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West Pointers in the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace

 by Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh, University of North Carolina Press

Why were the Union and Confederate armies generally unable to win decisive victories against each other during the Civil War? In his thoroughly researched new book, Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, is the latest in a long list of historians to tackle that question.

Hsieh leaves few stones unturned in examining how the professional officer corps produced by the U.S. Military Academy in the 19th century influenced the evolution of battlefield tactics at this critical point in our nation’s history. While his new book is not necessarily definitive, it does add another perspective to the historiography of a complex topic.

Hsieh covers the Army from 1814 to the end of the Civil War. According to him, West Point-trained officers performed quite well in Mexico in 1846- 48, but there just weren’t enough available to repeat that success when the Civil War began 13 years later. Hsieh also points out that the fact many former peers were facing each other in the latter conflict contributed to the extent of command indecision on the battlefield.

In many ways, West Pointers is a more sophisticated version of Paddy Griffith’s argument in his 1989 Battle Tactics of the Civil War. Decisive victories are usually obtained when one army has a significant structural or technological advantage over the other. The former certainly played a role in Napoleon’s resounding triumphs be – tween 1803 and 1807. When he fought against re-formed Prussian and Russian armies after 1811, he still won battles, but they were not as decisive. Perhaps the structural parity of the armies in America’s Civil War explains the lack of decisive victories more so than their leaders’ shortcomings.


Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.