The Military Strategist
On June 12, 1836, a Hudson River steamer nosed into the dock at West Point and deposited, among others, sixteen-year-old William Tecumseh Sherman. As he stared up at the bluffs upon which sat the United States Military Academy, it’s a safe bet that young Sherman had only a glimmer of what he was getting into. He knew the place was strict and “the army was its natural consequence,” but what that implied would have escaped him—that he was beginning a process that would induct him into a warrior elite, forging bonds that would last a lifetime.
Admission was not assured. Because appointment to West Point was open to young men from all classes in a nation of wildly variable primary education, an entrance exam, testing for literacy and arithmetic skills, was administered upon arrival.1 For Sherman, this amounted to a formality. His foster father, the powerful Whig politician Thomas Ewing, had not only engineered his appointment, but also ensured his charge was academically prepared. Although the family base in Lancaster, Ohio, remained less than a generation removed from the frontier, the boy had been rigorously schooled and apparently knew enough to bone up on French and math, exactly the subjects that would be stressed plebe year.2 Not surprisingly, he aced the test and academically, at least, never looked back.
Ever gregarious, he fit in easily with his fellow cadets. In particular, he forged what would prove to be lifelong bonds with his two roommates, Stewart Van Vliet and George Thomas. Thomas, who would gain fame in the Civil War as the “Rock of Chickamauga,” became a vital and continuing presence in Sherman’s career. Even as a veritable pebble, Thomas was already formidable, at one point threatening to throw an upperclassman out the window if he didn’t cease his attempts to haze them.3 Sherman himself was less physical, but he must have appreciated his roommate’s bravado and marked him as someone who would not back down in a tough situation. Still, such outbursts were best kept hushed and infrequent at West Point.
Cadets were subjected to a relentless system of regulation, observation, and meticulous evaluation. Their long days were consumed with a monotonous string of planned activities, most of them arduous and all, it seems, subject to some kind of sanction. The system was the masterpiece of Sylvanus Thayer, whose short but indelible tenure as superintendent set the academy irrevocably on the course of “appraisal by numbers,” based on the assumption that cadets could be usefully ranked according to a precise order of merit (or demerit, really).
The keystone was the academic program, administered by faculty set in place by Thayer and led by the brilliant but peevish professor Dennis Hart Mahan.4 It has been said that Thayer effectively turned West Point into an engineering school, but this can be seen as serendipitous, the result of a math-heavy curriculum, which not coincidentally proved useful in rating and weeding out cadets.5 Sherman and his fellows were graded daily in all subjects, the results of which were tabulated with exam scores and fed into a complicated formula that included dress and disciplinary infractions. This produced an annual and ultimately final class rank used to assign graduates to the various service branches—the Corps of Engineers receiving those standing at the front of the long gray line, followed by artillery, cavalry, and then infantry.
Because at West Point everything counted and everything was counted, the system was also applied to a series of upper-class courses, including topography, geography, chemistry, physics, rhetoric, political philosophy, and drawing—a two-year requirement presumed useful in creating maps.6 Sherman proved particularly adept at capturing images—his teacher Robert W. Weir was an accomplished painter of the Hudson River school—but rather than any real artistic talent, this probably reflected an eidetic or photographic memory, especially for terrain, which proved to be one of Sherman’s core military talents.7 At any rate, he prospered academically, maintaining himself near the top of his class of around forty-five survivors of the seventy or so who entered with him—though his disdain for spit and polish lowered his final standing enough to preclude entry into the elite engineers.
Meanwhile, he may have noticed that with the exception of Mahan’s capstone Science of War course in his final year, there was little that was specifically military about the academic diet fed to those supposedly preparing for careers as professional soldiers. Even Mahan went heavy on the military engineering and light on strategy, relying on the writings of French general Antoine-Henri Jomini to implant an almost exclusively Napoleonic view of warfare in his young charges (who, if the past was any indication, would probably spend most of their time fighting Indians).8
This sort of disconnect raises questions as to West Point’s actual mission. Sherman arrived at the crest of the age of Jackson, a high tide of egalitarian and democratic enthusiasm. Old Hickory was undeniably a general, but military elites and the kinds of schools that bred them were viewed with suspicion.9 West Point’s survival depended upon accommodation, and by offering a free college education that stressed engineering-friendly subjects to boys of all classes, the academy undoubtedly provided a service to a developing nation much in need of infrastructure.
