Sunday, February 07, 2010

Hsieh: "WEST POINTERS AND THE CIVIL WAR: The Old Army in War and Peace"

[ West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace by Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh (University of North Carolina Press, 2009). Hardcover, maps, charts, tables, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:211/304. ISBN: 978-0-8078-3278-3 $30 ]

American citizens of today may view the United States Military Academy at West Point as an essential institution, but it has not always been so. Distrust of standing armies and of a privileged military caste was a more popular feeling during the early decades of the republic. Historian Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh's new book West Pointers and the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace examines the central role West Point-trained officers played in the creation of a professional army for the fledgling military power that was the United States in the early to mid nineteenth century. These traditions and influences would, in turn, be carried over into the Civil War years, ensuring that both the Union and Confederate armies would share basically the same organizational structure and military culture.

Hsieh's devotes a great deal of attention to the professional evolution of the U.S. army, from the War of 1812 through the end of the Civil War. Even though amateurs continued to be placed in positions of great responsibility, the author credits the impressive performance of the U.S. army in the Mexican War to the steady increase in the skill and influence of West Pointers between 1814 and 1846. His overview of the development and implementation of the various tactical manuals used during this period and beyond (as well as the controversies that arose from them) is helpful.

Several interesting topics pop up, as well as correctives. For instance, many Civil War writers tend to simplistically point to the rifle musket as the driving force behind the increase in the speed of the tactical evolutions prescribed in William J. Hardee's 1855 Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics manual, but Hsieh notes that increased speed had professional advocates long before the Minie ball came into general use. It is often subtle observations and differing points of emphasis drawn from familiar material that characterize Hseih's approach, rather than broad original interpretations.

The author highlights the point (not sufficiently appreciated by other writers, in this reviewer's opinion) that battles of annihilation did not occur primarily because the two armies were too similar in leadership, culture, organization, morale, motivation, doctrine, and equipment. They were basically mirror images of each other, with no significantly exploitable asymmetries, such as those inherent to armies of different nationalities and military traditions. This is not a completely original conception of the difficulties Civil War armies had in achieving decisive victory*, but the point bears repeating and is well presented here. Sure, the general resource levels and arms quality of Confederate armies were often inferior to those of their Union foes, but not to a degree sufficient to open the door wide enough for generally decisive results.

Hsieh seems to hold the view that the lack of structural and technological asymmetry between Union and Confederate formations essentially made high command leadership (dominated by West Point-trained officers) the only realistic avenue for achieving the military dissolution of enemy armies in the field. However, this army level leadership, 'drawn from the same well' so to speak and demonstrating a similar rate of skill progression, allowed neither side to gain any kind of systemic advantage in operational competence over the other. It's a point well made, and the author establishes himself firmly on the side of human issues as opposed to technological developments as the primary contributor to inconclusive tactical results.

A few factual errors and dated interpretations crop up in the text, but they are harmless to the core narrative. He does join a long line of historians in repeatedly blaming George McClellan for the war-spanning command dysfunction of the Army of the Potomac (even though the general was sacked way back in November 1862), without assigning comparable weight to the political leadership's role in the selection and politicization of the officer corps of the country's primary eastern army.

Combining synthetic elements and solid research with the author's own (often subtle) interpretive slant, Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh's West Pointers and the Civil War is worthwhile reading for those interested in the transformational steps taken by the antebellum U.S. Army, and what they would ultimately mean for the conduct of the war fought between Union and Confederate forces. Recommended.

* - In fact, it was a major interpretive element in the very recent work The Quest for Annihilation: The Role & Mechanics of Battle in the American Civil War by Christopher Perello (Strategy & Tactics Press, 2009).


Other Civil War Books and Authors Reviews of UNC Press Titles:
* Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (link to author interview)
* A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (link to author interview)
* In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat
* The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
* Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign
* Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
* Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign
* Plain Folk’s Fight: The Civil War & Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia
* Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign
* Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864

1 comment:

  1. Having received an acknowledgment in Earl J. Hess's The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat, Hsieh should agree with Hess's conclusions on the weapon. Hsieh does give a favorable review of Hess's earlier work on the subject in his footnotes.

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