Yesterday on SLR, Tom Carhart discussed his latest nonfiction release, Sacred Ties:From West Point Brothers to Battlefield Rivals: A True Story of the Civil War. Please enjoy the continuation of that conversation with SLR Contributor, Philip K. Jason, posted below.
Are there any important distinctions you’d like to point out between a cadet’s West Point experience during the years leading up to the Civil War, the experience of your generation, and today’s West Point program?
As the French say, “le plus ca change, le plus c’est la meme chose” – “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. While it is true that the studies and day-to-day experiences of West Point cadets have changed dramatically from the early 19th Century until the present day — e.g., the required acquisition of skill in leading men from horseback versus the ability to coordinate air and naval support for ground fighting — the central themes have always remained the same. That is, West Point cadet life has always been, and remains today, physically demanding, academically challenging, and emotionally grueling. Every young appointee to the academy begins an arduous four-year experience highlighted by harsh discipline aimed at producing committed and highly principled junior officers. Graduation from West Point means successful passage through a notoriously tough and grueling series of trials, and not all who enter the academy succeed. But the enormous demands made of cadets exist because the academy wants to produce young officers who have already been tried and tested under considerable institutional pressure and can therefore more quickly become strong leaders.
That much said, there is one dramatic similarity that only occurs every twenty to forty years between the cadets in Sacred Ties, those in my own class of 1966, and those at West Point today. And that similarity is the knowledge by cadets that they would graduate into war as junior officers: the Civil War for Sacred Ties, the Vietnam War for my own class, and the war in Afghanistan for present day cadets. But since personal combat has always been that for which cadets have trained, such a prospect has commonly been seen by most of them as an opportunity to prove themselves rather than a personal threat.
A thematic center of your book explores the seeming paradox of divided loyalties: loyalty to classmates and to West Point vs. loyalty to region. What impressed you most about how West Pointers maintained these contradictory bonds?
Young men entering West Point before the Civil War generally retained the political loyalties of their home regions, which was both normal and predictable. But as they underwent the challenges of cadet life, they quickly acquired a new and different set of loyalties to each other. And these were more immediate loyalties important to them personally, not just for sociability, but also, and often, for their very survival as cadets. So political loyalties regarding such regional issues as slavery usually endured, but were often later ignored in favor of the personal bonds between young officers who had undergone the rigors of cadet life together. I was most impressed, then, by the almost routine way in which, on a personal level, the longstanding affection between young West Pointers fighting on either side trumped the opposing political positions for which they fought.