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The Civil War: West Point Under Fire The Civil War: West Point Under Fire

The Civil War: West Point Under Fire

Christina Ritter Marist ’13


The United States Military Academy at West Point exists today as one of the most prominent institutions of higher education in America, and arguably the world. The academy develops leaders, strong in mind and spirit and ready to make history, as so many graduates already have. Its hallowed halls echo with the voices of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, George S. Patton Jr., Douglas MacArthur, Omar Bradley, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Norman Schwarzkopf, David Petraeus, and countless other men and women who forged our history. In their indelible footsteps walk today’s cadets—West Point instilling in them broad scientific- and liberal arts-based curricula, while simultaneously preparing them, via an intense military and physical program, to serve upon graduation as officers in the United States Army. Situated in one of the most historically important locations in America, this towering granite fortification can be seen guarding the strategic bend in the Hudson River, where the Great Chain once lay to prevent British attempts to gain control of the valuable Hudson Highlands during the American Revolution.

An institution so steeped in historic significance, West Point as a garrison has witnessed every major conflict in the development of the United States. As the United States Military Academy, however, its first major test in homefront conflict came at the start of the Civil War. The war almost toppled the academy, stirring the political controversy that existed even prior to its founding in 1802. The Civil War forced previous accusations of elitism and development of a military aristocracy to resurface, along with a new charge against the academy as an institution that fostered treason and disunity, breeding cadets and leaders with Southern loyalties and Rebel ideals. These attacks had the potential to devastate the institution, with members of Congress bent on decentralization of officer training and the elimination of the academy’s “monopoly” on military education.

Founding Of West Point: Revolution to Rebellion

Thaddeus Kosciuszko designed the fortification of West Point at the direction of George Washington in 1778, and in 1779 it served as Washington’s headquarters. The vast construct of redoubts, forts, and batteries served to protect what Washington believed was the most strategically important position in America, the Hudson Highlands. Whoever controlled the Highlands controlled the Hudson River, thereby gaining the ability to divide the Northeastern colonies from the South. Controlling the Hudson meant command of a crucial transport route from the interior of the developing nation to the coast. West Point, in essence, held the key to the nation. Despite the treasonous attempts of Benedict Arnold to sell West Point to the British, it remained in American hands throughout the war. In 1783, Washington proposed the creation of a military academy to train army officers. He was immediately met by opposition—still raw with Post-revolutionary American sentiment—that claimed an academy would create a military aristocracy, far too reminiscent of England, and that it would be in direct opposition with the newly forged American democratic ideals. Mirroring the “state’s rights” debates of the time, Federalist and Republican factions feared the creation of a nationalized, government-controlled institution and were still cautious of the concept of a standing national army. Plans for the creation of a military academy were pushed aside, and the first spark of debate surrounding West Point was ignited.

In 1802, however, discussion among various legislators and military officials, such as John Adams, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton, regarding American dependence on foreign engineers and artillerists led to the conclusion that specialized training of American soldiers in the science of war was necessary. That same year, President Jefferson signed the legislation establishing the United States Military Academy, as well as a Corps of Engineers. At the start, the objective and governance of the academy was muddled and unstable. However, in 1817 Sylvanus Thayer became the academy’s first superintendent, providing the fledgling institution with a sound core curriculum, an emphasis on military discipline, and the integration of a system of values and honorable conduct that is still observed by today’s Corps of Cadets.

The “West Point Education” was first put to the test during the Seminole Wars of 1814 to 1819 and again during the Mexican War. These often glossed over conflicts served as proving grounds for recent academy graduates, such as Robert E. Lee (Class of 1829), Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (’38), William Tecumseh Sherman (’40), Ulysses S. Grant (’43), Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (’46), George McClellan (’46), and Philip Sheridan (’53). These men, along with many others, gained their first combat experience and moved up the ranks to secure prominent leadership positions on both sides of the Civil War, which loomed on the horizon.

