Subtitled “From West Point Brothers to Battlefield Rivals: A True Story of the Civil War,” Sacred Ties, by Tom Carhart, aims to envision what is otherwise familiar material through a new lens. Though Civil War buffs will find little new in Carhart’s well-turned chapters summarizing most of the war’s major battles, his exploration is enlivened by the opportunities he takes to bring his “West Point Brothers” into focus.
The six West Pointers, graduating just as the war breaks out, are George Armstrong Custer, Stephen Dodson Ramseur, Henry Algernon DuPont, John Pelham, Thomas Lafayette Rossner, and Wesley Merritt.
Carhart begins by providing a short history of West Point, its mission, and the nature of the education and training that these young men would have received in their years together. In particular, he examines the forces at work to forge cadets into leaders and soldiers and to develop their loyalty to one another and to the nation. Carhart, himself a West Point graduate, effectively paints the tension between cooperation and competition that each man resolves in his own way. It’s an interesting spectrum of personalities, one that finds DuPont, many years later a U. S. Senator, at the top of the graduating class – and Custer, the ultimate risk-taker (and rule breaker) at the bottom.
As war broke out, the northerners – Custer, DuPont, and Merritt – continued through graduation and entered their country’s army. The three southerners – Ramseur, Pelham, and Rossner – returned to their home states and were quickly wearing Confederate gray. These six young officers proved themselves to be among the best of an elite group, and when circumstances demanded it, they proved themselves against one another.
While Pelham and Ramseur did not survive the war, they distinguished themselves in battle. The other four men continued to distinguish themselves in the decades that followed the Union victory. Several jumped up and over the ranks very quickly, as can happen in an arena of combat and death, attaining the field rank of brigadier general by their mid-twenties. Custer set the record, reaching that rank at twenty-three! Their West Point preparation and personal courage showed itself on the battlefield, as they trained and led men much younger than themselves.
Carhart’s narrative is at its most appealing when he lets us hear the voices of his young warriors. Often, but not often enough, he is able to provide excerpts from personal or battlefield correspondence that sheds light both on the events and the personalities. We get to know something of the men’s larger lives, their families, and their romances, as well as their perspectives on the bewildering world of combat that surrounds them.
There are several scenes in which they cross each other’s paths. One touching scene records John Pelham’s death. Sometime during or after Pelham lay in State in the Confederate Capitol Building in Richmond, a note was found among his personal effects. It was from his classmate and battlefield enemy Custer: “After long silence, I write. God bless you, dear Pelham; I am proud of your success. G.A.C.” One wonders how that message crossed enemy lines.
On a few occasions, we see Custer and Rosser tested against one another. Carhart records a moment when the two Black Knights of the Hudson – former drinking companions – acknowledge one another, each offering the other a gracious salute before sending the cavalry divisions they command against one another. Later, we find Custer parading around wearing Rosser’s uniform (found in his captured supply wagon) – which is much too big for him – and then writing Rosser a note telling him to have it shortened.
Elsewhere, Carhart suggests the possibility of a battlefield exchange between opposing troops commanded by DuPont and Ramseur during which Ramseur is wounded.
More of this kind of material (assuming such is available) would have made Sacred Ties even stronger than it is. Regardless, Carhart does a commendable job of revealing how school ties were severed by regional ties on a practical level, but never on a spiritual one. These West Point brothers could applaud one another’s exploits even while being ready (though perhaps not fully willing) to fight an enemy classmate to his death.