Sunday, March 11, 2018

Book News: Preparing for Disunion

March is shaping up to be another dismal month for new releases (nothing in the mail since February 21!), but there are a bunch of intriguing summer and fall titles to look forward to or speculate about. I liked Allen Mesch's Teacher of Civil War Generals: Major General Charles Ferguson Smith, Soldier and West Point Commandant (2015), and now it appears that his interest in antebellum U.S. Army professional officer education is taking a broader approach with Preparing for Disunion: West Point Commandants and the Training of Civil War Leaders (August 2018), also from McFarland.

Broader conversations regarding institutional evolution and change at West Point are commonly found in the Civil War literature, but I can't say I've put much thought into the ways a particular commandant might have applied his personal stamp to the system. According to Mesch's study, though the "impact on cadets and tactical education varied based on the amount of time as commandant and their attitude about the assignment," the influences could be striking. Among other things, commandants "made changes to the program" and "developed new textbooks." "The Army assigned sixteen officers as commandants between 1817 to 1864," and Mesch's biographical treatments of them "present an account of the commandant's contributions to the Academy, notable graduates, and other military service."

Though I think I get what it's trying to say, perhaps a different title would have served Mesch's purposes better. On the face of it, "Preparing for Disunion" seems to suggest the preposterous notion that instructors had the eventuality of Civil War in mind or the author lends some credence to the conspiracy theories of the time regarding West Point training. Undoubtedly, neither interpretation represents the author's intentions.

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