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Long Gray Lines
The Southern Military School Tradition, 1839-1915
By Rod Andrew Jr.
University of North Carolina Press
Copyright © 2001 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
In the late nineteenth century the American South witnessed an explosion in the number of military colleges in the region. From Virginia to Texas ex-Confederate states took advantage of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 to establish agricultural and mechanical (A&M) colleges that aimed to offer an inexpensive and practical education for the South's young men. Unlike most northern land-grant colleges, southern schools went far beyond the Morrill Act's requirement that these schools offer some instruction in military tactics. Instead, southern colleges organized themselves on a military basis much like West Point, Annapolis, Virginia Military Institute (VMI), and the Citadel, requiring their male students to be habitually in uniform, join a corps of cadets, and subject themselves to constant military discipline. Meanwhile, antebellum southern military schools such as the Citadel and VMI reopened after the war and continued their traditions of military education; southern military preparatory schools became fashionable in the 1880s and 1890s; and black colleges founded under the Morrill Act of 1890 also adopted military education. The South's postbellum preoccupation with military education was more than a passing fad. It had its roots in the antebellum era and was an expression of southern culture, educational beliefs, and political ideology.
Much of what little study there has been on southern military education has addressed the concept of a distinctive southern military tradition. The idea of a southern military tradition is a prominent but not universally accepted theme in the historiography of the South. Some historians claim that due to geography, frontier conditions, incessant warfare, slavery, and cultural notions of honor, the South developed into a remarkably militaristic society, fond of military display, preoccupied with war and notions of martial glory, and holding up military service and military training as honorable activities for males.
John Hope Franklin attributed the antebellum South's fascination with military schools to this military tradition and to the South's growing defensiveness and pugnacity as it perceived a growing threat to the institution of slavery. Other historians, such as Marcus Cunliffe and Don Higginbotham, have since denied that the antebellum South was a uniquely militaristic society, and they have pointed out that, at least initially, the military college was a northern innovation. They even deny Franklin's assertion that military schools were very popular in the South before 1861. The debate over the distinctiveness of southern militarism often bogs down in statistical comparisons of how many southerners and northerners attended West Point, sectional representation within the officer corps, the actual effectiveness of local militias, and similar issues. Confusion over the definition of militarism also muddles the debate. Some expand the definition to include the pervasiveness of violence in ordinary civil life, including high rates of violent crime. The issue may become more complex with the introduction of the concept of paramilitarism, referring to the protracted campaign of organized violence by white southerners against blacks and white Republicans during Reconstruction.
In this work, then, I seek to reinterpret the current historiography in several ways. I define a military tradition as a society's attitude toward its military past, its military institutions, and the latter's relationship with the society's other cultural and political traditions. I also employ a more precise definition of the term militarism, emphasizing that southerners subscribed to a brand of militarism that expressed less interest in policies of "aggressive military preparedness" than in the "exaltation of military ideals and virtues." I argue that southerners had a remarkable tendency to reconcile militarism with republicanism; indeed, they differed from many northerners in that they saw little contradiction between those two traditions. Particularly after the Civil War, the South's Confederate past and the powerful appeal of the Lost Cause made southerners apt to equate military service and martial valor with broader cultural notions of honor, patriotism, civic duty, and virtue. Neither the southern land-grant schools of the late nineteenth century nor, for the most part, their state-supported predecessors in the antebellum era held the training of professional military officers to be their primary purpose. Rather, believing that the benefits of military training in the education of the young were "moral, mental, and physical" and "valuable to the citizen as to the soldier," southern educators enthusiastically embraced it as an ideal way to instill the traits of manly bearing, courage, loyalty, patriotism, and morally correct behavior in the character of future engineers, farmers, teachers, and attorneys. While suspicion of the military and pockets of pacifism survived in the North, there was practically no dissent in the South against the idea that military discipline developed positive character traits in young men.
