Caroline Cox. A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington's Army. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. xxii + 338 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2884-7.
Reviewed by Scott N. Hendrix (Department of History, University of Pittsburgh)
Published on H-War (December, 2005)
Caroline Cox's A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington's Army is an interesting work, though it is not necessarily the work promised the reader in either the preface or introduction. A Proper Sense of Honor follows, partially, the historiographical path broken by Charles Royster and Charles Neimeyer, with the author attempting to explore the motivations for joining and serving in the Continental Army of the American Revolution. Beyond this, Cox also attempts to describe the Continental Line's conditions of service and the differing worlds of its officers and enlisted men. A Proper Sense of Honor therefore also complements some of the recent work on the British Army in North America, such as Stephen Brumwell's Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763 (2002). The bibliography and endnotes indicate that A Proper Sense of Honor represent the fruits of significant primary source research, and the author's writing smoothly conveys her ideas to her readers.
In her preface, Cox promises the reader a work that uses the treatment of the human body as an analytical tool, arguing that "the treatment of people's bodies â?¦ tells us something about the status of the individuals involved, the power arrangement that surrounds them, their value to public policy, and whether the individual or others contested that value" (p. xi). She suggests that we look for the record of the treatment of the physical body in public spectacles such as parades and funerals, as well as in treatment in the literal sense, in the care offered by physicians, the handling of corpses, corporal punishment, and other hands on dealing with the human body. The author argues that examining evidence of this type will allows us to "depart from the written historical record and learn something of the values of the people who could not write.... [and] also about the values that those who could write rarely articulated" (pp. x-xi).
After suggesting this intriguing methodology however, the author seems to drop this approach, and offers a more straightforward, though still interesting, look at the corporate culture of the Continental Line. Her introductory chapter considers the formation of the Continental Army in 1775-1776. Cox discusses the rapid decline, in the rebelling colonies, of popular interest in actually fighting the war, and the resulting (and in retrospect, seemingly inevitable) decision to raise an army like the "provincials": the long-service regiments that had been raised during the wars with the French from the poor and marginalized men of the colonies, those who, incidentally, would seem to have the least stake in the outcome of the American Revolution. Here, and repeatedly elsewhere,Cox rightly notes the importance of the regular British Army as a model for the Continental Line. She goes on to argue that the fundamental organizational principle of the Continental Army was, as in all European-style armies, the "unthinking decision to divide the army into officers who were gentlemen and soldiers who were not" (p. 2). This distinction, and the observation that gentlemen were expected to have a "refined sense of personal honor," indicate a second, and also potentially interesting, organizational theme for A Proper Sense of Honor (p. 28).
The second chapter of Cox's work is entitled "A Proper Sense of Honor: Educating Officers and Soldiers," which suggests that the author considered it central to her work. Chapter 2 begins by detailing some of the ways in which the Continental Army continually schooled both officers and enlisted soldiers in the importance of honor, and by doing so, seems, for a time, to continue the themes of the first chapter. In the first part of this chapter the author discusses the centrality of honor to the life of the soldier, though Cox notes that "honor" had very different meanings for the officer and the enlisted soldier. She argues that honor was something that could be "possessed, given, or received" (p. 38), and by doing so Cox properly emphasizes the external components of honor, the importance of reputation as a component of the officer's sense of honor, and that respect, given and received, was crucial to the officers' sense of self-worth. The author notes the importance of the example of conduct set by British officers for the officers of the Continental Line. Caroline Cox's most important, and almost certainly correct, argument is that, to the leaders of the Continental Army, who were no doubt following the example of the British Army, "a proper sense of honor" was the essential qualification necessary to be a successful officer, and that by and large, most members of the Continental Line accepted this idea. Unfortunately Cox then seems to lose her focus on honor, and never quite regains it for the remainder of her book. She finishes chapter 2 with a comparison of the lifestyle of the officers and enlisted soldiers; that of the common soldiers, needless to say, was much inferior to that of their officers.
The remaining chapters of A Proper Sense of Honor continue this theme, examining the way in which the fundamental division of status between officers and enlisted soldiers played out in the Continental Army. Chapter 3 addresses punishment, chapter 4, health care, chapter 5, death and burial, and chapter 6, the treatment of prisoners of war. Cox details the unsurprising and expected differences in the treatment in each of these categories accorded to officers who were gentlemen and enlisted soldiers who were decidedly not; officers, of course, received treatment far superior to that accorded the rank and file. These chapters, while offering valuable documentation of the different military worlds which the officers and other ranks of the Continental Line inhabited, are unlikely to surprise those familiar with eighteenth-century armies. While the topics of these chapters would also seem to be in line with the author's stated intention of analyzing the treatment of the physical body, Cox does not make this connection explicit. She also seems to underplay the connections that could be drawn between this differential treatment and the theme of honor introduced in chapters 1 and 2.
A Proper Sense of Honor closes with a brief conclusion that outlines the treatment of Revolutionary War veterans. Cox argues that most enlisted veterans sunk back to the level of their initial, and usually lowly, social status, and notes that they were largely ignored and uncelebrated by America until after the war of 1812. This somewhat elegiac finish reinforces a perhaps unintended impression that Cox views the enlisted men of the Continental Line not as veterans but as victims. The conclusion, in fact, reads more like an epilogue; a real conclusion, which restated the themes of the treatment of the body and the centrality of honor, and tied these to the topics of chapters 2 through 6, would have greatly strengthened A Proper Sense of Honor. Sadly, its lack leaves the reader with a sense of incompleteness, significantly weakens what would otherwise be a strong work, and rather mutes the effect of the points the author wished to make.
Nonetheless, Cox is to be applauded for her efforts to demonstrate the importance of the concept of honor and the role of the gentleman to the organization and life of the Continental Army. Beyond this, she has much useful information to offer. She is also to be commended for the manner in which she seats the practices of the Continental Line in the customs and traditions of the British Army, and of the larger eighteenth-century military world. Together with those of Royster and Neimeyer, Cox's work helps to expand our understanding of the Continental Line, and, with her emphasis on the role of the gentleman and the ideology of personal honor, might possibly change the way in which we view colonial society during the Revolutionary Era as well. While A Proper Sense of Honor is unlikely to appeal to the general reader, it is recommended for students of the American Revolution, and of eighteenth-century military history, and it should be made part of the collection of research libraries. Its reasonable price of $37.50 should help make it generally accessible.
. Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979); Charles Neimeyer, America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army (New York: New York University Press, 1996).
. For a discussion of honor outside of the military arena during the early republic era, see Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
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Scott N. Hendrix. Review of Cox, Caroline, A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington's Army.
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