Theses Doctoral

The Logic of Protection: US Army Culture and Enemy Women in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War, 1835-1848

Meberg, Justine

This dissertation considers how gendered discourses shaped the US Army’s culture during the Second Seminole War of 1835-1842 and the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. Historians have increasingly understood these years as the regular army’s formative era but focus on officers. Yet, while native-born West Pointers came to dominate the officer corps, foreign-born recruits filled the enlisted ranks. Little scholarship considers what it meant for the army to be increasingly led by West Pointers and manned by foreign-born soldiers. Officers left the military academy with deeply held beliefs regarding what it meant to be an officer in the army family—a stern father to enlisted men and the Native peoples whom the army considered its wards, and a committed protector of supposedly harmless women. Their paternalistic ideals encountered the complexities of war in Florida and Mexico, where officers both sought to accomplish their missions and condition enlisted men to their authority. Through these wartime experiences, a shared army culture emerged. It was animated by the figure of the soldier as a protector of women and tested in interactions between the army and enemy—Native and Mexican—women. This previously unacknowledged development lent army culture an internal coherence that guaranteed officers’ control over soldiers and an external coherence characterized by a reputation for paternalism. This enabled the army to secure a respected position as an American institution.
One consequence was that soldiers were unable, or unwilling, to understand women as enemies. As a result, such authors largely erased or ignored female combatancy from their records—a process typical of many wars. The key to uncovering women’s contributions is to look more critically at official military documents. Methodologically, this project proposes a feminist approach to military history that considers how army leaders constructed women’s presence in, and absence from, military records in specific, deliberate ways. Grasping that process matters—it legitimized the regular army and its officers. Attention to discourses about women, the prototypical outsiders in histories of war, can help historians consider the discursive processes at work within the genre of army writing.
The army’s erasure of women’s wartime activities succeeded so well that according to most accounts of the 1830s and 1840s, women—whether Mexican, Native, or American—had no military history. Yet, the army’s relationships with enemy women shaped it in meaningful ways. The regular army's paternalism, well developed by 1848, used men’s control over and obligations to women to reify the superiority of regular soldiers to other men and of officers to enlisted men. The protection of women sometimes served as a common language between officers and enlisted men, sometimes as a path for enlisted men to challenge officers’ claims to moral superiority, and sometimes as a justification for changes to military policy. By 1848, these workings cohered into an engine of army paternalism, a deep-seated logic whose machinations were sometimes overt, sometimes submerged, and underlay the army’s choices. I call this the logic of protection.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
McCurry, Stephanie
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 23, 2022