Additionally, in this work I seek to shift the discussion of southern militarism from the antebellum to the postwar period, when celebrations of Confederate valor reinforced perceived links between martial and moral virtue. I aim also to reinterpret the Lost Cause itself, arguing that its most compelling and unchallenged element was the notion that soldierly virtues were the marks of an honorable man and a worthy citizen. The chapters on military school rebellions, black military schools, and the Spanish-American War reinforce the central thesis that southerners equated military virtue with civic virtue and agreed that a good soldier was by definition a good citizen.
Another point I make in this work is that the southern military tradition combined elements of militarism and liberalism. To John Hope Franklin the South's militarism was evidence of its growing distinctiveness, if not its open antagonism to dominant national trends. Franklin was writing in the 1950s, and his portrayal of a "militant" South stubbornly resisting efforts toward racial equality corresponded to contemporary events. This work does not seek to challenge fundamentally the notion of southern distinctiveness. Militarism did begin to distinguish the South from the rest of the nation in the mid-nineteenth century. I believe the difference was noticeable by the 1840s and perhaps even widened after the Civil War. A militaristic South, however, did not necessarily mean an isolated or backward South. Southern military schools of the nineteenth century could not survive simply by promoting ideals of hierarchy, rigid discipline, and blind obedience without important concessions to the larger society's concern with individual autonomy and social equality (among white males). They not only accommodated but in several ways drew inspiration from the central tenets of republicanism.
American republicanism of the mid-nineteenth century emphasized political equality for white men, insisted on a rough social equality and equality of opportunity, valued personal behavior that was at least outwardly moral, and stressed valor and self-reliance. Many Americans, particularly southerners, also saw a republic as a society in which a white man's willingness to fight for his personal autonomy and in defense of his community or nation was a badge of manhood and, therefore, of citizenship. The ideal republican citizen, then, was self-reliant, outwardly moral, mindful of his rights and civic responsibilities, and most importantly, eager and capable of bearing arms in self-defense or for the public good.
Politically, military school leaders vied for state financial support by emphasizing the egalitarian nature of their institutions and pointing to the large number of "poor boys" whom they provided with the opportunity for a useful education. Many Americans, in fact, particularly those with military experience or acquaintance with military education, saw the military as an inherently democratic and egalitarian institution. Military rank and authority rest on meritmerit based on ability, length of service, and education, not on birth or wealth. Likewise, authority within the corps of cadets rested on class rank and standing, not socioeconomic status, as was the case in many antebellum student bodies. Also, military schools sought to eliminate social distinctions based on dress by requiring uniforms, usually provided affordably by the school.
The state-supported military schools deliberately sought to portray themselves as democratic institutions by selecting their students from a cross-section of the white population. Tuition was usually fairly low, and the student body of most schools included a large proportion of indigent youth that paid little or no tuition at all. Southern military schools, then, were not isolated islands of militarism lost in a stream of democratic and republican ideals. They were part of the larger current of American republicanism. And they showed that American militarism and republicanism could and did coexist; each was not always fundamentally antagonistic to the other.
There were, however, points of conflict. Militarism, by any definition, insists on obedience and respect for lawful authority. But the American military traditionespecially the southern versionincluded a heritage of individualism, personal autonomy, and rebellion against authority. The mythical Revolutionary, as well as Confederate, soldier was a hero who had taken up arms not to enforce obedience but to assert personal autonomy and reject the illegitimate claims of established authority. The American heritage of rebellion against tyranny, often expressed in military terms, created serious problems for southern colleges that relied on military discipline and that thrived on the military tradition. Specifically, these schools were prone to frequent disturbances known as student walkouts, or strikes. Whenever the cadets began to feel that the discipline was becoming too irksome or arbitrary, there was the danger of rebellion by an entire class or student body. Frequently the students left campus en masse, causing severe crises for the colleges involved. College administrators responded, on one hand, by forcefully reasserting their authority but also, on the other, by making some concessions to democratic ideals of self-government. These concessions included relaxing some regulations, allowing limited student government, or instituting appeals processes for cadets charged with disciplinary offenses.
