[A Scientific Way of War: Antebellum Military Science, West Point, and the Origins of American Military Thought by Ian Clarence Hope (University of Nebraska Press, 2015). Hardcover, maps, diagrams, photos, table appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:264/347. ISBN:978-0-8032-7685-7 $55]
When it came to its military establishment, the fledgling American republic naturally leaned heavily on continental (especially French) philosophies, practices, and education. However, this devotion would not be slavish but rather adaptive to a force very different from the large European standing armies. In his book A Scientific Way of War: Antebellum Military Science, West Point, and the Origins of American Military Thought, Canadian military officer and history professor Ian Clarence Hope argues powerfully that students should be less concerned with the long standing debate over how "Jominian" the nineteenth century U.S. military was and more cognizant of how an emphasis on mathematics and science uniquely informed the training of professional American officers and by extension the way American wars would be fought.
Hope begins in the colonial and early republic years, when military engineering was placed in the hands of European experts at both state and federal levels. When West Point was founded in 1802 some of these men were hired on as faculty. In the wake of the poor performance of the state militias during the War of 1812, the Third System of national defense was established and would be in place for half a century. It would be an integrated continental system, with massive masonry forts located near the entrances to key ports and waterways connected by road (and later railroads) to arsenals, depots, and magazines safely placed inland. The regular army would man these forts and stall enemy invaders long enough for the militia to mobilize or perhaps repel them altogether. Military manuals developed by the federal government would be available to the public in peacetime with the hope that regular army and militia might possess at least a modicum of shared doctrine when the time came for them to fight together. Militarily, it was a flawed system, but it was politically palatable.
The book details the curriculum requirements of each of the four West Point years and shows how the single-minded emphasis on military science, math, and artillery were directly wedded to the requirements of the Third System and the concept of the expansible army. Critics past and present have condemned the antebellum curriculum as being too focused on engineering (and indeed a fifth year with added classes on strategy and history was briefly implemented) but Hope sees this as a fundamental misreading of the constraints American politics and society placed on its military. With national aversion to a large standing army, the U.S. military establishment had to be lean and its officers flexible generalists, with the capability of coordinating rapid expansion in times of dire emergency. The USMA was entirely unique among the world's preeminent national military schools in that it educated all of its officers in the fundamentals of every branch — the infantry, cavalry, artillery, and engineers. With large numbers of graduates cycling through the staff bureaus, assuming key engineer, quartermaster, ordnance, and paymaster duties at various posts and also gaining vital experience siting, organizing, managing, and constructing complex fortifications and other military installations, conscientious West Pointers had the background to competently handle every task asked of them and would be well placed to handle the challenges of the "expansible army." A prevailing thought was that science would win wars by common process, mitigating the need for military genius (a rare, elusive and unpredictable quality) in gaining victory.
Internal improvements were also a vital element of the Third System and Hope also demonstrates the indispensability of West Point trained engineers in designing and managing these huge public works projects that would link installations and regions. Predictably, questions would arise concerning specific projects and whether they advanced purely commercial interests over true military necessity, but the advantages of using army engineers and the lack of suitable alternatives would trump allegations of shady practices.
Given the fact that many West Point graduates would find most of their combat experience comprised of Indian fighting on the frontier, another criticism of the West Point curriculum involved the absence of any discussion and instruction over le petit guerre. A kind of 'class in the field' program designed to address this deficiency was proposed but it never went anywhere. Objections over the doctrinal negligence of the frontier in favor of the Atlantic focus of the Third System seem justified but Hope persuasively contends that the possibility of successful invasion by a seafaring European power like Great Britain and the dire consequences that would follow outweighed military considerations attached to the numerous yet strategically insignificant encounters with American Indians. New additions to the West Point curriculum would mean that something else would have to go.
Though Hope finds that the degree of anti-professionalism ascribed to the Jacksonian Period has been exaggerated, he does go into some of the political challenges to West Point, most of which were resolved by the excellent performance of academy graduates in the war with Mexico. The engineers especially shined in their applications of military science to reconnaissance, siege operations, logistics, and artillery. The chapter covering the Civil War years might disappoint some readers in its brevity [using examples, it focuses mainly on the establishment and use of bases and lines of operation directed toward the capture of strategic points], but it does effectively stress the span as one of continuity with the military science and professionalism of the antebellum period.
A Scientific Way of War is a well researched and keenly argued defense of the nineteenth century U.S. army officer corps against historical charges of narrowly limited education and military dilettantism. Instead, the picture author Ian Hope paints of West Pointers is one of broadly knowledgeable and highly professional officers well adapted to the traditional social and political boundaries uniquely applied to America's budding military power. It also inspires an even greater appreciation of West Point graduate, theorist and instructor Dennis Hart Mahan, who left an indelible stamp on military science and the academy. This study is highly recommended to any reader interested in the early development of the U.S. army.
More CWBA reviews of Nebraska titles:
* Spring 1865: The Closing Campaigns of the Civil War
* Busy in the Cause: Iowa, the Free-State Struggle in the West, and the Prelude to the Civil War
* Manassas: A Battlefield Guide
* Standing Firmly by the Flag: Nebraska Territory and the Civil War, 1861-1867 (Bison)
* The Enemy Never Came: The Civil War in the Pacific Northwest (For Caxton Press)
* The Settlers' War: The Struggle for the Texas Frontier in the 1860s (for Caxton Press)
* Of Duty Well and Faithfully Done: A History of the Regular Army in the Civil War
* Antietam, South Mountain, and Harpers Ferry: A Battlefield Guide
* Counter-Thrust: From the Peninsula to the Antietam
* Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign
* The Peninsula & Seven Days: A Battlefield Guide
* Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, with a Section on Wire Road