The War in Congress

Paralleling the division stirring in the country itself, in the early 1860s Congress had aligned into factions engrossed in heated debate regarding the state of the crumbling nation. The regular deliberations of the 1861 First and Second Sessions of the thirty-seventh Congress shifted to the expansion, purpose, and influence of the United States Military Academy at West Point. The sessions erupted into firestorms of debate surrounding a bill proposed by Republican Henry Wilson, chairman of the Military Affairs and the Militia Committee, to fill vacancies left at the academy by Southern cadets who had resigned, and to expand the number of appointments allowable by each state to develop a larger Corps of Cadets in the face of war. The proposition of the bill, and how the appointments were to be carried out, ignited conflict over the exercise of federal power in appointing cadets, as well as challenging the loyalty of cadets appointed from Southern states. Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade resisted expansion of the academy based on the economic burden it would place on the dismantled nation. However, it became evident that “economic concerns” served as a guise for the underlying social and political animosity toward the academy. Wade addressed Congress in response to Wilson’s expansion bill:

I am opposed to it. For aught I know, it may be a public necessity; but it is anomalous; it is at war with all the just principles of this republican government and I wish it could be entirely done away with.1

The “just principles” to which Wade referred were based in the prevailing idea of Jacksonian Democracy at the time—giving rise to the power of the “common man.” Again, the fear of the expansion of an elitist institution and a military aristocracy came to the forefront. The secession of the deep Southern states left Congress with the problem of delegating the power of appointment from the House of Representatives of the states no longer represented in Congress. The proposed solution to the gap left by secession was entrusting President Lincoln to make appointments directly. The result was a fierce opposition in line with the sentiments of the time—determined to limit the scope of federal power:

Mr. GRIMES : I stated that this section would give an additional amount of patronage to the Executive. The Senator from New York says that is not so; it merely substitutes the President as the appointing power in place of the Representatives in Congress who ought to be here from some seven or eight States. Well, I should like to know the difference. Here are certain southern States that are entitled, through their Representatives, to appoint certain young men as cadets at the West Point Academy. Those Representatives are not here; they therefore do not make appointments, and we confer upon the power of the Chief Executive of the nation the patronage and power to do what these men were authorized to do. Does that not increase the patronage and power of the Executive? And how long is he to exercise it? Just so long as the condition of things exists in the Southern states that exists there now. We are going to establish a precedent, not only in relation to this matter as is now exists, but we are going to establish the precedent that hereafter, whenever there shall be a vacancy at the West Point Academy, the President shall select in place of the Representative in Congress or the man who ought to be here as the Representative in Congress from a given district.

Thus we are not only giving the president the power to fill vacancies in the Army itself, but we are authorizing the President of the United States to educate an army up to his own liking for future exigencies… .2

Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa seemed to imply that in allowing the President to order appointments, a precedent would be set in which, upon the absence of state governance, the federal government would assume power. Due to the immense influence of the academy, Grimes determined that with the power of appointing cadets, Lincoln would have the ability to “educate an army up to his own liking.” This played directly into the anxiety of the state’s rights debates, in essence giving the chief executive unchecked power to create a standing army—beginning with the education of its officers.

This concept of a “tailor-made” military elite was a major contributor to the trepidation of Congress in embracing the academy’s expansion. Hesitation lay not only in an increase in federal power to appoint cadets, but in the teachings and organization of the academy itself. Wade and the rest of the Congressional opposition believed that the academy created an elitist class of engineers, rather than effective warriors. Again, the power of the “common man” prevailed as a theme in their arguments, as conveyed by Rep. Wade:

The men who will eminently distinguish themselves in this war … who will come forward and show themselves capable of commanding great armies in the field, will be men the scope of whose intellect has never been narrowed down to the rules of your military school.3

He was supported by Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, who expressed:

Take off your engineering restraints; dismiss … from the Army every man who knows how to build a fortification, and let the men of the North with their strong arms and indomitable spirit, move down upon the rebels, and I tell you they will grind them to powder in their power.4

These men were not alone in believing that the United States Military Academy served as little more than a symbol of military aristocracy and was, in essence, ineffective in providing officers to the cause of the war. In 1861, The New York Tribune, one of the most popular publications of the time, made the claim that, “However imperfect the civil appreciation may be as to military science, common sense is an attribute which buttons and bullion do not alone confer.”

