West Point On the Eve of the Civil War

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Military Academies of the United States
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West Point

There were place that were more idyllic in the United States than the United States Military Academy at West Point. Placed on the Hudson River at the site of the Revolutionary War stronghold it held a cherished place in the hearts of Americans. West Point was some 50 miles north of New York City.

It was here at West Point that young men were trained to lead the Army of the United States in war and peace.  In the nineteenth century, West Point had become the pinnacle of the concept of military professionalism. It was regarded as the leading School of Engineering on the continent and had a world-wide reputation for excellence in engineering studies. It transformed boys into the kind of men who would become, one day, military and political leaders and Civil War enemies.

There were two West Points. One was the physical with its academic buildings and dormitories. Its drill fields and forts. The other West Point was the “spiritual” West Point – a mystique, a feeling of belonging, of male bonding and something very powerful.

Admission to West Point was by appointment by your local Congressman or Senator. Some candidates moved to other states because the competition in their home state was too difficult. Take as an example George Pickett of Virginia who moved to Illinois and was appointed by one Abraham Lincoln. One can only wonder what must have gone through their minds over the four years of the War!

Once the prospective cadet arrived at the military academy he was required to take an entrance examination. The standards for this examination was designed to give the “unlearned” an opportunity for admission to the Academy.

Possibly one of the least educated candidates to gain entry to West Point was a young lad from the backwoods of Virginia who had not had the opportunity for any formal school education. This was Thomas Jonathon Jackson, who was later, during the Civil War, to earn the nickname of “Stonewall”, and only secured entry to West Point by his sheer determination and absolute sincerity.

Jackson’s study and determination paid off and he was happy when he graduated 17th out of 56 in the Class of 18462 after he had started at the bottom of his class. His classmate, the brilliant George Brinton McClellan could never accept the fact that he graduated only second in this Class of ’46.

Jackson’s tenacity and determination was to be proven many times during his military service but possibly no more so than on Henry House Hill during the First Battle of Manassas as he turned certain defeat into victory and the legend of “Stonewall” Jackson was born. Stonewall Jackson is still considered one of the greatest field commanders of all time.

The curriculum was designed to produce competent engineers and sub-unit commanders. The studies in the first two years were devoted entirely to Mathematics and French, while the major course in the third year was what we now call Physics. The senior year focused on military engineering with some brief coverage of infantry and artillery tactics. Tactics at this time were based on Napoleonic principles and was taught at the Academy for many years by Professor Dennis Hart Mahan.

Character building at West Point was enforced by a strict code of honesty and obedience with breaches of discipline resulting in the award of ‘Demerits’ – 200 demerits in any one year resulted in the cadet being expelled from the Academy. George Custer received so many demerits that he lost count. McClellan received only a few while Robert E. Lee received none during his time at the academy.

Position in class on graduation was of utmost importance to the future career prospects of a young officer. The highly ranked in the graduating class could choose their corps allocation and it had a significant impact on career advancement opportunities throughout their service. Having said this, however, it seems that no only at West Point but in military colleges, worldwide, it is the middle ranked officers that eventually rose to the most senior ranks and performed the most outstanding service.

Robert E. Lee, George McClellan and P.G.T. Beauregard all graduated second in their classes. On the other hand future generals George Custer, Henry Heth and George Pickett all graduated last in their classes.

In our next post we’ll look at the pre-war tensions at West Point.

Series Navigation<< The Citadel, The Military College of South CarolinaWest Point: The Last to Divide >>

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