Book Review: A Proper Sense of Honor

September 8th, 2018 On Our Shelves
A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington's ArmyA Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington’s Army
By Caroline Cox (The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 338 pages, reviewed by David PriceCaroline Cox has produced an illuminating study of life in the Continental Army and how it connected to the broader social dynamics of colonial America in explaining the disparity in the conditions of service between officers and enlisted men.Her tightly wound narrative offers a wide-ranging examination of army life that encompasses such issues as: relations among the ranks, discipline and punishment, medical care, death and burial, and the treatment of prisoners.

The author recounts the varied motivations that underlaid such actions as the decision to enlist and how the common soldiers’ experience became part of a larger story. She notes that those who chose to join the army did so for any number of reasons: to fight for liberty and independence, for financial gain from an enlistment bounty or being hired as a substitute, to elude a parent or master, to seek adventure, or to serve with a friend. Whatever their reasons, many “came to feel part of something larger than themselves” by virtue of sharing and enduring “the experiences of war, its occasional excitement and terror and its prolonged drudgery.”

In the process, they became professional soldiers, overcoming the severity of military life and its many hardships as well as neglect by people in the larger community who were indifferent to the army’s needs. Ultimately, they “succeeded in driving out a larger and more experienced enemy” (with the help of foreign intervention).

An intriguing aspect of her analysis is its focus on how the 18th century sense of honor that prescribed a gentleman’s code of conduct impacted officers’ behavior towards each other and those they led. The code a gentleman lived by, both in the army and the wider community, dictated that his conduct be such as to have the rank he claimed respected by others, but also required that he display “appropriate respect” to both those above and below him on the social scale. This applied to every commissioned officer from Washington on down.

Cox’s account is well worth the attention of anyone interested in the Revolution, the sociology of early America, or organizational dynamics in general. To read it is to understand how the men who fought for a young nation’s liberty and independence coped with the circumstances that impinged on the effort to create and sustain an army comprised of “gentlemen” (officers) and those not regarded as such (enlisted men). It is an integral part of the story behind our Revolutionary struggle.