By 1860 Southerners had accepted military schools as a legitimate feature of the educational landscape. For many, military education seemed to solve the problem of discipline. The lawlessness and violence of southern society, acknowledged by contemporaries and historians alike, may have made southerners particularly susceptible to the argument that military training engendered submission to lawful authority. It was the conventional wisdom of the day that southern youth were rowdy, undisciplined, and riotouslacking self-control and respect for law and order. As one southern father acknowledged just before sending his son to Alden Partridge's private military academy in Vermont, youth were extremely liable to falling into "misguided behavior," but especially "those bred under a Southern Sun."
The periodic student rebellions in military schools were as disturbing as the ones that occurred in nonmilitary colleges. But rather than make southerners doubt the efficacy of military education, they often tended to reinforce the belief of many that what was needed in education of the young was more rigid discipline. Many educators even insisted that the very safety of the republic depended on the inculcation of discipline. Supporters of military schools worried that unchecked youthful license could undermine the respect for law on which the blessings of liberty depended.
Military schools seemed even more important in the mid- to late 1850s, as southerners anticipated the need for trained men to resist the mounting threat to slavery and the personal autonomy of white men. The trend of state-supported military schools had already begun to spread from Virginia and South Carolina to other states by 1850, but the external threat to slavery provided further justification for the establishment of dozens of military schools with partial or full state support. Military readiness thus appeared by 1860 as an additional justification for military education.
It was after the Civil War, however, that military discipline and martial virtues stood tallest in southern colleges. One factor was the wording of the Morrill Act, which specified the inclusion of instruction in military tactics in the curriculum of land-grant schools. But while northern and western colleges often managed to meet this requirement in a halfhearted way by instituting a few drills per week, the southern white land-grant colleges drew upon the antebellum traditions of VMI and the Citadel, as well as the powerful cultural icon of the Confederate soldier. The legend of the Lost Cause and the virtuous Confederate citizen-warrior provided energy, vitality, and legitimacy for southern military education. All over the South, cadets in gray marched in Confederate Memorial Day celebrations, fired their muskets over Confederate cemeteries, and escorted old veterans to podiums, where the latter preached to them the values of duty, sacrifice, piety, and moral courage. The cadets themselves were indeed part of the pageantry and symbolism of the Lost Cause. To many southerners they symbolized the noble past and hopeful future of the South, thrilling crowds with their military precision and martial display.
Several land-grant schools for African Americans, meanwhile, as well as Hampton and Talladega, struggled to create their own military traditions. Their military programs faced formidable obstacles in the period between Reconstruction and World War Ia relative lack of trained black ex-military officers to serve on the faculty, limited opportunities in the military for young graduates, and the reluctance of white southerners to allow young black men to drill and train with rifles. Their ordeal illustrates how closely Americans a century ago identified soldiership with citizenship, and vice versa. Just as African Americans were struggling unsuccessfully for full citizenship, they also had to overcome impediments against establishing black military traditions. A republic sometimes places a higher value on the military skills and servicesand thus the citizenshipof one racial group over another.
Since World War I the southern military school tradition has gradually faded. The day when cadets of the same year in school could march to the classroom together has given way to a time when students can choose from among hundreds of majors and electives. Personal desire and free expression have vanquished enforced order and discipline. The federal government, beginning with the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) in 1916, has assumed from the states the initiative in training a cadre of college students as military officers.
Yet the military tradition in the South is not dead. The Citadel, VMI, and other military colleges and preparatory schools continue to flourish. The corps of cadets continue as distinctive and colorful aspects of several southern land-grant colleges. Southerners have not abandoned the idea that military service instills in youth the values necessary for the moral health and vigor of a democracy. These features of the modern South should serve as a reminder that the exaltation of military virtues is not confined to Prussian autocracy or European fascism. Militarism has shaped the American national experience. It may have helped lead the way into wars and imperialism, but it has also informed republican notions of citizenship, patriotism, and moral virtue. In turn it has adjusted and evolved in American history to accommodate the demands of liberty and equality.
