldiering, he produces the obituary of General George Crook in the Army and Navy Journal, which emphasized Crook’s extracurricular interests and attainments to the exclusion of his combat record and tactical innovations. To Adams this focus shows that the military audience valued the nonprofessional side of Crook’s life. To others this might mean that the paper’s readers already knew of Crook’s campaign successes and failures and his use of mules and Indian scouts in dogged pursuit.
When he tries to extend his reach to encompass the role of gender, Adams asks whether soldiers’ interest in prostitutes represented an effort to “compensate for attacks on their masculinity elsewhere in their lives,” i.e. the occasional requirement for a few to do domestic (women’s) work for officers. Of course, the short answer is “no.” Men who break the monotony with stag dances do not need complicated psycho- social reasons to visit whores. Soldiering may have been, as he says, “a masculine form of gendered oppression,” reflecting “the gendered implications of increasing social stratification in the late nineteenth century,” but Roman soldiers on the Danubian frontier two thousand years ago went whoring too. So did my generation of soldiers in Vietnam. Not for nothing is prostitution known as the oldest profession.
Adams appears to think he has discovered something new and telling about the Army. It was indeed a stratified organization in which officers dominated. This is well known. It is equally well known that the rigid caste structure of a standing army is timeless and not tied to the Gilded Age or any particular period. Race relations in post-Civil War America did go through a distinctive evolution, unique to the period, but that is generally familiar as well. Overall, this book adds little to our understanding of the frontier army or the post-Civil War period in American history.