Military Education

Ideology and Military Education
The establishment of the military academy at West Point was controversial, advocated by the Federalists and finally established during the administration of the anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson.  Military academies had existed for decades in Continental Europe - in France, Prussia, and Austria.  Britain lagged, and here, too, being the parent culture of America, the concept was controversial, but the need for staff officers forced the issue.  In a 1790s letter to Lt Col Marchant from Col. Charles Crawford, explains - (p 83-84 of "Memoirs of the Late Major-General LeMarchant"):

"...We are so destitute of officers qualified to form the Quarter-Master-General's department, and an efficient corps of Aides-de-camp, and our officers in general have so little knowledge of the most essential parts of their profession, that we are obliged to have the recourse to foreigners for assistance, or our operations are constantly liable to failure in their execution."

"The success of the French in the present war is a striking proof of what the superior talents and science of officers may effect.  Their armies, though labouring under great disadvantages, in many essential points of interior discipline and arrangement, have generally been victorious from the superior excellence of their officers.  The vulgar idea of their having been often conducted by men of no knowledge or experience in the profession, is perfectly erroneous.  Go back to the commencement of the war. and you will find a most able military committee established, whose first care was to select from the Engineers, Artillery, and Staff, of the old army, (few of those emigrated,) numbers of excellent officers, men of the very extensive science and great abilities, of whom they composed Quarter-Master-General's departments, corps of Aides-de-camp and other Staff officers, for all their armies.  Where the commanding Generals were incapable of directing operations, those officers assisted; for instance, when political considerations induced the Government to place civil persons at the head of their armies, or military persons in whose abilities, science, and experience, they had no confidence - this system has invariably prevailed...  In short, I think that instead of the experience of this war having diminished the importance of military instructions (as some people advertising to the armies of France have pretended), it has served to place its absolute necessity, and the eminent advantages that may be derived from it, in a more conspicuous light than any other war that is recorded in history."

The American Civil War would see some similar things, with inexperienced political generals heavily advised by lower ranking professionals. 

A British military academy had been proposed before and was rejected due to expense and prejudices.  Finally, an academy was established at High Wycombe with the help of French emigre, General Jarry and Lt Col LeMarchant heavily involved.  The academy helped to win the wars against Napoleon, but there was ideological resistance.  Page 62 states,

"Any interference on the part of Government with the education of the higher ranks of the army was regarded with extreme jealousy by the public, as a step towards withdrawing the officer from civil society, and making him the creature of the crown."

In America, there was concern about standing armies - establishing an elite within the army was a concern.

The British military academy taught how to fight war at the highest levels of command,

"The lectures of General Jarry were greatly admired - by all who could understand them - but being confined to the higher branches of the military art, and delivered in a foreign language, they were quite lost on the generality of officers, who knew little of their profession beyond the mere routine of regimental duty." (p 68-69)

Despite America's British roots, French influence on the American army was solidified in the mid-1800s when Winfield Scott adopted French manuals and methods for the army. (see Michael Bonura's "Under the Shadow of Napoleon")   Despite the translation of French drill manuals, there was little or no attention given to foreign techniques for the management of large armies.  The Delafield Commission's study of the Crimean War, for example, made mention of minutia but nothing of staff.  Henry Halleck's book spent little time with staff duties and instead referred the reader to a number of other books.  Why should there have been this neglect?  Only the Mexican army was a serious threat, and they had been easily thrashed!  A standing army was distrusted in the English-speaking world, and a Prussian style general staff, or even a French style staff, was seen as another step toward a militaristic and anti-democratic state.  William T Sherman, on page 405 of his memoirs confirms this, writing, "(Staff officers) too commonly construe themselves into the elite, as made of better clay than the common soldier...  This is all wrong; utterly at variance with our democratic form of government..."  Frank Wilkeson, a veteran of the Army of the Potomac, described a staff officer that he encountered (p38), "This gold-laced youth of the staff had a look of importance on his face that made us all smile.  His manner was as though he that morning, single handed and before breakfast, had vanquished a couple of maiden-devouring dragons."  Fighting this prejudice against staff, after the war, General William Hazen recommended a Prussian style general staff and a school to go along with it, stating that although West Point and its cadets were good, the academy was not adequate for the purpose of preparing staff officers.  But real staff reform would only come decades later.  

