CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Summer 2010
CRM Journal

Book Review


Class and Race in the Frontier Army: Military Life in the West, 1870-1890

by Kevin Adams. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009; 276 pp., illustrations, maps; cloth, $34.95.

In this work, author Kevin Adams looks at the Frontier Army as a “microcosm of life in American society during the late 19th Century.” Historians such as Robert M. Utley, Don Rickey, and William and Shirley Leckie, and others, have long known of the complex make-up of the Indian Wars Army: part Civil War veteran, part native sons, part immigrant, and after 1866, part former slaves and sons of former slaves. Adams departs somewhat from positions taken by other authors who suggest that the post-Civil War Army was a unique social laboratory that produced not only the first truly professional military in the history of the nation, but also provided new and important opportunities for immigrants and African Americans in the ranks. His subjects are varied, covering both recently immigrated soldiers and soldiers of African American ancestry, as well as touching on the general intellectual and social life of Army officers and related social phenomena.

Other authors have written far more extensively on the daily life of the frontier soldier; however, Adams portrays the overall responsibilities of enlisted men and officers in social and political context, the rise of soldiers as common laborers, and how that labor reinforced upper-class and working-class societal roles. He records their work in construction, surveying, patrols, and the putting down of labor disputes. Interestingly, Adams’ analysis regarding the origin of Frontier Army soldiers finds a significant absence of Southerners in its ranks.

Thought by some Americans to be a questionable experiment, black soldiers became a new source of low-wage warriors. At the same time, becoming a soldier created the first opportunity for African Americans to serve as permanent employees in the Federal Government in large numbers. The legacy of these men speaks to their desire to be seen as both men and citizens. They comprised a proud, geographically distinct group and continue to provide an important historical point of reference for African Americans that endures to this day.

Adams states that the intellectual life of Army officers and their regular access to contemporary newspapers, periodicals, and books, along with self-produced musical recitals and plays, not only entertained—they also re-enforced class distinctions and social structures. He suggests that instead of being on the fringes of American society, officers used the U.S. Mail and Victorian standards of behavior to put themselves squarely in the middle of the Gilded Age. Adams also delves into the scientific, pseudo-scientific, anthropological, and preservationist interests of Army officers on the frontier, and how those pursuits were firmly consistent with the Victorian Era. He concludes that it played a large part in the thinking of the Army brass from Washington, down through departmental offices, to frontier posts and many company commanders. For example, the author considers the peculiar and persistent practice of officers hiring enlisted soldiers as personal servants in spite of Army regulations to the contrary and how leisure time and foodways reinforced class divisions. Quotes used by Adams suggest that black troops may have had fewer champions among their white officers than may have previously been imagined.

Various inequalities and injustices played out in many a small, dusty, out-of-the-way military post across the West and Adams uses substantial research from a wide array of sources to make his argument. While the Frontier Army was operating at significant distances from urban centers, Adams argues that it still reflected the nation it served, and from which it was made up. As a result, in bringing together military and social history specialties in his examination, Adams documents an American Frontier Army that was no more progressive or self-aware than the nation as a whole. Its experiments did not produce sociological results markedly different than those occurring in the rest of American society. Looking at the Frontier Army through the lens of the Gilded Age, Adams investigates a military world where enlisted men were paid wages one half to one third less than housepainters or ditch diggers. Conversely, college-trained officers received compensation at a rate as much as or more than upper middle-class executives in civilian life.

Joining the Army in the era of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, black soldiers served during a time of increasing segregation, racial discrimination, and race-inspired violence. Adams notes that these attitudes and actions were not the only negative tensions at work in the nation and its Army. He cites a growing national awareness of the perceived differences between native-born Americans and immigrants, thus placing the painful history of African American troops in historical context. These multiple realities resulted in scenarios in the frontier military where Victorian gentlemen-officers commanded, trained, and led into combat men whom they hardly knew, and, outside the Army, would likely have had little or no connection with at all.

Turning to the experience of race and ethnicity in the Frontier Army, Adams chronicles the regular and repetitive racial animosity faced by black regular soldiers. Having to deal with the race-based expectations of laziness, ignorance, and ineptitude on one hand, while struggling to take their place in a military world that did not account for the fact that slavery itself made literacy and familiarity with weapons highly unlikely on the other, black soldiers found themselves caught between inopportunity and prejudice.

While all students of U.S. history and the black regular soldier might not agree, Adams posits that the U.S. Army institutionalized segregation in its ranks well before southern states developed social segregation. What is not open for debate are the statistics and quotes used by Adams to make his points about the depth and breadth of the racism faced in the Army by black troops as individuals, and as members of a widely despised group.

In his investigation of the impact of racism in the Army, Adams covers the careers of the handful of black commissioned officers that served in the Frontier Army. Adams repeats charges that black soldiers regularly, and seemingly as a course of habit, received inferior gear, horses, and uniforms from the U.S. Army Quartermaster Department. However, recent reviews of these charges suggests that from 1866 to 1872, most items issued to all troops were Civil War leftovers, and that when newly manufactured gear and uniforms began to emerge in 1874, black troops sometimes received the new items first, not out of any generosity on behalf of the Army, but simply because they were closer to an Army supply line or railhead.

The author then turns his attention to how the military establishment perceived and treated immigrant soldiers, who came to make up a considerable portion of the post-Civil War, Frontier Army. Adams findings suggest that the U.S. military was not nearly so threatened by soldier-immigrants from Germany or Ireland, and may have been too busy to concern itself with religious differences. As he points out in the book, the ethnicity of immigrants was “descriptive, not explanatory,” as it was in the case of black soldiers.

Adams concludes that the Regular Army of the Frontier is little known and less remembered, save by a cadre of historians, enthusiasts, and re-enactors. However, he soberingly suggests that the similarities between the American Indian Wars period and the current military actions taking place today in Iraq and Afghanistan might give us pause before we consign the memories of the past to the “dust-bins” of history.

Adams underscores a connection between soldiering and citizenship that has always existed on some level in the United States, but has been seen through the lens of political thought current at the time. Critics of America’s present military posture overseas allege that today’s enlisted men are largely undereducated, highly urban, ethnic, immigrant, and from lower income levels. The same, Adams points out, can be said of the Frontier Army. “Just like the Indian Wars, today’s wars are too often out of sight, out of mind, with the national conversations about them more akin to a shouting contest,” Adams warns. “To continue without a greater understanding of our past,” he admonishes, “risks making the estranged and isolated army prized by nineteenth century military historians a twenty-first century reality.”

William W. Gwaltney
Denver, Colorado