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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
North American Review
Vol. 159 No. 452 (Jul. 1894), pp61‑66

The text is in the public domain.

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 p61  How to Make West Point More Useful
by F. A. Mitchel, late captain and aide-de‑camp, U. S. V.

The annual examinations at West Point have been concluded, and a new class of ex-cadets is turned out to grow old as captains or lieutenants in the army, or to seek a different kind of promotion in civil life. The Military Academy remains the same as when our fathers​1 and grandfathers were graduated there, to be attached to the army as brevet second lieutenants. American universities have been constantly enlarging in every sense. There are more courses, more professors, more students. Why, then, do the West Point cadets still constitute the same little battalion as fifty years ago?

It may be considered an unwarranted innovation to suggest any change for West Point; indeed few people consider any change necessary. There is a growing disposition to arbitrate disputed international questions, and war every day seems more barbarous. But it is questionable if the time has yet come when any people can force to neglect military education. As the Supreme Court is the final means of settlement of all constitutional questions by peaceful methods, so is war a final refuge when all peaceful methods have failed.

Three main elements enter into the military dependence of the United States: the Regular Army, the National Guard, and the Volunteers. In time of peace there is but little connection between the first and the second, and no connection between the second and the third; for the Volunteers force only exists in time of war. The Regular Army and the National Guard exist always; and since in time of war the Regular Army is expected to leaven all the United States forces, and the National Guard is  p62 to form a basis for the Volunteers, a connection between the first and the second is a proper subject for consideration. Prior to the Civil War no attempt had been made to disseminate any influence of regulars through the National Guard. Of late years a few officers of the army have been detailed for duty with the State forces at different points, but under the present system it is questionable if they can be of service except as drill masters. Thus far no direct well-established link between West Point and the National Guard has even been suggested.

West Point, when it was established, in 1804, was intended to turn out some half a hundred cadets a year to serve as officers for a force of about 10,000 men — a representative standing army for a nation of ten or fifteen millions of people, whose only anticipations of war were with Indians. The true value of the Military Academy did not become apparent for fifty years after it was instituted, for the only two wars occupying during this period were that with England in 1812, which occurred simultaneously with the founding of the academy, and the war with Mexico, a comparatively small affair. Only a dozen years after the Mexican war the nation suddenly woke to the consciousness of the fact that she needed a great army. A struggle was upon her more gigantic, more extended, of greater variety, than any the world has ever seen. A million of men were enlisted as volunteers. But where were the officers to come from? There were perhaps 1,500 in the regular army, but no more than were necessary to officer that army. There were perhaps 1,500 West Point graduates in civil life who could be called on, and this was the limit of the nation's resources in educated officers. There was the militia, but beyond the drill in arms they were very ignorant of military service. The consequence was that the war had no sooner opened than a great demand sprang up for West Point graduates. The volunteers must be drilled, clothed, fed, armed, and furnished with ammunition. Assistant adjutants-general were required to superintend the clerical work; ordnance officers to furnish arms and ammunition; engineers to construct forts, railroads, bridges; quartermasters and commissaries to distribute clothing and food — in short, a small army of especially educated officers was needed to fill the staff corps alone. After the men had been enlisted, organized, and equipped, they must be fought. Fifty thousand officers were required to lead them.

 p63  The comparatively few West Point officers available were made general officers, in some cases Colonels in the line, but rarely could be obtained for any less important position. The bulk were placed where they were most needed, in the Staff Corps. As engineers, assistant adjutants-general, quartermasters, commissaries, ordnance officers, they were soon exhausted at the headquarters of the Army at Washington, or at the main points of organization and supply in different parts of the country. The old army, depleted of most of its officers, was filled up with citizen appointments. The militia, after serving a few months under its own organization, sent many of its members into the volunteer to serve as officers. But even with the militia to draw from, the bulk of volunteer officers at the outset knew no more about the military service than the raw recruits they commanded. The military officers were largely available as drill masters, but all, except the West Pointers, were lamentably ignorant of that code deduced by long experience for the management of an army, the "Army Regulations."

West Point graduates necessarily took the lead at the start and held it to the finish. At first there was a disposition to give a preference to those who were in the old army at the opening of the war, and to regard those who had resigned as of secondary consideration, but it was soon discovered that those who had left the army for civil pursuits were of equal value with their comrades who had confined themselves to the duties of a soldier. Indeed, they had in many instances added to their value by an experience acquired in civil engineering, transporting goods, and other peaceful duties, while an absence from army routine had rendered them more patient and efficient with volunteers.

The result of organizing this improvised army and putting it into the field officered by men not familiar with army system was a great deal of suffering among the troops. The nation could afford to give them clothes, food, equipments, transportation; but all these must be distributed. It is the duty of the officer to see that the necessities of his men are provided for. But few of the officers of the volunteers upon their entry into the service knew how to properly write a re­quisition.º While re­quisitions for overcoats were being returned for informality, the men were chilled by November winds. They were often delayed in getting rations, shoes, blankets, indeed, any or every thing to make their exposure endurable.  p64 One in need of food and clothing has very little patience with one who denies him on account of informality; therefore, there arose from the Atlantic to the Mississippi the cry of "red tape." True, there was red tape in abundance, but not enough to prevent a number of disbursing officers hanging about Washington for months after the close of the war, in a vain endeavor to settle their accounts. Had each regiment been able to secure educated staff disbursing officers, there would have been comparatively little trouble. But as the West Pointers were few and the militia had never been instructed in aught save the drill, there were no more educated disbursing officers available than for the main depots of supply. Had the militia who served as officers of the volunteers been something nearer to real soldiers than simply drilled soldiers, there would have been a sufficient number to supply and equip all the volunteers.

