A Scientific Way of War: Antebellum Military Science, West Point, and the Origins of American Military Thought

A Scientific Way of War: Antebellum Military Science, West Point, and the Origins of American Military Thought

A Scientific Way of War: Antebellum Military Science, West Point, and the Origins of American Military Thought

A Scientific Way of War: Antebellum Military Science, West Point, and the Origins of American Military Thought

Synopsis

While faith in the Enlightenment was waning elsewhere by 1850, at the United States Military Academy at West Point and in the minds of academy graduates serving throughout the country Enlightenment thinking persisted, asserting that war was governable by a grand theory accessible through the study of military science. Officers of the regular army and instructors at the military academy and their political superiors all believed strongly in the possibility of acquiring a perfect knowledge of war through the proper curriculum.
A Scientific Way of War analyzes how the doctrine of military science evolved from teaching specific Napoleonic applications to embracing subjects that were useful for war in North America. Drawing from a wide array of materials, Ian C. Hope refutes earlier charges of a lack of professionalization in the antebellum American army and an overreliance on the teachings of Swiss military theorist Antoine de Jomini. Instead, Hope shows that inculcation in West Point's American military curriculum eventually came to provide the army with an officer corps that shared a common doctrine and common skill in military problem solving. The proliferation of military science ensured that on the eve of the Civil War there existed a distinctly American, and scientific, way of war.

Excerpt

In spring 1864 the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert Lee commanding, and George Meade’s Army of the Potomac, Ulysses Grant accompanying, bit into each other savagely and pushed and tugged and “chewed and choked” from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor. These armies locked in near continuous contact and in frequent combat tried to destroy one another. Union attempts failed to push Lee’s army out of its trenches and sever it from its base of supply. Lee’s attempts were frustrated each time the Federals changed their base to a new supply point along the Chesapeake, allowing them to maneuver upon Lee’s flank without exposing their line of communications to Washington. In June Lee worried that Grant was switching to a base upon the James. “If he gets there,” Lee reportedly said, “it will become a siege and then it will be a mere question of time.” The Confederate commander understood that a siege at Richmond-Petersburg could trap his army and deny him opportunity to transfer his base of operations to either the Shenandoah Valley or farther south. Defeat would follow. Gen. William T. Sherman knew as much: “Let Lee hold onto Richmond, and we will destroy his country…. Let him stick to his parapets and he will perish.”

These generals were becoming masters of the “military science” taught to them at the U.S. Military Academy. They had learned there a theory that defined war as something more than a meeting of armies in open battle, decided by guts, glory, and martial genius.

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