Much of what went on inside the academy did little to quell such arguments. Cadets were trained in etiquette and ballroom dancing, and participated in elaborate parades and presentations. Within the academy there was a strict hierarchy, still present today, based on grade level and academic and military performance. In order to limit the influence of a nationalized military institution, the concept of “decentralization” was proposed. This idea would shut down the United States Military Academy in favor of establishing institutions of military education in each state.

The Question of Decentralization

In a nation in the midst of state-based division, the proposition of training officers at state-sponsored military schools came with an array of concerns. Proponents of decentralization believed that a more effective army would be produced if each state were responsible for the education of its officers, rather than relying on a single institution. The belief existed that the United States Military Academy held a monopoly on the minds of young men destined to be officers. With this control, the academy was, in theory, instilling Rebel ideals and fostering treason against the Union; Congress noted the rate at which Southern cadets resigned from the academy to join the Confederacy, as well as cited controversial war records of former graduates. Those in favor of preserving the academy claimed that a nationalized institution serves as a force of unity, while decentralized military education could be affected by the regional tensions plaguing the war-torn nation, dividing the officer corps even further.

Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler spoke on behalf of the academy’s opposition:

Let the young men of the several states receive a military education at home … and very soon a spirit of emulation will spring up among the different states, and instead of having the number specified in this bill of educated military men, every state will have as many, or more, perhaps, of educated military men, and I will guaranty that they will be well educated as those men are.5

These ideas came in conjunction with discussions over the Morrill Land Grant Act, enacted in 1862, which provided grants to each state for the establishment of institutions of higher education. Congressmen who aimed to terminate the “monopoly” West Point had on military education hoped to include officer training in these state-run schools (much like modern-day ROTC programs). Decentralization would neutralize the federal grip over army leadership, quelling the fears of those who assumed that the academy and its teachings conflicted with Republican ideals.

Congress’s fear regarding cadet disloyalty was not without warrant. Long before the first shots of the Civil War were fired, tensions at the United States Military Academy were heightening. As early as 1840, cadets were being divided into Northern and Southern companies, an action that fueled the storm that erupted at the academy after the bombardment of Fort Sumter:

Now, as they look out the windows of their rooms at the gray clouds looming over the shrouded humps of the Hudson Highlands, the post band gathered… Young men in gray filled every window as the band stamped to a halt. Scarcely missing a beat, they broke into the ‘Star Spangled banner.’

At one window, a slim 20 year old Ohioan named George Armstrong Custer led a cheer for the flag … at an opposite window, Custer’s best friend, a swarthy giant from Texas, Thomas Lafayette Rosser, called for a cheer for ‘Dixie.’ Back and forth thundered the rival cheers until every throat was hoarse and aching.” 6

At the time of this Congressional session, as many as sixty-five cadets (out of a total enrollment of 240) had resigned from the academy to align with the Confederacy. Many Congressmen believed that this instability among the cadets’ ranks, as well as the conflict that sectional divisions were causing within the academy, could best be best avoided by educating future officers with peers from their respective home states.

Members of Congress cited these resignations as evidence that the United States Military Academy planted the seeds of rebellion and treason. The sentiment was that an ambiance of superiority, akin to the idea of Southern gentry, pervaded the academy in its hierarchical organization and emphasis on tradition. Kansas Senator James H. Lane went so far in his claims against the academy as to state that should the North fall, an appropriate epitaph would read, “Died of West Point Pro-slaveryism.” 7 While much of the backlash against the academy in this light was unsubstantiated, there is evidence among the cadets of a certain Southern influence. George Custer wrote:

As the pronounced abolitionist was rarely seen in congress in those days, so was his appearance among the corps of cadets of still rarer occurrence; besides it requires more than ordinary moral and physical courage to boldly avow oneself as an abolitionist. The name was considered one of opprobrium, and the cadet who had the courage to avow himself as an abolitionist must be prepared to face the social frowns of most of his comrades and at times to defend his opinions by physical strength and mettle.” 8

While the majority of cadets at the time were moderate in political views, so as to avoid “ungentlemanly” confrontation, those with strong abolitionist views were overshadowed by the more vocal Rebel zealots. The image of the academy may have been tarnished by the minority of truly hardened “pro-slaveryites,” which neglected to recognize the vast majority of silent abolitionist or moderate cadets.

