West Point in the Making of America

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The aftermath of battle

The aftermath of battle



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Union trenches

Union trenches

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Fighting the Civil War

“The war now is away back in the past and you [the Civil War veterans in the crowd] can tell what books can not. . . . There is many a boy here to-day who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”
  —Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, impromptu address at a political rally in Columbus, Ohio, 11 August 1880




Two fundamental technical factors shaped Civil War fighting—rifles and railroads. Defending infantry armed with rifles and protected by breastworks or trenches exacted terrible costs from forces attacking across open ground. Counterattacks were equally costly. Railroads, which became indispensable in supplying Civil War armies, also provided defensive advantage. An advancing army moved further from its rail-supplied depots, while a defeated army fell back toward its depots and fresh supplies.

The costliness of attacks and the often inconclusive results of battle made for a long war. The Union’s two decisive victories, at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863, did not end the war, but marked only its halfway point.

Nothing in a West Point education had prepared officers for the new realities of rifles and railroads, and not one graduate had ever commanded an army in battle before 1861. Yet the Civil War became a West Pointers’ war, with 151 Confederate and 294 Union generals. West Pointers commanded both sides in 55 of the war’s 60 major battles, and one side in the other five.


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Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson




Key Figures






Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson
Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson
1824–1863
Class of 1846



Robert Edward Lee
Robert Edward Lee
1807–1870
Class of 1829



Ulysses Simpson Grant
Ulysses Simpson Grant
1822–1885
Class of 1843



William Tecumseh Sherman
William Tecumseh Sherman
1820–1891
Class of 1840





Smithsonian National Museum of American History


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West Point in History Introduction 1802–1860 1861–1870 1866–1914 1914–1918 Epilogue Introduction 1802–1860 1861–1870 1866–1914 1914–1918 Epilogue Choosing Sides Organizing for War Fighting the Civil War The Army in Reconstruction