Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Role of Engineers in the Civil War: Dennis H. Mahan Creates a Curriculum

Dennis H. Mahan
Professor David Douglass resigned March 1, 1831, and was succeeded by Professor Dennis. H. Mahan on January 1, 1832. Following his graduation in July 1824, Lieutenant Mahan joined the Corps of Engineers. He was assistant professor of mathematics at the Academy from August 29, 1824 to August 31, 1825. Between 1825 and 1830, Mahan spent four years in Europe studying public works and military institutions. He was a student in the military school of application for engineers and artillerists at Metz, France. When he returned home, he served as acting professor of engineering from September 1, 1830 to January 1, 1832.

After his appointment to professor, Mahan devoted his energies to preparing a suitable set of textbooks for the department. As he developed the textbooks, he delivered lectures from his studies in Europe.

By 1841, the class register included a complete set of books and lithographs on engineering and military science. The list includes instruction on an impressive number of topics:
  • Mahan's Treatise on Field Fortification
  • Mahan's Lithographic Notes on Permanent Fortification
  • Mahan's Lithographic Notes on Attack and Defense
  • Mahan's Lithographic Notes on Mines and other Accessories
  • Mahan's Lithographic Notes on Composition of Armies and Strategy
  • Mahan's Course in Civil Engineering
  • Mahan's Lithographic Notes on Architecture and Stone Cutting
  • Mahan's Lithographic Notes on Machines (for first section only)
These frequently revised books were the basis of the course of engineering during Mahan's time at the Academy. In 1848, he introduced Mahan's Advanced Guard and Outposts; in 1858, Moseley's Mechanics of Engineering, and in 1870 Mahan's Industrial Drawing.

The instruction was presented to the First Class (fourth year) cadets. Around the end of the Civil War, the classes were divided into sections of ten to twelve men each with each section receiving instruction for one and a half hours daily between 8 and 10:30 a.m. Cadets taking the drawing class attended daily from 8 to 11 o'clock. Each section was under the immediate charge of an officer, usually of the Corps of Engineers, as instructor. Professor Mahan visited the sections daily, listened to the recitations, asked questions, and presented additional instruction and remarks as he thought necessary and desirable. This interaction allowed Mahan to judge the instructors abilities, methods of teaching, and grading. He was also able to evaluate the individual Cadets.

Professor Mahan gave very few lectures and most of these were short descriptions of campaigns and battles with criticisms of the tactical positions of the opposing forces. Most of his oral and personal instruction was given to the Cadets during his visits to the section room.

The engineering drawing course included the accurate construction of a number of problems contained in fortification drawing and stereotomy, drawings of a canal lock in plan, section, and elevation, and the plan, section, and elevation of a half front of fortification, Noizet's Method. The canal lock and Noizet's Method were finished as completely as time allowed, and the sections, slopes, etc., were usually tinted in watercolors.

Mahan promoted the development of professionalism in military science. His textbooks were used worldwide from the time they were written until after World War I. Mahan also founded the Napoleon Seminar at West Point, where advanced under-graduates and senior officers studied and discussed the great European wars.

Professor Mahan's lectures and writings about military fortifications and strategy were instrumental in the conduct of the Civil War by the officers on both sides. Most of the Civil War commanders learned about entrenchment, fortifications, and warfare from his classes and books.

On September 16, 1871, the West Point Board of Visitors recommended Mahon be forced to retire from teaching. The distraught Mahan committed suicide by leaping into the paddlewheel of a steamboat on the Hudson River.

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