The Mystic of the Military: Shaping Perceptions
The period from 1820 to 1860 was a pivotal era in American history when the nation was finding its footing and defining its identity. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, established in 1802, was a significant part of this narrative, and travel literature played a crucial role in shaping and propagating the mystique of the military.
Travel literature of the time, often in the form of guidebooks, emerged as a potent tool to introduce and immerse the American public into the world of the military. While these guides provided practical information about the destination, their influence was far more profound. They were instrumental in framing the military as a symbol of national pride, progress, and power.
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point was a unique site – a military institution nestled within the Hudson River valley’s natural beauty. The juxtaposition of military rigor and natural splendor created an intriguing image that resonated with the public. It should be no surprise that guidebooks capitalized on this, integrating the Academy into the picturesque narrative of the Hudson River region. This approach demystified the military and made it more accessible to the public, fostering a sense of familiarity and ownership.
These guidebooks painted a picture of the Academy as a ‘nursery of military talent,’ a ‘school of tactics’, and a ‘prolific fountain of future glory and security.’ Such descriptors imbued the institution with an aura of reverence and respect. The Academy was not just a military institution but a beacon of national hope, fostering the country’s future leaders. This narrative helped weave the military into the fabric of American identity, fostering a sense of nationalistic pride.
Moreover, the guidebooks often used a directive tone, shaping what visitors would see and what they should think and feel about the Academy. They effectively encouraged respect for the Academy as an integral part of the proper aesthetic experience of West Point, framing it as an essential part of the more extensive journey. Any challenge to the Academy’s legitimacy was portrayed as a failure to appreciate the journey as a whole.
The guidebooks served an important political role, too. In an era when the Academy faced political criticism, these guides provided an alternate medium for disseminating arguments supporting the Academy. Presenting these arguments in a travel and leisure context would likely be met with less critical resistance. The guidebooks, thus, offered a counter-narrative to political opposition, solidifying the Academy’s place in the American political imagination.
In a time when information was difficult to obtain, the antebellum American travel literature played an instrumental role in shaping the mystique of the military. It brought the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and its role in nation-building to the forefront of the civilian consciousness. The narrative fostered a sense of national pride and respect for the military, ensuring that the Academy was seen as a military outpost and a cornerstone of American culture and identity. As such, these documents played a significant role in shaping public perception of the military, a perception that would have a lasting impact on the American narrative.
The young Alfred Gibbs had read these travel books and had lived the reality. There was truth in the narrative of the time, but there were harsh realities of life as a cadet that could never be captured in the text; they had to be lived. So when Alfred got his orders to travel to Jefferson Barracks, he would take what he had read about life on the frontier with a pinch of salt. He had learned a significant difference between reading about life at a place and living the reality of a place. He would do his dreaming with his eyes wide open.