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THE FUTURE OF WEST POINT: SENATE DEBATES ON THE MILITARY ACADEMY DURING THE CIVIL WAR Lori A. Lisowski As the Civil War began in 1861, the United States Senate directed an attack against the institution from which many regular army officers came—the United States Military Academy at West Point. The attack upon West Point was most severe during the Senate debates in the winter of 1861-62 and again in 1863. T. Harry Williams characterized the controversy as radical Republican animosity toward an institution perceived as a friend of slavery. Though the eminent radical Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio led the attacks, the details surrounding the matter are more complicated than a simple radical foray. The issue of the academy 's position, mission, and existence dug at many of the issues behind the war itself—economics, states' rights, slavery, sectionalism, politics, and democratic principles—so in some ways it became a mini civil war in the Senate. That the academy weathered the war and exists today in the form that it does owes something, even if indirectly, to the events that unfolded in the Senate as the country was tearing itself apart.1 The conflict between the military academy and the Senate arose in July 1861 when the Senate considered a bill to reorganize and expand the military establishment in reaction to the rebellion. Republican Henry Wilson, chairman of the Military Affairs and the Militia Committee, included a section which authorized the filling ofvacancies at the military academy left by southern cadets who had resigned. Wilson, noting that between 55 and 65 cadets of an enrollment of 240 had left the academy, thought that "we had better have the institution filled up, and keep it full . . . for certainly we need all the educated military talent that we 1 T. Harry Williams, "The Attack Upon West Point During the Civil War," Mississippi Valley Historical Review25 (Mar. 1939): 491-504. Williams is really theonly historian who has dealt with this issue in a systematic way. While he touches on many of the issues I have raised, Williams's article is mainly concerned with the significance of the attack upon West Point for radical Republican interests. Subsequent accounts generally rely on his interpretation. Civil War History, Vol XXXIV, No. 1, © 1988 by The Kent State University Press b CIVIL WAR HISTORY can have in the country." But senators were unable to agreeon the method to use to fill the vacancies.2 Benjamin Wade moved to settle the debateby deleting the entire section from the bill, as hevoiced his disapproval of the academy. "I cannot help thinking that there is somethingwrong about this whole institution. I do not believe that in the history of theworld you can find as many men who have proved themselves utterly faithless to their oaths, ungrateful to the Government that supported them, guilty of treason and a deliberate intention to overthrow that Government which has educated them and given them its support, as have emanated from this institution. . . . I believe that from the idleness of these military-educated gentlemen this great treason was hatched." Wade was echoing Secretary of War Simon Cameron's report of July 1, in which Cameron argued that the rebellion could never have assumed "formidable proportions" without the aid of the many academy graduates who had been unfaithful to the flag by resigning their commissions to fight for the South. He thought that this "extraordinary treachery" might be "traced to a radical defect in the system of education" at the academy and urged Congress to fix any such defect if it could be found. Wade's idea of fixing the academy was to get rid of it. "I am opposed to it. For aught I know, it may be a public necessity; but it is anomalous; it is atwarwith all thejust principles of this republican Government, and I wish it could be entirely done away with." Influenced by the Jacksonian argument that any man could become a successful general without special training, Wade thought that men should be allowed to come up through the ranks to command and from this ambition to succeed would rise military genius.3 Other senators, like William Pitt Fessenden...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 5-21
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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