It was understood that many cadets would not pursue careers as officers much beyond graduation but would turn instead to civilian pursuits. “I tell you Coz,” wrote Cadet Ulysses S. Grant, “if a man graduates from here he is set fer life, come what may.”10 Still, the Civil War would offer Grant a much better fit for the skill set he picked up at West Point than his prewar clerkship at his father’s store. So too with Sherman, Henry Halleck, and George McClellan, key luminaries of the great struggle, who would briefly leave the service, only to return to what proved to be their true calling. Today’s notion that West Point was essentially dedicated to producing “engineers who could also function as soldiers rather than the reverse”11 would have seemed odd indeed to these men. Just about everything cadets experienced at West Point was militarily derived or motivated.
A case in point is drill, the training that teaches soldiers to move together. Plebe Sherman was thrilled at first sight of the old cadets “stepping as one man—all forming a line”; suddenly, he wrote his foster brother Hugh, he understood what West Point was all about.12 He would have plenty of opportunity to confirm the observation. Cadets marched and drilled daily, sometimes with a rigor and intensity that caused a number to faint.
This was no casual pursuit. Ever since Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, had pioneered these routines in the Netherlands at the end of the sixteenth century, they had formed the basis of firefighting tactics. The explanation lay with the weapon everybody used, the single-shot, muzzle-loading, smoothbore musket, which also had not changed fundamentally over this time. Because bullets bounced up their barrels, the accurate range of these guns did not exceed around eighty yards, enabling combat formations to blast away at each other out in the open in relative proximity. Thus the key lay not in aiming, but in loading and firing as fast as possible, using a complicated series of motions first analyzed and regularized by Maurice and then drilled relentlessly into subsequent generations of infantrymen so they might be performed reliably and automatically in the chaos and terror of battle.
Maximum firepower also demanded that soldiers do their shooting in long thin lines only several ranks thick. Firing lines, however, were not only brittle, but incapable of rapid and precise maneuver. This required short, thick columns, which moved much faster but were also more vulnerable since the men were bunched together. Safety, or at least relative safety, lay in the rapid and orderly transition from column to line and the reverse, which in turn demanded the disciplined movement of smaller combat units—in the case of the Corps of Cadets, four companies, subdivided into platoons and sections. Whether on the parade ground of West Point or on an actual battlefield, choreographing all these elements so they didn’t collide or otherwise fall apart required almost endless practice, men marching at exactly the same pace with exactly the same stride almost ad infinitum, turning into metronomes, at least until they stopped and became loading machines.
Cadet Sherman soon grew bored with the ponderous evolutions of infantry tactics, but otherwise he said very little about them.13 No wonder. They were by intent mind-numbing. Frederick the Great probably had the last word on the subject: “I come from drill. I drill. I will drill—that is all the news I can give you.”14 Yet there was a great deal more to be learned on the parade ground than Sherman probably realized, subtle lessons but pervasive ones.
Courage had changed since the gun proliferated. Earlier, heroism had consisted of close fighting, hand to hand, and battle, especially in the Western military tradition, was understood to be a matter of intimate confrontation. But a hail of supersonic projectiles had eventually rendered this standard pretty much suicidal. As a compromise, fighting formations backed off, and bravery became largely a matter of standing fast and ignoring the bullets.
Among officers, this meant keeping a cool head and focusing on directing the fighting. Within the ranks, it consisted of a routinized determination to faithfully execute a series of movements drummed in by endless practice. To harness this kind of human energy, to use it effectively, leaders needed to grasp its repetitive power. So it made sense to give cadets the same experience. And as they drilled, Sherman and his cohort would have found themselves growing together, enlisting what historian William McNeill believes to be the primal penchant for dance—shared patterns of movement performed in unison, stirring a deep sense of corporate identity.15 Individual cadets bonded into a whole, exactly the message the academy wanted to impart.
