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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351


Review:                  Marcus Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians.  Little, Brown and Co., 1968.

In Soldiers and Civilians, Marcus Cunliffe suggests that an examination of Americans' military attitudes "may throw unfamiliar light upon its social order and values." (26)  He takes up this task for the formative years of the United States, from 1789 to 1861.  His only thesis seems to be a negative one: that the standard three explanations of American military tendencies--professional (Uptonian), anti-professional/pro-amateur, and anti-militarist ("the United States had no business to engage in war")--are incomplete and less separate than they seem (22).  Cunliffe gives equal time to all three seemingly contradictory views of American military experience, and succeeds in showing that all are only partially correct.  For instance, while the professional view of West Point as a school for regular officers became generally accepted during the first half of the 19th century, Cunliffe points out that the alternate view of West Point as a means to educate militia officers in military fundamentals was just as valid in the American context, not a reactionary attempt to hold back military "progress."

While Cunliffe does a competent job of explaining these three standard views, he is at his best when he moves into less familiar territory.  One of the most interesting sections is on the use of military language and forms within civilian culture, especially the rise of the volunteer companies which played such a prominent role in the early part of the Civil War.  One aspect of this that he could have done more with was the "class warfare" dimension.  The replacement of the old universal militia system with these rather exclusive volunteer companies (almost all in cities) at the same time that ethnic and class tensions are also rampant is probably no coincidence.  Cunliffe is also excellent in his treatment of the "politics of war" in its American version: the intrusion of personal and party considerations into the conduct of war, at its most extreme in the Mexican War.

Cunliffe brings all his evidence to bear on the question of "a Southern military tradition," which he demolishes very convincingly.  This chapter, the best of the book, serves as a kind of mini-thesis--the whole book is not devoted to proving it, but all the evidence leans toward this conclusion so naturally Cunliffe is almost able to make his case in passing.  The arguments for a Southern military tradition exemplify for Cunliffe everything that he feels is misguided about explanations of the American military experience--a partial view based on a few, key unexamined assumptions.  He persuasively argues that all the supposedly Southern traits were either common in the North as well (military schools, for instance), or simply not true (the South did not have a markedly disproportionate share of West Point graduates).  To his credit, he is not content to simply show that no exclusively Southern military tradition existed before the Civil War, but attempts to understand how this misperception was created.  He suggests that all the traits traditionally attributed to Southern chivalry were actually based on an aristocratic culture found throughout the country, but more explicit and dominant in the South.

Despite its lack of a positive goal, Soldiers and Civilians is an original and lively exploration of well-worked ground.  Cunliffe takes a fresh look at old problems, and provides a welcome challenge to long-accepted assumptions.


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