Friday, November 27, 2009

The Effects of the Civil War on West Point

A little while ago, I attended a talk on the Civil War's effect on the West Point military academy at the New York Civil War Roundtable. Ty Seidule, a colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division, and a teacher at the academy, gave a wonderful lecture on the subject.
He described how the onset of the secession crisis divided the Academy and its cadets. Prior to the war, the cadets became politicized. Several Southern cadets wore blue ribbons called the South Carolina cockade. One pro-Union cadet, Morris Schaff, said it took more courage to vote for Lincoln than to participate in Picketts Charge. With secession, Southerners gradually left the Academy and the men suffered the traumatic experience of companies splitting between the North and South.
After the war, any mention of the graduates who fought for the Confederacy was expunged. Though the Academy accepted Southern cadets when their states were readmitted to the Union, post-war monuments only noted the contributions of Union officers. In 1897, West Point erected the memorial to the Regular Army. The Battle Monument listed 2,230 names, all of them from the Union Army. Southern cadets called it "the monument to Southern marksmanship." The leaders of the Academy gave the motto "duty, honor, country" to the institution in 1898. They meant it as a rebuke to the men whom they saw as repudiating the oath they took upon graduating the Academy.
The exclusion has continued into the 20th century. In 1971, President Nixon visited the Academy and as part of his Southern strategy, demanded that a Confederate monument be erected. The commandant of West Point, General Knowlton, searched for a way to avoid this Presidential directive. Knowlton asked Percy Squire, the leader of the black cadets, how his men would react to the monument. Squire replied that the graduates who left for the South violated their oath and that black cadets would boycott a Confederate monument. From Squire's answer, Knowlton told Nixon's officials that a Confederate monument would hurt minority recruitment and cause dissension at the Academy. That ended any nascent effort to build a Confederate monument.
The only exception to that rule has been Robert E. Lee. Due to Southern political pressure, a portrait of Lee in Confederate gray was placed in the USMA Library.
To this day, the Civil War is contested at West Point and no Confederate monument has been erected.
It was an excellent lecture on what seemed would be a dry subject. Colonel Ty Seidule gave an excellent talk.

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