- Jackson’s Sword: The Army Officer Corps on the American Frontier, 1810–1821 by Samuel J. Watson
This book, the first of two volumes, is a challenging study of professionalization, state-formation, and civil-military relations; its specific subject matter is the officer corps of the American army in the febrile atmosphere of the young republic’s frontier zones. The initial volume, which focuses on the years 1810 to 1821, draws on detailed archival research, an impressive mastery of the secondary literature, and on the application of theoretical models familiar from political science and sociology (in particular, Weberian principles of bureaucracy). Watson’s central thesis is that an officer corps initially characterized by a politically partisan military adventurism matured into a professional body, mindful of its subordination to civil authority and socialized primarily through the growing influence of West Point, as nationalist and statist. As this case unfolds, Watson places the development of the officer corps into the wider context of national expansion, broadly arguing that the central state was stronger during this period than is often allowed but noting carefully the friction that the rise of libertarian Jacksonian democracy sometimes generated within an officer corps that became increasingly “Whiggish.”
The bulk of the book is devoted to the contest for Florida and hegemony in the Mexican Gulf region. Against the backdrop of the collapse of Spanish imperial authority and the reluctance of Britain after 1815 to risk another conflict with the United States, opportunities existed for independent agents—a motley collection of freebooters, filibusters (some of them ex-army officers), and corsairs—to profit through smuggling, piracy, and land grabs in the borderlands of the young republic and the old empires. At the same time, other people outside the state apparatus—Native Americans such as the Seminoles and their Maroon (fugitive slave) allies—resisted American aggression. Watson skillfully traces the often ambivalent relationship between army officers and these groups, whom the military either coerced, protected, or restrained, depending on the circumstances. Inevitably, the shadow of President Jackson looms large in this narrative, but the author is careful, while acknowledging Jackson’s particular significance, to note that his broad [End Page 272] views concerning territorial expansion and white supremacy were widely reflected in civil society and national politics. In some ways, Jackson represents the extreme type of the military adventurer characteristic of the office corps before 1820—a partisan slave-holding southerner, disdainful of civil authority and embodying contemporary masculine ideals of physical courage and prowess.
Such well-known and well-documented figures are not allowed to dominate the narrative. The author makes good use of quantitative data, such as retirement rates, to draw wider conclusions about the officer corps as a whole. When he turns his attention to the consolidation of American hegemony on the (then) western frontier (modern Illinois and Wisconsin) of the 1820s, he describes a more dutiful (and cerebral) officer corps in action, effectively fulfilling its constabulary role. By this stage, West Point (treated in some detail in the final chapter) was molding a professional officer corps, becoming a broader, if often overlooked, proponent of statism. Watson stresses, among other things, the widespread contribution of military specialists to programs of internal improvement, such as land surveying and river and harbor clearance.
Overall, Watson makes a persuasive case for the evolution of the officer corps, although he leaves a few lingering questions—for example, if, by the 1820s, West Point had become an effective school of nationalism, why did so many of its southern graduates choose section over nation in 1861? The second volume, which promises to take the story into the 1830s, should be eagerly anticipated by historians of the early republic.