Andrew Jackson, U.S. Army officers, Military history, Frontier, Indian removal
Historians of the antebellum United States Army have long been aware of Samuel J. Watson’s voluminous Rice University dissertation, the origins of both Jackson’s Sword and Peacekeepers and Conquerors, for its prodigious archival base and thoroughness. It is thus gratifying to see Watson’s scholarship now receive a wider audience with the publication of that work in a magisterial two-volume history of the U.S. Army’s officer corps between 1810 and 1846, which now replaces William Skelton’s well-regarded study as the standard work on the United States Army in that time period.1
Although the volumes are published separately, readers should see them as a single unified work, and only then can readers fully comprehend Watson’s historiographical contributions. Furthermore, both volumes refer to each other to such a degree that their division feels unnatural at times—although the combined length by itself provides [End Page 275] ample justification for the separation into two volumes. Regardless, this combined work surpasses the already impressive archival base of Watson’s dissertation, and engages a current and diverse range of historiographical themes involving empire, borderlands, American state formation, and the agency of non-state factors. It also solidifies and expands previous work in older and existing literatures on professionalization, American diplomatic and military history, and the history of the American West.
This first volume focuses on the Army officer corps pre-professional years, when Andrew Jackson commanded the Division of the South and defied his civilian superiors in the service of sectional interests—namely expansion of the southern slave frontier into Florida, even at the cost of risking war with both Spain and Great Britain. Watson highlights Jackson’s dominating personality, aggressiveness, and ruthless desire to assert American domination over both Indian tribes and rival European powers. While Jackson and other like-minded officers proved indifferent to constitutional provisions of civilian control, his ferocious advocacy of expansion had a powerful political constituency. As Watson puts it, “Jackson was the ultimate political general: the erstwhile Tennessee politician saw the white settlers of the Southwest as his true constituency, regardless of national elections, the national legislature, or the national constitution” (Jackson’s Sword, 186).
Indeed, Jackson’s appeal went beyond the frontier regions, as seen in his later political success. Even as he clashed with national authorities such as Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, those same leaders were able to use Jackson’s violent methods as a lever of coercion to establish American sovereignty in contested frontier regions such as Florida. Yet the acquisition of Florida, domestic sectional controversies over slavery extension, and a less adversarial relationship with Great Britain stabilized the American frontier. The American republic then sought a professionalized officer corps to manage relations along its national borders, as opposed to aggressive, impetuous, and even insubordinate commanders such as Jackson. The end of Jackson’s Sword lays the groundwork of volume two of Watson’s study, which chronicles the activities and significance of an officer corps with “greater professional commitment, experience (as much political and diplomatic as military) developed during extended careers, and accountability to civilian authority, tempered in the forge of frustrating, politically complex constabulary operations along the nation’s frontiers” (Jackson’s Sword, vii). [End Page 276]
The second volume closely examines Indian removal, the Second Seminole War, peacekeeping operations on the Canadian and southwestern American frontiers, and the Army officer corps’ preparations for and initial reactions to the Mexican War. In contrast to the impetuous and irresponsible aggressiveness of Jackson and his subordinates on the Florida frontier, Watson finds the professional officer corps to have been responsible and judicious representatives of state authority in the chaotic circumstances of American borderlands. Even when executing such morally dubious policies as...