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West Pointers and the Civil War

The Old Army in War and Peace

Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh

Publication Year: 2009

Hsieh makes use of manuals, official reports, West Point archives, newspapers, diaries, and secondary sources to show how the “old army” transformed itself into a professional military force after 1814. More important, he demonstrates how “old army” methods profoundly shaped the conduct of the Civil War. Both the Union and Confederate armies, composed of raw recruits and commanded by officers with a common military heritage, evolved at roughly the same pace. Neither army could obtain a critical advantage in training, morale, or cohesion to help make swift and decisive battlefield victories possible. According to Hsieh, the dominance in both armies of West Point@-trained generals prevented either side from gaining a marked superiority in military competence. This helps to explain the war’s long and wearying course. Moreover, the protracted, grinding war, with heavy casualties on both sides, had unforeseen political implications--for instance, the war’s great length strengthened the hand of abolitionists, whose influence would have been muted if the North had won a quick and decisive victory.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Series: Civil War America


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Tables, Figures, and Maps

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pp. xi-xvi

I have gathered innumerable debts in the long process of writing this book. First off, I should thank the staff of every archive and library listed in my bibliography. Such institutions provide indispensable services to historians, and although we frequently...

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pp. 1-10

After Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Brig. Gen. Edward Porter Alexander, a senior Confederate artillerist, proposed to his commander that the army’s men disband to their different home states...

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CHAPTER ONE: Colonials, Continentals, and Federals: The Origins of American Military Professionalism

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pp. 11-33

The crucial formative years of the antebellum old army occurred in the twenty or so years after the end of the War of 1812 in 1815 — when Sylvanus Thayer carved into the high cliffs of West Point a military academy for posterity, when a then nationalist...

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CHAPTER TWO: Tactical Expertise and the U.S. Army before the War with Mexico

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pp. 34-53

Wars do not win themselves; soldiers, generals, and armies must organize, train, equip, and finally fight their way to victory. The army of the United States did exactly that during the Mexican War, and it won the prize of Alta California with its fine harbors and increased...

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CHAPTER THREE: The Old Army’s Vindication: The Mexican War

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pp. 54-74

One historian has called the Mexican War a “rehearsal for conflict” — a sort-of dry run for the larger conflict that occurred thirteen years later.1 Many future West Point generals learned their trade in the field during the Mexican War, whose lessons and legacies...

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CHAPTER FOUR: Tactical Continuity in the Decade before the Civil War

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pp. 75-90

Although it by no means rested on its laurels, the regular army did not depart from its comfortable professional tracks in the interlude between the Mexican Cession and the Civil War. Professional soldiers supervised gradual changes in weapons and tactics, while Jefferson Davis’s reformist tenure as secretary of war (1853–57) looked much...

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CHAPTER FIVE: The Beginning of the End: The Old Army on the Precipice

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pp. 91-111

The old army, even with its much-improved post–Mexican War reputation, returned to its usual status of social isolation, as it dispersed itself throughout the United States’ newly conquered possessions. The army’s ethic of professionalism soldiered...

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CHAPTER SIX: War in Earnest: The First Battles of 1861

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pp. 112-133

The political aspirations of both contending sections to govern proper nation- states, recognized by their Western peers in both Europe and the New World, produced the environment in which the old army could establish an early institutional predominance...

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CHAPTER SEVEN: The Peninsula: Lee and McClellan Leave Their Legacies

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pp. 134-157

The Confederate victory at First Manassas had chastened, even humiliated, Union pretensions to military prowess, but the northern war effort only girded itself for further and much more impressive efforts. Confederate activity in contrast stagnated during the following winter...

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CHAPTER EIGHT: Morale, Cohesion, and Competence from Second Bull Run to Missionary Ridge

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pp. 158-176

Military historians have tended to draw a straight line between Lee’s repulse at Malvern Hill, the last battle of the Seven Days, and the tactical stalemate of the Overland campaign in the summer of 1864. In the intervening period, each significant battle becomes...

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CHAPTER NINE: Decisions East and West: The End of the Civil War

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pp. 177-195

The Union armies finally brought the Civil War to a close during the 1864 and 1865 campaigning seasons, when Federal forces found a way to break the general military equilibrium between themselves and Confederate field forces. Even now, the Army...

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pp. 196-198

On March 14, 1881, Maj. Gen. Emory Upton, hero of Spotsylvania, and one of the most esteemed officers of the postwar U.S. Army, shot himself in his room at the Presidio near San Francisco. Various factors probably contributed to Upton’s suicide...


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pp. 199-244


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pp. 245-266


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pp. 267-285

E-ISBN-13: 9781469605081
E-ISBN-10: 1469605082
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807832783
Print-ISBN-10: 0807832782

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Civil War America
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Peter S. Carmichael, Gettysburg College; Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia; Caroline E. Janney, Purdue University; and Aaron Sheehan-Dean, West Virginia University See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 593325303
MUSE Marc Record: Download for West Pointers and the Civil War

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- History, Military -- To 1900.
  • United States. -- Army -- History -- 19th century.
  • Military art and science -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Mexican War, 1846-1848 -- Campaigns.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Campaigns.
  • Generals -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States Military Academy -- Alumni and alumnae -- Biography.
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