Ideology affected military education as well as staffs.  Historian Carol Reardon points to an American Romantic-era mentality that was sympathetic to the genius concept  - it was believed that formal education actually hindered the development of a natural genius.  George Washington and Andrew Jackson, for example, had been successful commanders without formal military education.  Frank Wilkeson stated,

"...the military salvation of this country requires that the West Point Academy be destroyed.  Successful commanders of armies are not made.  Like great poets, they are born.  Men like Caesar, Marlborough, Napoleon, and Grany are not the products of schools.  They occur sparingly in the course of nature. West Point turns out shoulder-strapped office-holders.  It cnnot produce soldiers ; for these are ,as I claim, born, and not made.  And it is susceptible of demonstration that the almost ruinous delay in suppressing the rebellion and restoring the Union ; the deadly failure of campaigns year after year ; the awful waster of the best soldiers the world has seen ; and the piling up of the public debt into the billions, was wholly due to the West Point influence and West Point commanders.  They were commanders, but they were not soldiers."  (p xi-xii)    

Wilkeson and others have a valid point that great commanders are born, not created.  Behavior of many Civil War generals strongly suggests autism, which, in mild form, is beneficial in that the autistic person is more creative and often more intelligent.  Physical appearance of many Civil War generals, West Point graduates, suggests autism, with autistic facial features such as wide-set eyes, shallow nose bridge, and rotated ears being very common.  This is also true for Napoleon, Wellington, and Frederick, 

America's egalitarian nature led many to believe that the common man was as able as the educated.  The Gorenfelds in "Kearny's Dragoons" relates a story of training on the frontier, quoting a trooper named Hildreth,

"It is rather a laughable fact, and one that reflectsbut little credit upon the accomplished graduates of West Point, that they should be compelled to receive instruction in swordsmanship from one of the enlisted members of the regiment." (p 40)

Of the common soldier, Frank Wilkeson believed, "Very many of you were the equals, and not a few of you were the superiors, of your officers in intelligence, courage, and military ability."  (p ix)  Wilkeson related a visit to neighboring infantrymen:

"A few groups of earnest, intelligent soldiers sat under trees studying the war maps of Virginia which were open before them...  I sat with these men for an hour.  we talked of the campaign, and studied the maps..  Not a manof the group I was with beleived that the movement would be successful.  We knew, and the maps showed, that the Confederates had the shortest line to march on..."

Wilkeson then returned to his artillery battery, where the artillerists were engaged in similar activity. (p 80-82) 

Wilkeson later related how an NCO cogently analyzed the operational situation, then claiming, "The line sergeant clearly expressed the thoughts and feelings of all the intelligent volunteers.  I have quoted him to illustrate the accuracy of military reasoning that enabled the enlisted men of American blood to correctly judge of the state of the campaign."  (p87)
 Although a few schools for post West Point education were established, they did not endure.  
Some doubted the the quality of the cadets at West Point.  Education reformer Henry Barnard in 1863 spoke out for competitive examinations for entry into West Point and against the system of appointment by members of Congress, a system that he believed resulted in many unsuitable appointments - he stated that of 54 new students at West Point, only 10 were fit to enter high school. (Steiner 95)  For that matter, many historians doubt whether a West Point education provided Civil War commanders much in the way of theoretical background.  Engineering curriculum at West Point, many believe, hampered a cadet's ability to understand war and stifled creativity, making officers poorly prepared for a large war.  Winfield Scott doubted the wisdom of West Point's extreme focus on math, and faculty even suggested that more attention be given to the arts.  In 1819, General Wool stated that great victories, "were not achieved by the 'rule and compass' or measurement of angles.  They were the product of enlarged minds, highly cultivated and improved by a constant and accurate survey of human events."  (Hope 72)  Henry Halleck wrote about the ante-bellum army, "Our standing army is but a bad and ill-organized militia, and our militia not better than a mob.  Nor have defects in these been supplied by Lycees, Prytanees, and Polytechnic schools.  The morbid patriotism of some, and the false economy of others, have nearly obliterated every thing like military knowledge among us."  Field service did little to improve the situation.  Famously, Richard Ewell stated that during his service in the West, he learned everything about commanding fifty dragoons and forgot everything else - not exactly a ringing endorsement of officers' preparation for high command.  None other than Ulysses Grant, a veteran of the Mexican War, had never seen a battalion drill together and only came across a copy of Hardee's tactics manual early in the Civil War.  Grant had not wanted to attend West Point, and as a cadet, he checked novels out of the library. 

