One of the things I had to memorize as a plebe at West Point, besides esoteric stuff such as ‘How’s the Cow’ was an interesting piece of not-so-trivia: In sixty of the major battles of the Civil War, West Pointers commanded both sides. In the other five, they commanded one side.
I always found that tidbit troublesome for a number of reasons.
First, was that so many West Pointers became traitors to the country they’d sworn to defend. I’ve heard and read all the various excuses why they did that, but the bottom line is they made the decision to fight against their own country.
Secondly, it explained why the war was so bloody and lasted so long. The commanders on both sides knew each other. They’d been taught by the same people. They’d studied the same strategy and tactics. In the first major engagement, Bull Run, both commanders came up with the same plan. In fact, it was the failure of the Confederates to swiftly implement their plan that allowed them to succeed; that’s how war works. It’s as much luck as skill. Also subliminal but important: many were friends despite now wearing different uniforms. They had deep bonds as members of the Long Gray Line. For example, there is an unsubstantiated long-standing story that James Longstreet was Ulysses S. Grant’s best man at his wedding. What is certain is those two spent three years together at the Academy when the Corps of Cadets was so small, everyone knew everyone else.
Third, it explains the leniency shown after the war to the traitors. Why wasn’t Robert E. Lee and other senior confederate commanders hung? That was the fate for traitors at the time. One can speak of wanting to put the war behind, but we really didn’t. There was a brief period of freedom for former slaves and then Jim Crow raised its ugly head and we had a century of oppression. We had the Klan rise out of the ashes of defeat, often led by former confederate officers. What example was set for future seditionists? This seemed an insignificant point until recently. Also note the image at the beginning of this post– where the traitor is put front and center. By the Academy itself.
This dichotomy bothered me while at the Academy and afterward. Of course, I was always slightly out of step with most of my classmates at the Point. I posted poetry on the company bulletin board. I wrote a psychology paper based on Pink Floyd’s The Wall and delivered the paper inside the album so the instructor could listen to it. Even after graduation, after branching Infantry, I volunteered for Special Forces when we were the red-haired bastards of the Army and I was told several times it would ‘kill my career’.
After I became a writer, I finally was able to delve into this issue. Honestly, I was inspired story-wise by HBO’s miniseries Rome, which I loved. Two common soldiers, one a centurion and the other a spearman, become embroiled in almost every major event in Rome during that pivotal period of time from Caesar to Augusts.
So, I invented two West Point cadets: Cord and Rumble. Put them at West Point in the critical years while Grant, Sherman, Longstreet, Pickett and others were there. And began writing. An intriguing part was the Mexican War which has mostly been forgotten in history but made a lot of the United States what it is now (California and the rest of the southwest) and was the bloodiest war we’ve ever fought percentage wise in terms of casualties. It too, was a West Point war in that it bloodied most of the future generals, but not to the extent of the Civil War.
What resulted was Duty, Honor, Country which is either a very long single book, or three shorter books, depending on your taste. The first part, Duty, is free on all eBook platforms if you want a morsel.
I tracked Cord and Rumble and all the real historical figures surrounding them from West Point through the Mexican War, the years in between and into the Civil War. I ended Country the first night of the battle of Shiloh. I plan on continuing the story later this year.
One of the hardest parts was writing people like Robert E. Lee who took a stance I totally disagreed with. Of little significance, I also learned, and wrote the scenes, the event which brought about the founding of the school for squids, aka the Naval Academy. Because of a mutiny.
I love history and I hope you do too. Because that is how we learn to become better.