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  • Military Education and the Emerging Middle Class in the Old South
  • Tom Downey (bio)

History of military academies, education, Middle class, South

Military Education and the Emerging Middle Class in the Old South. By Jennifer R. Green. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. 300, Cloth, $84.00.)

As the title of her book suggests, Jennifer Green argues that military education was a prime contributor toward the creation and expansion of [End Page 296] the middle class in the antebellum South. To her credit, Green spends considerable time and care in defining the often-nebulous term "middle class," one that, until quite recently, historians seldom associated with inhabitants of the Old South. Well informed by existing scholarship on her subject, both North and South, Green defines the southern middle class as primarily non-elite, urban-dwelling professionals, with little or no direct economic interest in the agricultural world of planters and yeomen. Despite sharing similar occupations and attitudes with their more frequently studied counterparts in the North, the southern middle class remained a distinct social and cultural entity. Class formation, Green demonstrates, "proceeded in similar—though not identical—ways in the North and South" (7). In the process, it created an alternative to elite southern values, but not a challenge to them.

Military education appealed to middle-class southerners on a number of levels. Its strong emphasis on scientific and vocational education in lieu of the classics gave the sons of the middle class (or of those aspiring to it) a solid foundation for careers as teachers, engineers, physicians, ministers, or lawyers. This focus on math and science precluded a need for an extensive, and expensive, preparatory education in Greek and Latin. Military schools increased access to formal, higher education for white southerners, mirroring the national expansion of educational opportunities, but on a smaller scale than in the North. Some military schools were state funded and offered scholarships and aid that assisted non-elite young men in gaining a higher education and access to a profession as well. Most military schools were private institutions, and fees could burden the limited resources of many middle-class families. The value they placed on education, however, led many to make the sacrifice. Graduates, furthermore, carried their progressive attitudes toward education into broader southern society and became leading voices for the promotion of progress in the South.

Discipline at military schools was stricter than at the more elite colleges and universities. Middle-class attendees were instilled with an ethic of self-regulation that was similar to the North's in many respects, but adapted to southern values of hierarchy and mastery. This middle-class concept of southern honor adhered to, yet simultaneously modified, traditional notions of honor in the region. Less emphasis was placed on the rugged manhood, dueling, and conspicuous materialism of southern elites. Instead, self-regulation, self-discipline, and a "restrained manhood" valued by middle-class culture was encouraged and valued. These same traits would later prove advantageous to graduates in their ensuing [End Page 297] professional careers. Religiosity, temperance, frugality, and industry became watchwords of the middle class more than elite southerners, who frequently distained labor and valued mastery of others over a mastery of oneself. However, these non-elite southerners did not see themselves as in competition with planters and slaveholders. Rather, they created "an alternate, not subversive, ideal" (106). Cadets at southern military academies could attain social standing among their male peers through education, character, and professionalism without possessing plantations and slaves. Their concept of honor crystallized from "their integration of the military school environment, national values, and southern culture" (129).

Green sees southern society as much more fluid than traditional scholars have. Upward mobility was not confined only to those who acquired land and slaves but to those who entered professions as well. Military education thereby became a path for social mobility. To middle-class southerners, Green argues that status was more important than wealth. Their concentration in professions helped aid class identification by defining class on its own terms and image. Status became redefined into professional, nonagricultural occupations. Middle-class southerners relied on income from their occupations rather than on the exploitation of land...


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pp. 296-299
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