West Points of the Confederacy: Southern Military Schools and the Confederate Army

By Allardice, Bruce | Civil War History, December 1997 | Go to article overview

West Points of the Confederacy: Southern Military Schools and the Confederate Army


Allardice, Bruce, Civil War History


One of the most frequently found stereotypes in Civil War literature is the amateur officer -- a farmer, a small-town lawyer, a grocer taken suddenly from his peaceful civilian existence and placed in command of a company or regiment of men, a civilian in uniform as devoid of military knowledge and experience as the men he commands, staying up late at night studying Hardee's Tactics in order to learn enough to drill his men the next morning.

This stereotype contains much truth, particularly in the first year of the war when neither North nor South had enough trained, experienced men to lead their armies. Neither side instituted, or was capable of instituting, a program to teach newly commissioned officers the intricacies of military life. Bruce Catton termed the forces that fought the Battle of Shiloh "not really armies ...; just collections of very young men ...; calling themselves soldiers."(1) Ulysses S. Grant recalled that "many of the men [at Shiloh] had only received their arms on the way from their States to the field. Many of them had arrived but a day or two before and were hardly able to load their muskets according to the manual. Their officers were equally ignorant of their duties."(2) Throughout the war many soldiers faced battle before ever having fired a shot. Regiments went into battle with no training, with defective rifles, and sometimes with no rifles at all. Both armies were officered, often at the highest levels, by amateurs; these men were usually brave enough and dedicated, natural leaders and willing students, but they knew little about the most basic drill, logistics, and tactics, let alone strategy.

Even the more technical staff positions were filled by a melange of small-town lawyers, ambitious politicos, and needy relatives of the generals. Grant's chief of staff was a lawyer from Grant's hometown of Galena; Stonewall Jackson made a clergyman friend his chief of staff; Braxton Bragg's chief of staff headed the New Orleans waterworks before the war; Joe Hooker's chief of staff was a wealthy businessman who owned a stagecoach company. Col. Thomas Snead of Missouri, a prewar newspaper editor, recalled after the war how, half-terrified at the presumption, he was appointed chief of ordnance, then adjutant general, of the Missouri State Guard even though he "did not know the difference between a howitzer and a siege gun, and had never seen a musket-cartridge in all my life ...; I had never heard of a `morning report,' and did not know the right of a company from its left."(3)

At the beginning of Civil War, the tactics employed by both armies, tactics bequeathed by the traditions of the Napoleonic Wars, required that troops move about the battlefield in compact, orderly, linear formations, much as a modern army marches around a parade ground. Only in such formations, it was believed, could officers maintain control of their troops and maximize the firepower of the unit. In addition, drill would instill in the citizen-soldiers what the Duke of Wellington saw as "the habits and the spirit of soldiers -- the habits of command on one side, and of obedience on the other -- mutual confidence between officers and men." Thus it would have been of immense help to the armies of 1861 if the new officers had had a prior knowledge of drill (the body of orders and technical knowledge by which an officer handled men in formation), with knowledge of the higher military arts being an added bonus.(4)

Badly outnumbered, with no army, no navy, and a miniscule industrial base, the South nevertheless had one advantage over the North at the beginning of the war -- a larger supply of men who had been educated at a military school and thus had knowledge of drill and other knowledge helpful to a potential officer.

From the beginning of the United States, the nation's leaders placed great emphasis on the value of a military education. On May 16, 1776, Col. Henry Knox, future secretary of war, wrote Congressman (and future president) John Adams suggesting that academics be established for educating young men in the military arts. …

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