Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 2010


Great Plains Quarterly 30:3 (Spring 2010).


Copyright © 2010 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska.


Class and Race in the Frontier Army is social history first, military second. Adams has two theses: that an "enormous class division" trumped ethnicity, but not race, and that military historians have sought comfort in depicting the army as socially isolated, a unique institution. A book so critical deserves critique; Class and Race is both a laudable effort to connect military to social history, and a product of late twentieth-century graduate school, producing focused insights and reminding us of the big picture, but leaving the mid-level blurry. Adams's historiographical undertone is that whiteness scholars have exaggerated the racialization of European immigrants, that the army shows that ethnicity meant little compared to class or, for African Americans, racial oppression. Adams hopes that his study of the army will strike a blow in the whiteness debates, but his approach shows how far this scholarship has come (or drifted) from its original focus on the construction of white supremacy over blacks, which Adams shows to have been just as true in the army as civil society. Since the majority of the army's immigrants were German or Irish, beginning to escape their earlier non-white status by the 1880s, rather than the "new immigrants" of southern and eastern Europe, and since the economic functions of ethnicity (connections leading to employment) played little part in the army, that institution seems an unlikely test case for his thesis about ethnicity.