While there may have existed a degree of “Rebel” leaning among the cadets, there are also a few instances in which the loyalties of academy administrators came into question. A prime example is the case of P.G.T. Beauregard, then the academy’s superintendent. Hailing from Louisiana, Beauregard assumed the role of superintendent on January 21, 1861. Five days later, Louisiana confirmed secession. All eyes fell on Beauregard. Especially concerned with his reaction to Louisiana’s secession were cadets from that state. When a Louisiana cadet asked whether or not he should resign, Beauregard advised, “Watch me; and when I jump, you jump. What’s the use of jumping too soon?” 9 Beauregard resigned his position on January 28, urged by letters from General Joseph G. Totten and Secretary of War Joseph Holt. The cadets followed suit. “Beauregard’s superiors were well aware of the mistake they had made in placing an avowed secessionist in charge of the impressionable boys at the nation’s officer training school.” 10 The fears of Congress over monopolized military education and Rebel influences of the academy were validated by the influence of Beauregard’s resignation.

On the other side of the spectrum stood men like Major General John G. Barnard, a former academy superintendent, who declared that “The ties formed at the Academy between youth from all sections have endured unimpaired after leaving it, and have been a powerful means of restraining sectional hostility.” 11 Following suit, Chairman Wilson proclaimed:

If they had been educated entirely in their own section of country, I do not believe that those men today would be following your flag. I believe, sir, that their education at West Point, their association with men from other sections of the country, the ideas and sentiments imbibed there, have strengthened those men in their devotion to the flag of their country.12

Both men allude to the overarching sense of unity instilled within the Corps of Cadets at West Point—an allegiance not only to their fellow cadets, but to the nation they were being trained to defend. While charges were being levied against the academy as a place of “treason” because of the resignation of Southern cadets, many failed to note the number of Southern cadets who remained loyal to the Union (seventy-six percent in the Class of 1861), in stark contrast to the majority of southern students who abandoned Northern civilian universities such as Yale, Harvard and Princeton. General George A. Custer’s memoirs depict a scene during the war that displays the extent to which the academy experience united even the most seemingly bitter rivals:

When one by one the states seceded the cadets appointed from those states said good-bye and parted with expressions and demonstrations of real affection. Men make few protestations of undying attachments, but it never entered our mind that war could destroy a friendship cemented by our four years of intimate association. I have found the most loyal and unchanged friendship among those of my class and many others from classes whom I have met since the war, or even taken prisoners during the war… . I was serving on General McClellan’s staff and heard that a Confederate officer has been captured and had said he knew me and would like to see me. I went immediately to the place where he was under guard and found to my delight it was my West Point friend [Lieutenant J.B.] Washington… After a joyous meeting … I left and went to General McClellan to ask consent to his being put on parole that be might afterwards become my guest. The request was granted …13

After this meeting, it is said that General Custer went so far as to procure a guard to secure Lt. Washington’s wife and their Virginia home from Union Army marauders. The bond forged at the United States Military Academy, instilled in the values of cadets, ran deep enough to blur the lines between Yankee and Rebel, prisoner and captor—leaving only the comradery of the Long Gray Line.