Still, the entire enterprise was by its nature dehumanizing and fostered the notion that soldiers (to officers of the day, this generally meant long-term enlistees, or regulars) were basically expendable, things to be dressed up, marched around, and shot. In part, this was a function of the necessities of organized warfare itself, but it also reflected the aristocratic origins of firefighting as it had evolved in Europe. “The army,” in the words of the eighteenth-century courtier Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain, “must inevitably consist of the scum of the people. . . . We must therefore rely on military discipline to purify and mold the mass of corruption and turn it into something useful.”16 While Sherman and his classmates might not have put it so bluntly, the comment basically characterized the outlook they took away from the parade ground.
This is important, because one day they would come to command men who thought themselves as good as any other, who believed officers ought to be elected, and who, when they got new guns that made fighting in the open a great deal more dangerous, tended to take matters into their own hands. Some, like Sherman, reacted appropriately, others less so. But it is in this clash of outlooks that much of the combat history of the American Civil War is to be found.
Those arguing that West Point was more civilian than military could always point to the professorial confab who controlled the core curriculum, only one of whom had ever seen combat or even been on active duty for more than a few years.17 Beyond the lecture hall, a number were prominently published in their fields, none more so than Mahan, whose knowledge of Jomini was widely equated with strategic wisdom. Plainly these were academics, not soldiers.
Yet they were also not alone on the faculty. The Thayer system dictated that each senior faculty member be supported by section instructors, young officers who saw the cadets daily and on a more personal basis, in the barracks as well as the classroom. They were brought in on rotation from all over the regular army and were consistently among the best and brightest.18 Of the Civil War generation, George McClellan, William Hardee, Robert Anderson, John Schofield, Oliver O. Howard, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Fitz-John Porter, and William Rosecrans all served as “schoolmasters” at West Point. This was important duty.
Yet as with drill, its most lasting impact was probably more subtle and psychological than formal and academic. In effect, these young lieutenants and captains were the cadets’ umbilical cord to the real world of the U.S. Army. They ran the summer encampment where cadets were taught the practical aspects of service—how to set up a camp, post a picket, run a skirmish line, fire an artillery piece, even wield a sword and ride a horse if they didn’t know already. More important, they learned by example—the way these young officers looked and acted would have been the way cadets wanted to look and act.
These were role models and future commanders, and the cadets would have hung on their words in ways that eluded the senior faculty. These men could describe what it was like to command a lonely outpost, recount the splendors of a largely unoccupied continent, and, of course, tell war stories. Since a soldier on the frontier could expect combat every five years, there would have been plenty to tell. This is where West Point’s supposed gap in Indian removal instruction would have been filled: these men were the academy’s voice of practical wisdom on the nature of irregular warfare. Sherman and his classmates would adapt quickly to their first assignment, the Second Seminole War, in part because they had been told what to expect. Quietly, though.
Cadets also learned from one another, mostly from the inevitable process of sizing up and sorting out status. A pack of high-spirited late adolescents, living in close quarters, constrained on every side by a tyrannical behavioral model, brought out a lot of interesting behavior. Sherman himself cruised through most of it unperturbed, making friends but no apparent enemies. Already something of a newspaper junkie, he had a subscription to the National Gazette, which he loaned out freely.19 He was respected but low-key, choosing to abstain from involvement with the Point’s most obvious pecking order.
Cadet rank (“captains” and “lieutenants” from the first class, “sergeants” from the second, and “corporals” from the third) was West Point’s official standard of prestige. These positions were reserved for the spotless cadets, individuals of high academic standing who were also unsullied by demerits. But the academy’s version of success and subsequent military success did not necessarily coincide. Using the example of Henry Halleck and George McClellan, you might even say that an obsessive following of the rules actually inhibited fighting initiative and opportunism. Of course, no cadet was more spotless than Robert E. Lee, accumulating no demerits in four years, and on the battlefield nothing slowed him down.
Excerpted from Fierce Patriot by Robert L. O'Connell. Copyright © 2014 by Robert L. O'Connell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.