1. Wilson and Ferris, Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, 258. The white, "military," southern land-grant schools founded during this period include Texas A&M (1871), Arkansas (1871), North Georgia (1871), Auburn (1872), Virginia Polytechnic (1872), Mississippi State (1878), North Carolina State (1887), and Clemson (1889). The University of Tennessee and Louisiana State also operated as military schools, as did the University of Alabama from 1860 to 1900.
2. Franklin, Militant South.
3. Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians, 25, 76-81, 337-84; Higginbotham, "Martial Spirit in the Antebellum South"; Boney, "Military Tradition in the South." Keith Bohannon's study of the antebellum Georgia Military Institute concludes that that school's emphasis on civilian subjects as well as the niggardly support it received from the state legislature cast doubt on the idea of a distinctly militaristic South (see Bohannon, "Cadets, Drillmasters" and "Not Alone Trained to Arms"). Works that generally support the idea of a southern military tradition include Meade, "Military Spirit of the South"; Bonner, "Historical Basis of Southern Military Tradition"; McPherson, "Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism"; Napier, "Militant South Revisited"; Osterweis, Romanticism and Nationalism in the Old South, 90-91, 93-94; and Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor. Charles Reagan Wilson discusses the romanticization of military figures in the postbellum era in Baptized in Blood.
4. For a few examples of statistical comparisons, see Bonner, "Historical Basis of Southern Military Tradition," 74-77; Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians, 351-62; Higginbotham, "Martial Spirit in the Antebellum South," 17, 21-22; and May, "Dixie's Martial Image," 226, 231. For an example of including violence in the definition of militarism, see May, "Dixie's Martial Image," 216-17, 220-23, 232. Paramilitarism is addressed in "The 1873 Battle of Colfax: Paramilitarism and Counterrevolution in Louisiana," an anonymous essay submitted to Journal of Southern History for publication, 1998.
5. These definitions of militarism appear in Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. "militarism."
6. Quoted from NGAC Catalog, 1908-9, 69.
7. My working definition of liberalism here is relatively simple and generic: a concern for egalitarianism, personal autonomy, and civil rights of the individual as listed in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights (freedom of speech, assembly, and petition and judicial rights for the accused).
8. Noted political scientist Samuel Huntington has argued that militarism and liberalism are fundamentally incompatible. He portrays the tension that exists between military professionals and civilian democrats as inevitable and enduring. See Huntington, Soldier and the State, esp. 143-62. My study deals with education rather than the professional officer corps, but it indicates that militarism and liberalism could and did accommodate each other in nineteenth-century America. See also Franklin, Militant South.
9. Dean Paul Baker, "Partridge Connection," 174.
10. See Knight, Documentary History, 4:164-241. Lester Austin Webb traces the southern state military school movement in detail and points out that there were no state-supported military schools in the North (see Webb, "Origin of Military Schools," 52, 74-103). Additionally, there had been dozens of private military schools established; see Dean Paul Baker, "Partridge Connection"; Law, Citadel Cadets, 332-33; and Allardice, "West Points of the Confederacy," 330.
11. This study covers several black land-grant colleges that enforced discipline through mandatory membership in a corps of cadets: Hampton, Florida A&M, Georgia State Industrial College (now Savannah State College), and South Carolina State. Hampton was originally a private institution but later received the portion of Virginia's land-grant funds reserved for black colleges. Other black land-grant schools did not institute the military system before World War I, including Alcorn, Jackson State, and Southern (in Louisiana), though they established ROTC programs later.
Excerpted from Long Gray Lines by Rod Andrew Jr.. Copyright © 2001 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.