Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
Life and Manners in the Frontier Army. By Oliver Knight. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978. Bibliography. Index. 280 pages. $12.95.
Reviewed by Otis E. Young, Jr., Professor of History, Arizona State University, author of The West of Philíp St. George Cooke (1955) and Western Mining (1970).
Professor Oliver Knight presents here a view of society and manners as they prevailed among the officers and their ladies of the United States Army in the western posts during the generation that followed the Civil War. The author stresses that his major reliance rests upon the factual and fictional writings of Captain Charles King, Fifth Cavalry, but he enlarges and supplements King’s observations with a wide selection from other sources. The author is at some pains to justify his use of King’s novels as a source of social information, probably feeling that the more pedantic critics would object strongly to this. The reviewer accepts the argument placidly; as one who has worked a little among the official Army documents, he can certify that returns and professional memoirs are indeed barren pickings for a study such as this. For private reasons, moreover, the reviewer is aware that the roman á clef is of ten a very convenient method of conveying observations that would never do in an official report.
It is not possible to be very critical of Knight’s methodology or conclusions. Captain King was one of the very few people who wrote at length from first-hand knowledge about the human side of the Indian-fighting Army in this period. His nearest competitor, Mrs. LTC Elizabeth Custer, is not generally regarded as the most objective reporter. It is probably safe to assume that King, as interpreted and amplified by Knight, told it much the way it was, or at least as it appeared to be to an observer of his period and prejudices. The product is a very entertaining book that will surely be welcomed by Western Army buffs.
Having disposed of the methodology, the reviewer wishes to offer a few observations upon its conclusions. What strikes one most forcibly is the appalling intellectual sterility of the regimental officers of the period. They appear to have assumed that all professional knowledge was theirs, all questions answered, and to have been as complacent as a medieval schoolman who had mastered his Aquinas and his Aristotle. Clauswitz was as unknown to them as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. To ride well, to speak the truth, and to govern enlisted men fairly were almost enough, and the display of personal courage in battle the capstone of virtue. They admired but were not stirred by the handful of intellectual soldiers such as Emory Upton, George Crook, or W. T. Sherman. Professional debate concerned nothing more substantive than the details of equipment. Perhaps it was forced upon them by their training and milieu, but the majority of the Army officers of the period were mentally indistinguishable from so many police lieutenants.
On the other hand, the vast majority were dedicated and incorruptible. They insisted on the right to keep their own professional house in order but, to their credit, they did so rigorously. In a period of relaxed civic virtue among the generality of citizens, the soldiers were an outstanding exception. To this day the majority of Americans clearly distinguish, though they cannot easily say why, between “soldiers” and “bureaucrats.” Is this distinction based on the visceral conclusion that the soldier pays considerably more than lip-service to a professed ideal, whereas the bureaucrat spouts ideals at every turn, but in the end appears to serve very little but his own personal and institutional interests? Or, to put it another way, the soldier has a code of professional ethics in which enlightened self-interest plays little part.
The book is strongly recommended to libraries, and to those interested in Western and military history.