Self-education can make up for, or augment, formal education.  Authors like John Watts De Peyster, a brigadier of New York state militia, wrote a number of books on military history during the mid-nineteenth century, including books on the Thirty Years War and on Napoleon, and he had an extensive library.  There must have been a market for such books or they wouldn't have been published.  Revealing his thoughts on military education, De Peyster wrote, "Too much West Point science had weakened his (McClellan's) strategy...", indicating his opinion that formal education did, in fact, hinder "natural genius".  A quote from Lee, mentioned later, implies that he read publications from the Royal United Service Institution.  The demise of cavalry was predicted by some in the United Service Institution's publication, so perhaps Winfield Scott was a regular reader, and perhaps this influenced his early-war decision to raise an army with few cavalry regiments.  Although Americans must have read military periodicals, little is known about this.  The Gorenfelds, in "Kearny's Dragoons Out West" state that each pre-war companies on the frontier had their libraries.  McClellan had easier assignments, and "McClellan' Own Story" discusses his self-education:

"Educated as a soldier, he had devoted his life to his profession, and was one of the most accomplished military scholars of the world.  His military library was large, in various languages, always increasing, every book thoroughly studied.  He continued these studies faithfully to his death.  Military operations in every part of the world commanded his close observation.  He supplied himself with maps and all information in current literature, following movements of armies, keeping himself familiar with every phase of campaigns, whether in Europe, on Afghanistan, in Egypt, or in South Africa."

He also read archeology, philosophy, world exploration.  "Few suspected his mastery of subjects on which he only asked questions..." 

Jacob Cox, a volunteer who rose corps command, wrote about post West Point study (p185),

"How far the officers of the engineers and of the staff corps applied themselves to general military study, would depend upon their taste and their leisure.  Their opportunities for doing so were much better than those of line officers, but there was also a tendency to immerse themselves in the studies of their special department of work.  Very eminent officers of engineers have told me since the war that the pressure of their special professional work was such that they had found no time to read even the more noteworthy publications concerning the history of our great struggle."

Cox went on the explain the difficulties officers faced to continue their educations on their own (p187):

"The valuable books were all foreign publications in costly form with folio atlases, and were neither easy to procure nor easily carried about with the limited means and the rigid economy of transportation which marked army life in the far West."

In a footnote, Cox recounts Congressional testimony from John Gibbon, an artillerist, showing how little historical knowledge possessed by professional, West Point educated officers:

"Question:  You have studied the history of battles a great deal: Now, in the battles of Napoleon, had they at any time half as many artillery engaged as there were at Gettysburg. 
Answer:  I am not sufficiently conversant with military history to tell you that.  I think it very doubtful whether more guns were ever used in any one battle before."

