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
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.