Networks of Military Educators: Middle-Class Stability and Professionalization in the Late Antebellum South

Article excerpt

ON THE FOURTH OF JULY 1845 NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD ROBERT HENRY Simpson received his diploma from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Though Simpson was surely happy to have been released from the academic toil and military discipline, graduation did not sever his connection with the school. In fact, Simpson had already requested help locating a suitable teaching position from Francis H. Smith, the VMI superintendent. With his diploma and with this petition to Smith, Simpson, like many of his peers, accessed what has been an overlooked function of the late antebellum South's military schools: their role as a launching pad for the professional careers of nonagricultural, non-elite southerners. (1) Although the South's private and state military schools replicated the discipline and scientific curriculum of the United States Military Academy at West Point, these institutes lacked the national academy's preferential entry to the armed forces. As a result, 96 percent of those schools' matriculates had to find their ways in civilian careers. (2)

In the years following his graduation, Simpson found himself in the situation of many young southern men. The son of a teacher, Simpson's middling status left him without connections to either a plantation or an apprenticeship. His pursuit of social position returned him time and again to his alma mater. Almost yearly missives, commencing with the letter in 1845, asked the VMI superintendent for recommendations or placement in openings of which the professor knew. "You will doubtless receive applications for teachers from various quarters of the State and perhaps of the Union. You have done me the kindness to offer me several such situations which circumstances have prevented me from accepting," Simpson declared in 1849, "and now I trust I shall not be troublesome for soliciting another such offer from you." Throughout the years Simpson received references and returned the favors by encouraging his students to enroll at VMI. He dreamed of higher status occupations, first college professorships and then the more lucrative career of engineering; and as he was ready to move up, he repeatedly contacted his former professor for help. In exchange for assistance in securing an engineering job, for example, Simpson proffered his current teaching post, with a decent annual salary of five hundred dollars, to a VMI graduate of the superintendent's choosing. (3) Such exchanges, in which alumni requested jobs, offered soon-to-be-vacant positions, and sent students to their alma maters, illustrate the career networks in which alumni and military educators forged social stability and worked toward professionalization in the tenuous antebellum world of the southern middling class.

Military educator networks show that members of the developing southern middle class promoted professionalization to create social stability and that they did so not with patronage but with a quasi-bureaucratic system. Defying twenty-first-century perceptions that they embodied conservative values, military schools in the late antebellum years reflected the modernizing South; their curriculum, middle-class matriculates, and promotion of professions and professionalization were part of the region's participation in national trends. After describing the southern middle class, its use of the distinct characteristics of military education, and the operations of networks linking educators and alumni, this article focuses on how the networks created social stability for young southerners. Military alumni networks accomplished this stability through professionalization (i.e., the validation of specialized knowledge and professional status) of teaching. Their success shows in military education's expansion in the number of practitioners and locations, and it highlights the formation of the middle class in a new way, building on a vision of the increasing acceptance of professions. This analysis helps answer two significant questions in southern and American historiography: How did a middle class develop in the South absent the capitalist growth that spurred the process in the North? …

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