But at Gettysburg, Cox states, 200 guns were used while at Leipzig in 1813, 2,000 were used.  Cox believed that armies learning the hard way was an unfortunate necessity - "the history of European conflicts proves that there also the theoretical preparation of military men had not, up to that time, saved them from the necessity of learning both generalship and army administration in the terrible school of experience, in the first year in the field when a new war broke out after a long interval of peace." 

To Cox, the personal attributes of a commander were much more important than education.  European experience,

"like ours, showed that the personal qualities of a commanding officer counted for much more than his theoretical equipment, and that a bold heart, a cool head, and practical common sense were of much more importance than anything taught at school.  With these, a brief experience would enable an intelligent man to fill nearly any subordinate position with fair success...  The supreme qualification of a general in chief is the power to estimate truly and grasp clearly the situation on a field of operations too large to be seen by the physical eye at once, and the undaunted temper of will which enables him to execute with persistent vigor the plan which his intellect approves... With (proper qualities) his acquired knowledge will be doubly useful, but without it an illiterate slave-trader like Forrest may far outshine him as a soldier."

The army sent officers abroad to better understand foreign militaries.  Phil Kearny attended the French cavalry school at Saumur and fought in North Africa afterward.  After serving in the Mexican War, he was an aide to Winfield Scott, among other army duties, but he resigned, traveled around the world, and eventually fought alongside the French in the 1859 battle of Solferino.  Although his experience was unique and aided by his family's wealth, he was not alone in studying foreign armies.  Interestingly, Kearny was no fan of engineers as army commanders.  In March 1862, he wrote, "Although there is no one exactly to replace McClellan, I now proclaim distinctly that, unless a chief, a LINE officer not an engineer, of military prestige (success under fire with troops), is put in command of the Army of the Potomac (leaving McClellan the minor duties of General-in-Chief), we will come in for some awful disaster..."

In "The Delafield Commission" by Michael Moten, the author says that there were 150 officer visits abroad before the Civil War.  Moten, a West Point graduate, does not have a favorable assessment of the antebellum West Point education.  Of the engineering education, Moten writes, (p38) "It might have been possible to design a mathmatical and scientific curriculum that challenged cadets and encouraged the creativity.  Instead, the Academic Board expressed goal was to discupline the minds of their charges to a 'system and habit of thought'.  The practice of daily recitations in each course, performed from a rigid military posture in a precise oral format, rewarded discipline and perfection rather than analysis and innovation...  And the dearth of humanities courses, which might have ocasioned debate or at least introduced some ambiguity about the 'right answer' left cadets with few opportunities to challenge recieved orthodoxy."  With Europeans eagerly adopting American technology, using American machines in weapons manufacture, the American army showed intellectual immaturity and professional insecurity compared to European armies.  The three-man Delafield Commission failed to see the significance of the Prussian general staff, having not talked with anyone from the general staff or visited the Prussian military academy - perhaps this was because no one on the commission had commanded large bodies of men.  (Moten 200-201)  The commisioners split up upon returning to America, with each writing a section of the report.  The opportunity to work together creatively was lost.  "Together they might might have created a new system of thought, pulling together information they had collected from all over Europe and throughout the spectrum of military art and science."  Instead the report was a mass of technical details, subject to parochialism - a narrow outlook and a failure to see the big picture - and an "affinity for paradigms", or models, all foreign.  (Moten 209-210)

The French seemed impressed by West Point, perhaps because it was based on the French model.  "The American Army in the War of Secession", written by DeChanal, who observed the Union war effort for several months, had this to say, (p.132)

"It cannot be denied that the West Point military academy has trained very eminent men; of this, the present war, conducted on both sides by its graduates, furnishes conclusive proof.  The great work of the topographical survey of the lakes, the construction of the Union fortifications, of lighthouses, and the great levees of the Mississippi , the work of the engineer corps, prove the excellence of the scientific instruction of the academy."

