West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace

By Wooster, Robert | The Journal of Southern History, May 2011 | Go to article overview

West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace


Wooster, Robert, The Journal of Southern History


West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace. By Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh. Civil War America. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c. 2009. Pp. [xvi], 285. $30.00, ISBN 978-0-8078-3278-3.)

Historians of the antebellum United States Army fall into two camps. One group emphasizes the impressive collection of tactical manuals, official regulations, published letters, and reports of special boards tasked with assessing everything from national armories to Cossack cavalry tactics. Spearheaded by the groundbreaking work of William B. Skelton, they contend that officers were well on the way toward professionalization. The other side emphasizes a similarly notable range of evidence that paints a darker portrait of an old army battling chronic alcoholism, condemnation by inspectors and observers, and the decidedly unprofessional behavior of officers engaged in an unseemly array of public spats, feuds, and duels. Emphasizing the "general commitment to professionalism" in the old army, Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh's ambitious new book falls distinctly within the former camp (p. 90).

Hsieh's argument can be summed up as follows. Although largely marginalized by American society following the War of 1812, regular officers nonetheless acquired a virtual monopoly over the military expertise needed to raise, equip, and train a large army capable of conducting extended campaigns against a competent foe. As civilians contented themselves with repeating platitudes about abilities of near mythical citizen-soldiers, West Point-trained officers mastered skills associated with logistics, record keeping, and standardized training. Victory in the war against Mexico, argues Hsieh, confirmed their achievement. As sectionalism rent the country asunder in 1861, Union and Confederate civilian leaders soon turned to members of the officer corps of the old army, whose "basic level of military competence" gave them the tools to organize, administer, and supply the burgeoning armed forces on both sides (p. 126). Led by men of similar outlooks, and acquiring new military skills at essentially the same pace, this "equilibrium of competence" locked the competing armies into a rough state of parity (p. …

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