The words “Duty, Honor, Country” serve as the motto of the Corps of Cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point. These words took on new meaning during the Civil War, leaving cadets to question to whom they should align their duty—whether it would be more honorable to defend that Union they had been taught to serve at the academy, or their homes and families in the Rebel states, and to what “Country” they should claim loyalty. These questions stirred tensions at the academy, leading to the resignation of many Southern cadets and hostility of Northern cadets toward their “Rebel” counterparts. Many in Congress saw the academy as the source of rebellion, fostering disunity among the ranks of future leaders. They believed a nationalized military education system mirrored English aristocracy and exemplified Southern ideals of elitism, classism, and a lack of democratic principles. In their eyes, the academy had to be abolished in order to preserve the newly won sense of American identity and liberty, as well as the merits of Jacksonian Democracy. This was to be done in a way that would reflect the state’s rights fervor of the time—a decentralization of military education, leading to each state having the resources to train its own officers.

However, despite occasional eruptions of impassioned sentiment, the United States Military Academy has often been described as having a pervasive sense of unity, forging a brotherhood among those who attend, or even step foot on the grounds. The “spirit” of the academy, rich even then with the history and passion of an embattled fledgling nation, superseded all regional tensions to cultivate a unified force of American officers, forthright in their defense of the flag and preservation of the Union. This omnipresent “West Point spirit” is clearly evident during the surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox. Lee was confident that Grant would offer honorable terms of surrender, due to their teachings at the academy that claimed: “A foe is a foe during a fight but after the fight he is a foe no more.” 14 In perhaps the most powerful show of reconciliation, it is said that Grant—in the midst of the joyous fervor that erupted within the victorious Union ranks—ordered his band to play Dixie.15

The bill proposed to expand the Corps of Cadets in the face of the Civil War spurred fierce debate over the necessity and motives of the United Stated Military Academy. Congress stirred with discussion of treason, elitism, dishonor; many claimed that military education need not be taught, but learned only through experience on the battlefield. The academy was threatened with legislation aimed at disbanding it altogether, in essence ridding the army of a corps of highly specialized engineers who possessed skills that proved so vital in the Mexican War and in the molding of generals and junior officers who would rise to command during the Civil War. The academy appropriations bill continued to surface in Congress, being augmented and fiercely deliberated upon until its eventual passage in 1865. The verdict stood that the United States Military Academy would survive and continue to impact the course of history.


1. L isowski, Lori A. “The Future of West Point: Senate Debates on the Military Academy During the Civil War.” Civil War History; Mar 1988, Vol. 34 Issue 1, p.6.

2. Congressional Globe, 37 Cong., 1 Sess. p.91.

3. Congressional Globe, 37 Cong., 2 S ess. p. 164.

4. A mbrose, Stephen E. Duty, Honor, Country, A History Of West Point. Johns Hopkins Univ Pr, 1999. p. 185.

5. Congressional Globe, 37 Cong., 2 S ess. p. 165.

6. Fleming, Thomas J. Band Of Brothers, West Point In The Civil War. Walker & Co, 1988. p.8.

7. W illiams, Harry. “The Attack Upon West Point During the Civil War.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review. 25.4 (1939): 491-504. Print.

8. Carhart,Tom. Sacred Ties, From West Point Brothers To Battlefield Rivals: A True Story Of The Civil War. Berkley Pub Group, 2010. p.53.

9. W illiams, Harry. P.G.T. Beauregard, Napoleon In Gray. Louisiana State Univ Pr, 1995. 46.

10. Ibid.

11. Barnard, J.G., “WES T POINT MILITARY ACADE MY.; Major Barnard Reviews the Opinion of Secretary Cameron.” New York Times [New York] 19 JUL 1861, n. pag. Web. 20 Feb. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/1861/07/19/news/west-point-military-academy-major-barnard-reviews-opinionsecretary-cameron.html>.

12. Congressional Globe, 37 Cong., 1 Sess. p.90.

13. Custer, Elizabeth Bacon, and Arlene Reynolds. The Civil War Memories Of Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Reconstructed From Her Diaries And Notes. Univ of Texas Pr, 1994. p. 28.

14. Kensey, Paul. “West Point Classmates-Civil War Enemies.”2002. 11-12. Web. 15 Nov. 2011. <http://www.americancivilwar.asn.au/meet/2002_10_mtg_westpt_classmates_enemies.pdf>.

15. Ibid.