He then compared West Point to French institutions:

"The mathematical course is less thorough than that of the Polytechnic School, but much superior to that of Saint-Cyr.  Geography and military history are much less studied than at Asiant Cyr, but military art, physics, engineering and artillery are more thoroughly taught.  The courses of permanent fortification and artillery can not be compared with those of Metz, but are equal to the staff school.  The construction of of batteries, the use of gabions and fascines, geodasy and topography are more completely taught at Metz and the Staff School. The purely military education, comprising the tactics of infantry, artillery, and cavalry, and equitation, is as thorough at West Point as at Saint-Cyr, the Staff School or the School at Metz.

DeChanal goes on to explain that primary education in the United States is "advanced and wide spread" and that universities like Harvard were equal to the best in Europe, but that secondary education needs improvement.  He also states that the admissions process for West Point needs improvement and should be based upon "public examinations", pointing out that roughly half of all cadets failed to graduate, most failing to pass examinations at the end of each year, examinations comparable to European entrance exams.

In "A Scientific Way of War", Ian Hope differs with the negative assessment of American military education, noting that West Point was designed in opposition to the genius system, that its purpose was to make all officers competent rather than rely on the genius of a few, and he believes that it largely succeeded in this.  The curriculum, Hope believes, although heavy on science and math and engineering, incorporated enough study of military principles and military history, to make a reasonably well rounded officer.  Student papers submitted to the voluntary Napoleon Club could be 30-60 pages in length or even longer.  (Hope 179)  Additionally, cadets were trained to be members of any and all of the branches.  The philosophy underlying West Point was that war should be studied scientifically - that it could be completely understood through science.  Taking this thinking further, in 1893, JB Wheeler suggested that through the application of scientific principles, chance in war might be eliminated.  Although Hope doesn't say so, this is an improper use of science - scientism - the belief in the universal applicability of science to the exclusion of all other viewpoints.  We can only speculate at the harm caused by this deluded philosophy over the decades.  Dennis Hart Mahan wanted officers to use good judgment in the field, and he hoped to teach cadets how to think.  Mahan, at least regarding engineering matters, did not want students to slavishly follow prescribed methods, but he discouraged debate and encouraged learning by rote, thinking that debate would lessen time spent on gaining knowledge and would compromise faith in principles.  This type of thinking solidified doctrine, potentially to the point of making it dogma.  (Hope 197-9)

The so called 'scientific way of war' that West Point was based upon was inspired by Enlightenment ideals.  Enlightenment military theory focused on maneuver strategy, elevating strategy to a science while believing that tactics were an art.  It taught that strict regulations on commanders were necessary and that the chaos of battle should be avoided in favor of 'predictable' maneuver.  Prussian theorist Heinrich von Bulow went so far as to state that battle was the result of mistakes.  Enlightenment theorists sought universal concepts; to them, the rules of war were mechanical and could be taught.  Archduke Carl of Austria wanted obedience to orders rather than subordinates taking the initiative or using creativity.  He believed that a focus on tactics rather than strategy invariably led to a long, indecisive conflict - his objective was to force peace terms on the enemy rather than destroy his army.

These Enlightenment views contrasted with the newer Romantic view, exemplified by Carl von Clausewitz, that war was inherently chaotic - a view embraced by the Prussian army that met with great success in the years following the American Civil War.  Clausewitz and the Prussian way came about only after the disastrous 1806 campaign in which Napoleon crushed the militaristic Prussian state in the decisive battles of Jena and Aeurstadt, followed by a vigorous pursuit.  Although Clausewitz was highly theoretical, the Romantic view placed more attention on the specifics of a situation rather than slavishly following theory, and it allowed for subjective judgments - it allowed initiative to subordinates.  Theory, to the Romantics, must take into account things like psychology, morale, and the political situation - things that geometry and math cannot explain.  Army command, in Clausewitz's mind should go to the creative, and the commander should be guided by theory but not see theory as something that should precisely guide him.  Clausewitz and the more realistic Romantic way of thinking gained renown and credence only after Prussian successes in 1866 and 1870; Civil War era Americans had been exposed to Prussian ways, but the Prussian system had not yet proven its superiority.
  Ironically, Clausewitz's way of thinking would have been more acceptable to practical-minded English speakers, who tend to be skeptical of theory because it often fails to account for the specifics of a situation. 

