Editor's note: This article was
originally published in The Charger in the Spring of 2002.
The United States Military Academy at
West Point, New York was a very confusing place at the beginning of
the American Civil War.
In January of 1861, cadets were
leaving West Point to return home as their home states withdrew from
the Union. The Commandant at the time was none other than the
later-to-be-famous Confederate general, P.G.T. Beauregard.
The War Department was in a panic
because at this critical time when they needed a thousand new
officers, West Point officer cadets were leaving in droves to return
home to the South. Under this pressure, the War Department
asked Beauregard to step down as Commandant even though he insisted he would stay loyal
as long as his home state of Louisiana remained
in the Union.
The War Department had anticipated
circumstances correctly as Louisiana left the Union two weeks later. The
Department also asked that the graduating classes for 1861 and 1862
be graduated in the summer of 1861. This is how George Armstrong
Custer graduated a year early.
|Cadets at West Point
Congress was furious that West
Point, paid for by the Federal government, was supplying the
military leadership for the states in rebellion. In fact opponents
of West Point forced Congress to vote on closing the military
academy in 1863. However, Union successes led by West Point
graduates like Ulysses S. Grant against the failures of civilian
commanders like John C. Fremont, Benjamin Butler, and Franz Siegel
persuaded Congress to leave West Point open.
The Military Academy also suffered
once the war started in earnest as many instructors left to join the
army. This may have hurt West Point but was critical to the Union
Army as most of the senior military West Point staff joined the
Nine hundred and seventy-seven West
Point graduates from the classes of 1833 through 1861 were alive when the
Civil War began. Of these men, 259 (26%) joined the Confederacy and
638 (65%) fought for the Union. Eight did not fight for either
side. Thirty-nine graduates from these classes who had come to West
Point from Southern states fought for the Union and 32 who had come from Northern states fought for the Confederacy.
The quality of the Military Academy
suffered during the war. The drop out/failure rate reached almost
50% of the cadets. This happened for several reasons: First, many of
the long time instructors were away in the Army. Second, good
students left early to receive high commissions in the militia's of
their home states. Third, the New York City draft riots being only
60 miles away affected West Point. Not only were cadets sent to New
York City to help quell the riots, but there was a strong concern
that it could spread up the Hudson River to West Point itself.
And finally, it was hard to get
students to concentrate on their studies while huge military battles
like Gettysburg and Vicksburg were going on.
Ninety-five graduates of West Point
were killed in the Civil War and 141 were wounded. The largest
number of casualties came from the class of 1854 of which almost
half were killed or wounded. The most famous class was that of 1846
which included George McClellan, "Stonewall" Jackson, A.P.
Hill, Cadmus Wilcox, George Stoneman, and last in the class, George
Most West Point graduates who
served in the Civil War did not reach the status of a Lee, Jackson,
Grant, or Sherman, nevertheless they did clearly demonstrate the
military value of West Point training.