Considering West Pointers as leaders of armies, they made the same showing as in the staff corps. At the outset civilians with no military education, but prominent as political leaders, were in some instances given important command, but as the war progressed it became apparent that those who were educated in the science of war, if they were no more efficient, at least inspired greater confidence. Notwithstanding the good work achieved by citizen leaders, no one of them ever was intrusted with the command of a larger army. Of the West Pointers an important fact was soon demonstrated, that it was not essential for even general officers to have served continuously in the regular army. Those graduates who were appointed from civil life proved as successful in general­ship as those who had been always exclusively soldiers. Indeed there was often a disposition on the part of a general whose education had not been applied as it could only be in active civil life, to attach too much importance to the rules of war learned from books, to the exclusion of practical common-sense. Of four great leaders who came out at the end of the war as central figures, two had left the old army for civil pursuits. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant and Sherman were reappointments, Thomas and Sheridan were regular officers. But it is safe to say that of the West Pointers nearest the rank and file (colonels, lieutenant-colonels, or majors), those who were in civil life after service with the old army were most efficient with volunteers.

The war taught us then, first, that a military education is  p65 essential, and second, that no disadvantage results from the educated soldier going into civil life in time of peace, to resume his mental and physical equipment in time of war. Why, then, has West Point, after the nation been taught this lesson, been suffered to remain in the same status as when it was founded?

In the first place, there was a great deal of prejudice engendered from the fact of so many West Point graduates entering the Confederate Army. Secondly, as has been stated above, many officers whose scope had not been enlarged in civil pursuits were too much wedded to theory, and among a number there was an ill-disguised contempt for the volunteer. These causes are now largely lost sight of, but it will be a long while before the nation will forget that at West Point she was educating men to turn against her in time of her necessity, and any attempt to enlarge the Academy would be met by this important, though illogical, a regiment. The main cause to‑day for leaving West Point as it is is a well-grounded opinion that she now turns out more officers than are required to officer 30,000 men, and that 30,000 men are enough for the standing army of the United States.

The war demonstrated, however, that West Point graduates are necessary in case of need, and that after graduation no detriment results from entering civil life; why then should not West Point turn out men in far greater numbers to enter upon civil pursuits at graduating? And as the National Guard is the next most important resource in case of war to the regular army, why should not these young men pay for their education by a stated term of service with the National Guard?

General Grant has been quoted as saying that there should be 1,000 men at West Point; but if he left a plan for putting and keeping them there it is not known to the writer. To educate a man in one or more branches of the military service would require from one to four years of training. The full course of four years is now considered a proper time to educate cadets in all the branches, to enter the army as officers. An additional number of cadets might be appointed to study, some one, some two, and some three years, to be scattered at graduation through the National Guard, to transmit what they have learned at West Point. The three-year man might choose a number of electives to include all except the higher studies of the fourth year; the two-year man, such studies as would be best fitted to go with  p66 his drilling in staff and line duties; while the one-year man would simply be drilled perhaps in the line and instructed in a single staff corps, studying what most nearly pertained to his specialty. This would give the student an opportunity to become proficient as an assistant adjutant-general, an artillery officer, a cavalry officer, or in such other corps as he might elect.

It is not the purpose of this paper to suggest a plan, but to indicate the expediency of educating more young men at West Point to serve with the National Guard. Two important points remain: to discover the additional equipment and expense essential, and to make a practical status for the West Point graduate in the National Guard. The former would be a part of the general plan of educating more men, and should be treated by an experienced graduate of the Academy; the latter pertains especially to the National Guard and should be treated by an experienced National Guardsman. It would doubtless involve changes in the laws governing the State forces, and would be of little or no value unless the men were more directly brought under the control of their officers and the State or General Government. Their status as soldiers should be intensified as far as possible without interfering with their condition as citizens. The winters should be devoted to instruction; the summer encampments should take on such discipline as prevails at West Point.

Such a consummation would bring West Point up to the status of the great American universities (though in a military line), which have entirely outstripped it. As at the university, there is the student pursuing the regular academical course, so at West Point we should have the student in the duties of quartermaster or commissary, or of an infantry, artillery, or cavalry officer. The National Guard, which is now a vast improvement on the militia prior to the Civil War, would take a still greater stride forward. Every year would see several hundred West Pointers entering its organization to bring its discipline up toward a regular-army standard. Lastly, in case of a great war, we would have the whole National Guard ready as trained soldiers, instead of having to make soldiers of raw material.

F. A. Mitchel.

The Author or Editor's Note:

1 The writer's father, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, was a graduate of West Point, class of 1829; the writer's brother, also Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, was graduated in 1865.

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