The Training Ground: Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Davis in the Mexican War, 1846-1848

By Cate, Alan | Parameters, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Training Ground: Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Davis in the Mexican War, 1846-1848


Cate, Alan, Parameters


The Training Ground: Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Davis in the Mexican War, 1846-1848. By Martin Dugard. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008. 446 pages. $29.99.

Generations of West Point plebes have memorized General Winfield Scott's encomium to their Mexican War forbears:

   I give it as my fixed opinion, that but for our graduated cadets,
   the war between the United States and Mexico might, and probably
   would have, lasted some four or five years, with, in its first
   half, more defeats than victories falling to our share; whereas, in
   less than two campaigns, we conquered a great country and a peace
   without the loss of a single battle or skirmish.

Martin Dugard's new book contains no explicit thesis, but Scott's words serve well to introduce one strand of the two-part argument he wishes to make: The skill, energy, and courage of the US Army's junior officers--in 1845, 70 percent of them West Pointers--carried the day in this war for Manifest Destiny. The title captures his second major premise, that these lieutenants and captains "were transformed by their experiences under fire," which "molded them into the great generals and statesmen they would one day become."

There is little arguing with either Dugard or Scott regarding the initial proposition. As this volume repeatedly illustrates, Captain Robert E. Lee, Lieutenant Sam Grant, Lieutenant Thomas Jackson, and dozens of other Military Academy graduates propelled a heavily outnumbered expeditionary force, operating far from home with tenuous or nonexistent lines of communication, to an implausibly decisive victory. They embodied the Army's relatively newfound professionalism, an ethos stemming both from reforms at West Point and a nascent educational and training system established in the 1820s with Schools of Practice for Infantry, Artillery, and Cavalry.

Of course, the young officers did not always apply the "school solution." Dugard recounts how, confronting an imposing fortress at Monterrey, some company-grade officers disassembled an 1,800-pound howitzer, had the components and ammunition humped up a steep hill, reassembled the gun, and used it to reduce the enemy position. This sort of freethinking "initiative inside intent" repeatedly allowed the Americans to surmount unexpected difficulties and exploit sudden opportunities more readily than their frequently brave but inflexible opponents.

To be sure, all was not perfection. Militating against the development of professionalism were the wide dispersion of units at scattered outposts and frequent detached service for officers. Prolonged frontier duty could be intellectually stultifying. As Richard Ewell, another young lion in Mexico and later Confederate general, opined, "Out there an officer learned all there was to know about commanding 40 dragoons but was liable to forget everything else he had been taught." Still, the army that entered Mexico in 1846 was the first truly professional military the republic had ever sent to war. …

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