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The Common Denominator was Professor Mahan

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What did Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, George G. Meade, and William Tecumseh Sherman have in common besides that they were important characters in the American Civil War? If you guessed that they were also West Point cadets, you are also right. But the common denominator for all of these men and many more was that they were taught by Professor Dennis Hart Mahan at West Point.

Professor Mahan had graduated first in his West Point Class of 1824. The school then sent him to Europe for a comprehensive study of military fortifications and engineering works. He returned to West Point to teach.

Mahan had written the book “Treatise on Field Fortifications, Containing Instructions on the Methods of Laying Out, Constructing, Defending and Attacking Entrenchments, With the General Outlines Also of The Arrangement, the Attack and Defense of Permanent Fortifications” which was the “bible” of army tactics. His book was the country’s first comprehensive work on tactics and strategy of war. And he was a stickler in that classroom, encouraging that anyone following his battle tactics would be victorious.

When Union units went into battle against a Confederate fortification, they knew the strategy of the defending army and the defenders knew the attackers strategy, as both were right out of Mahan’s West Point classroom. And when the shoe was on the other foot (that is, the Confederates were attacking the Union), both sides again knew what to expect. All of Mahan’s students knew the drill. And in the field, when the fighting was hot and heavy, they used what they learned on Mahan’s classroom to try to claim the victory.

Obviously neither Mahan or his students could foresee that they would be battling against each other when the war broke out. The students may have thought it would have been easier to be victorious if your enemy didn’t know what strategy your side was using. But in this case, with both sides studying together and then facing each other on the field, the tactics were no surprise to anyone.

Another problem was, as the war moved into its second and third years, Mahan’s tactics had not take into consideration the development of more accurate firearms. Yet generals on both sides were very slow to disregard their mentor’s teachings.

It could certainly be argued that Mahan’s teachings, under the circumstances, may have actually been a hindrance to successful tactics in the war.

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