Friday, September 23, 2011

HNet Review: Were Southern Military Academies Making Southerners Into Yankees?

Military Education and the Emerging Middle Class in the Old South, Jennifer R. Green, Cambridge University Press, 2008. Illustrations. xiii + 300 pp. $80.00.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Thomas Perry (Purdue University), Published on H-Education (July, 2011)

In her 2008 book, Military Education and the Emerging Middle Class in the Old South, Jennifer R. Green seeks to fill a gap in the historiography of middle-class formation in the antebellum United States, as well as in the history of education. Compiling demographic data on over one thousand cadets who attended state or private institutions in the Old South during the 1840s and 1850s, Green contends that military education is one location to view the development of the middle class in regional and national terms. Families from the middle ranks of southern society--largely nonmanual, nonagricultural professionals--“mirrored their northern counterparts in leveraging education to develop professional occupations” (p. 2).

Taking advantage of funding opportunities and a nonclassical curriculum, southern, middle-class families sent their sons to such academies as the Virginia Military Institute, the South Carolina Military Academy, and the Kentucky Military Institute, among others, to attain an education with the hope that it could promote both social stability and social mobility. Many cadets, she claims, adopted northern, middle-class values stressing industry, morality, and self-regulation, yet at the same time their vision of manhood retained some southern variations. The emerging middle class in the South never threatened the southern elite’s dominance of the region, she insists, which was based on slave ownership and landholdings. Instead, members of the middling rank hoped to separate themselves “from the yeomanry, plain folk, and any developing urban working class” (p. 181). The benefits of a military education, however, coupled with alumni networks and the increased professionalization of certain occupations, does suggest that the standards for mobility and social status were changing during these years.

Green argues that the middle class in the antebellum United States did not possess a class consciousness. Rather, they were a class “in itself,” whose members realized they held similar economic, occupational, and behavioral characteristics with a larger group of people but lacked a shared sense of identity. She agrees with much of Jonathan Daniel Wells’s book, The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 1800-1861 (2004) but she furthers his analysis by “defining the group more specifically” to investigate what social mobility, status, education, and professionalism meant to the middling ranks of southern society (p. 20).

Although one-third of military cadets’ fathers labored in agriculture, most worked in professional occupations--“they were attorneys, physicians, and ministers, in order of frequency”--and looked to military education to instill discipline and useful knowledge in their sons to solidify or enhance their social status (p. 25). They were successful, Green asserts, as matriculates from the academies were more prevalent in professional occupations than their fathers.

The book review is continued at the following link. Text Source: HNet/HCivilWar

CWL: With an $80 price tag, readers may wish to go to their local library and request it through inter-library loan.

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