Pictures can be worth a thousand words - Enlightenment art at left; Romantic art at right

West Point, Ian Hope argues, although it was based on Enlightenment ideals and focused on math and science, provided a much better preparation for high command than it is often given credit for, and, he argues, prepared the cadets well for both staff work and for serving as general officers.  True or not, the Union and Confederate armies shared the same background.  Wayne Hsieh points out that many of the decisive battles of world history were fought between radically different armies in which one side had a clear advantage.  In contrast, the commanders of Civil War armies had the exact same military backgrounds so neither side had a clear advantage in terms of doctrine or system of command.  This, Hsieh argues, contributed to the indecisive nature of Civil War combat, and there is much truth to this argument.  

There was little staff tradition in the army, and when civil war broke out, few people had the insight or knowledge to see a better way - or perhaps more importantly, the desire to challenge the status quo.  Faulty staff work all too often ruined good plans with the potential for decisive results.  Former West Point cadets were raised to the highest levels of command during the Civil War, leaving barely trained volunteer officers to serve on their staffs.  Even Lee, perhaps the greatest commander that the war produced, despite increasing the number of couriers to transmit orders, sought to economize on his staff.  



Sources and Suggested Reading:

Bassford, Christopher, Clausewitz in English

Michael A. Bonura, Under the Shadow of Napoleon

J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr.,  Buff Facings and Gilt Buttons

Bowden and Ward,  Last Chance For Victory

DeChanal, The American Army in the War of Secesion

David Chandler, Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough, The Campaigns of Napoleon

Phillip Cole,  Civil War Artillery at Gettysburg, Command and Communications Frictions in the Gettysburg Campaign

Jean Colin,  Transformations of Warfare

Christopher Duffy,  Instrument of War: The Austrian Army in the Seven Years War

Lee W. Eysturlid, The Formative Influences, Theories, and Campaigns of the Archduke Carl of Austria

Steven Fratt, The Guns of Gettysburg - North & South August 2004

Gates, David, The British Light Infantry Arm, c. 1790-1815

Paddy Griffith  Battle Tactics of the Civil War, Forward Into Battle, Battle

Edward Hagerman, The Civil War and the Origin of Modern Warfare

William Hazen, A Narrative of Military Service

GFR Henderson, The Science of War

GFR Henderson, Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War

Earl Hess, Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War

Earl Hess, Civil War Infantry Tactics

Ian Hope, A Scientific Way of War

Wayne Hsieh, West Pointers and the Civil War

BP Hughes,  Firepower

Prince de Joinville, The Army of the Potomac

Robert K Krick, Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain

Moten, Matthew, The Delafield Commission and the American Military Profession

Brent Nosworthy Anatomy of Victory, With Cannon Musket and Sword, The Bloody Crucible of Courage

Lt. Jacques Arnould Obreen, De Noord-Amerikaansche oorlog van 1861-1865

Peter Paret, The Cognitive Challenge of War: Prussia 1806

Christopher Perello, The Quest for Annihilation

Robert Quimby, Background of Napoleonic Warfare

Fred Ray, Shock Troops of the Confederacy  

Carol Reardon, With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other

Justus Scheibert, A Prussian Observes the American Civil War

Moxley Sorrel, Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer

Bernard Christian Steiner and David Nelson Camp, Life of Henry Barnard The First United States Commissioner of Education, 1867-1870

Jim Stempel, The Battle of Glendale

Frank Varney, General Grant and the Rewriting of History

Arthur Wagner, Organisation and Tactics

SGP Ward, Wellington's Headquarters

Geoffrey Wawro,  The Austro-Prussian War, The Franco-Prussian War



Copyright 2008-24, John Hamill


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