Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Role of West Pointers in the Civil War

Artillery Practice at the Academy
As most historians known, officers from West Point played a significant role in the Civil War. I tried to quantify this question by examining the general officers who served in the war.  I decided to only include the senior commanders, major generals and above, because brigadier generals were often political appointees and brevet promotions (Union officers only). I also excluded all brevet commissions in March 1865 and later because many were strictly honorary and did not reflect actual combat responsibilities. This criteria resulted in a total of 216 officers of which 126 were union and 90 were Confederate.  This supports the notion that proportionately many officers from the South chose to fight for the Confederacy. If we used the size of the two armies as an indicator, we would expect at least twice as many high-ranking general officers in the north and probably more considering the use of brevet promotions in the Union Army.

The Plain at West Point
Of the total number of higher ranked officers, 59% attended West Point.  I did not include Southern officers who received commissions from VMI.  Another disparity is revealed when examining the two armies. In the Confederate high command, 64% of the officers attended West Point while in the Union Army only 56% were West Point graduates.  This might be the result of more political appointments from the Lincoln Administration compared to the Davis Administration.
Commandant of Cadets C. F. Smith
I examined the year that officers graduated from the Academy to see if I could find "the class the stars shined on."  Conventional reason might suggest that it was the Class of 1846 with McClellan and Jackson.  This class produced eight high-ranking officers. The class that took the prize was 1842 with thirteen senior officers. The class of 1841 had 8 and the class of 1843 had 9. These three classes accounted for 23% of all West Point officers who achieved the rank of major general or higher.  One might ask who taught the cadets in these classes.  Why it was the esteemed Commandant of Cadets, Charles Ferguson Smith.  During his term as Commandant, Smith accounted for 30% of all the West Point graduates who became senior officers during the Civil War.

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