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The Class of 1846

May 13th, 2011 · No Comments

The second book I read as part of my Civil War reading project is The Class of 1846: from West Point to Appomattox : Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan, and their brothers by John C. Waugh.  I read it upon its publication in 1994 but, after such a long time, it was worth a re-read.  As the title implies, this book looks at the West Point class of 1846, which boasted a large number of students who went on to serve in the war with Mexico, on the western frontier, and, finally, in the Civil War.  Among the alumni of ’46 were George McClellan, A. P. Hill, George Pickett, George Stoneman, and the legendary Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.  Not all these men were successful in the Civil War; McClellan and Stoneman are best known for self-destructing after reaching positions of high responsibility.  Pickett is primarily remembered for leading the disastrous charge at Gettysburg that still bears his name.  Others, such as Jackson and John Gibbon, served with distinction.  Before all that, however, each was a teenager at the most prestigious military academy in the United States.  They started out as bumbling plebes, taunted by upperclassmen and regularly humiliated by the school’s rigorous academic requirements.  Four years later, they graduated and took their places as the newest generation of leaders of the U.S. Army.  Those who survived the four-year program had much to be proud of.

Waugh briefly describes the founding of West Point and provides sketches of the administrators and instructors responsible for the cadets’ military education.  Mathematics dominated the curriculum; each year, the top graduates were offered slots in the Army Corps of Engineers.  Students from the next-highest tier of academic achievement were offered postings in the Artillery.  After that, the assignments were less prestigious.  Those who managed to graduate at the bottom of the class (like Picket) were generally offered Infantry commands.  Success at the academy was not always an indicator of success in the Army.  The student who graduated at the top of the class left the military soon afterwards while Picket served with distinction in Mexico and afterwards, until the fatal day at Gettysburg.

As one might expect, the book is full of stories about friendships.  We learn that A. P. Hill and George McClellan, who went on to high commands in the Confederate and Union armies (respectively) were best friends at the academy.   The friendship suffered after graduation when they fell in love with the same woman.  She eventually married McClellan, though there is evidence that Hill was her first choice (apparently, her father had other ideas).  Stories of friends who ended up on opposite sides of the Civil War are too many to recount; the Brother vs. Brother meme that we hear so often in descriptions of the war didn’t only apply to brothers related by blood.

The class of 1846 was blessed/cursed with a lot of opportunities to pursue their chosen profession.  The Mexican War, which had been building for years, finally broke out a few months after graduation.  Most of the newly-minted junior officers ended up serving in combat and several didn’t make it home again (at least one picked up a Mexican wife).  Thomas Jackson, who hadn’t yet earned his famous nickname, got the attention of his superiors with a series of daring actions while in command of an artillery battery.  One is even more impressed by his feats after learning that he nearly didn’t graduate at all.  His boyhood education was completely inadequate to meet the math-heavy challenges of West Point.  He attacked the problem as he approached obstacles his whole life: through single-minded focus and relentless hard work.  He finished his first year at the bottom of the class.  He graduated in the upper 1/3.

After the war many were sent west, where they fought Indians, tried to police white settlers who tended to disregard the (limited) rights granted to Indians by the government (which lead to a lot of the fighting), and tried to stay engaged during mind-numbingly tedious stretches of time at tiny outposts in the middle of nowhere.  At this point, Waugh starts to expand his canvas and we see the political crisis building between North and South.  When states start seceding and war becomes inevitable, they start splitting up.  Some remain in the Army, some resign their commissions to go south, and still more who had left the Army come back to accept posts from governments suddenly desperate for officers who had some experience already.  Understandably, West Point graduates were highly sought-after by both North and South.

Waugh devotes a lot of pages to the bombardment of Fort Sumter, which started the war.  Several of the officers in the garrison were from the class of ’46 and we see how that shared experience ties them together as their situation becomes steadily worse.  Surrounded by a hostile populace, largely forsaken by Lincoln’s predecessor (who was afraid to send them reinforcements or supplies for fear of inflaming the situation), and finally bombarded into submission by an enemy with many more guns than they have.

The second half of the book narrows to follow a smaller number of graduates through the Civil War.  We watch Stonewall Jackson rise from an obscure assignment to command half of Robert E. Lee’s army.  George McClellan wins a number of small victories at a time when he is about the only Northern general who can boast any victories at all.  He is given control of the Union’s Army of the Potomic, facing off against Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.  McClellan excels at whipping his army into shape but fails utterly when it is time to actually start fighting.  Lee defeats him again and again until a disgusted Lincoln finally relieves him of command.  He goes on to accept the Democratic nomination for President in 1864 but Lincoln, buoyed by a series of Union victories, wins re-election easily.

The book approaches its end with the battle of Gettysburg.  McClellan and Jackson are gone, the first retired, the second dead after being wounded by friendly fire at Chancellorsville.  George Picket, in command of one of Lee’s divisions, is ordered to lead a charge against the center of the Union line.  There had been hard fighting on the two ends of the line and Lee is convinced that the center is weak, having been depleted to supply reinforcements.  But the center isn’t weak and Picket is repulsed after suffering 50% casualties.  The Army of Northern Virginia fights on for two more years but is never the same again.    The portion of the Union line struck by Picket is under the command of John Gibbon, a fellow graduate from the class of ’46.

I picked this book as my second read because I wanted some insight into the early lives and experiences of the men who went on to lead the blue and gray.  Through them, the book shows what it looks like on the ground when a modern democracy unravels and sinks into civil war.

Tags: The Civil War

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