West Point in the Civil War

By Dick Crews
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the spring of 2002.

The United States Military Academy at West Point, New York was a very confusing place at the beginning of the American Civil War. In January of 1861, cadets were leaving West Point to return home as their home states withdrew from the Union. The Commandant at the time was none other than the later-to-be-famous Confederate general, P.G.T. Beauregard.

The War Department was in a panic because at this critical time when they needed a thousand new officers, West Point officer cadets were leaving in droves to return home to the South. Under this pressure, the War Department asked Beauregard to step down as Commandant even though he insisted he would stay loyal as long as his home state of Louisiana remained in the Union.

The War Department had anticipated circumstances correctly as Louisiana left the Union two weeks later. The Department also asked that the graduating classes for 1861 and 1862 be graduated in the summer of 1861. This is how George Armstrong Custer graduated a year early.

Congress was furious that West Point, paid for by the Federal government, was supplying the military leadership for the states in rebellion. In fact opponents of West Point forced Congress to vote on closing the military academy in 1863. However, Union successes led by West Point graduates like Ulysses S. Grant against the failures of civilian commanders like John C. Frémont, Benjamin Butler, and Franz Siegel persuaded Congress to leave West Point open.

Cadets at West Point in 1865

The Military Academy also suffered once the war started in earnest as many instructors left to join the army. This may have hurt West Point but was critical to the Union Army as most of the senior military West Point staff joined the Union cause.

Nine hundred and seventy-seven West Point graduates from the classes of 1833 through 1861 were alive when the Civil War began. Of these men, 259 (26%) joined the Confederacy and 638 (65%) fought for the Union. Eight did not fight for either side. Thirty-nine graduates from these classes who had come to West Point from Southern states fought for the Union and 32 who had come from Northern states fought for the Confederacy.

Three notable West Point graduates in the Class of 1854 who became generals in the Confederate army: Custis Lee (eldest son of Robert E. Lee, seated left), Stephen D. Lee (seated right), and Jeb Stuart (standing)
Custis Lee graduated first in the Class of 1854, one spot higher than his father graduated in the Class of 1829.

The quality of the Military Academy suffered during the war. The dropout/failure rate reached almost 50% of the cadets. This happened for several reasons. First, many of the long-time instructors were away in the Army. Second, good students left early to receive high commissions in the militias of their home states. Third, the New York City draft riots being only 60 miles away affected West Point. Not only were cadets sent to New York City to help quell the riots, but there was a strong concern that it could spread up the Hudson River to West Point itself.

And finally, it was hard to get students to concentrate on their studies while huge military battles like Gettysburg and Vicksburg were going on.

Ninety-five graduates of West Point were killed in the Civil War and 141 were wounded. The largest number of casualties came from the class of 1854 of which almost half were killed or wounded. The most famous class was that of 1846 which included George McClellan, “Stonewall” Jackson, A.P. Hill, Cadmus Wilcox, George Stoneman, and, last in the class, George Pickett.

Most West Point graduates who served in the Civil War did not reach the status of a Lee, Jackson, Grant, or Sherman. Nevertheless, they did clearly demonstrate the military value of West Point training.

Related link:
A Brief History of West Point