Civil War, slavery, professors, and what the Army’s been teaching cadets since the 1970s

During the last week, a video from the Prager University (not really a “university” in the sense of a place to get a degree… but I digress) became the “hot topic” within some Civil War discussions:

As the video states, the presenter is Colonel Ty Seidule, a professor at West Point.  This presentation has received no end of flattering commentary.  To the point one wonders if the keyboards from which the comments flow must be toweled.  The attention the video received has me smiling, if not openly snickering.

I’ve never met Colonel Ty Seidule in person.  I do know of him by way of mutual acquaintances.  And those acquaintances speak highly of Colonel Seidule’s ability – both as a soldier and historian.  He speaks well on this topic and deserves to be heard.

So why would I snicker?  Well not at the message, or the messenger…  but the reaction.  If you do a search on “Ty Seidule” and “video” you net dozens of links to opinion pages which laud this presentation, as it is clearly not from “some revisionist academic,” and then go on at lengths to avoid saying what they assume to be true – that anyone wearing a military uniform must be a staunch conservative… and thus this Army officer’s opinion demonstrates some new thaw in the thinking on the right… (A point further strengthened by the host – Prager University – and their right-wing opinions).   As if the Army and the ranks of conservatives have this long held belief that “states’ rights” caused the Civil War.

What have the Army’s professors been teaching cadets about the Civil War?  As in, what has been the Army’s official stance (from their history department) on  the cause of the Civil War?  Well the official Army textbook says this:

During the administration of President James Buchanan, 1857-1861, tensions over the issue of extending slavery into the western territories mounted alarmingly and the nation ran its seemingly inexorable course towards disunion.  Along with slavery, the shifting social, economic, political, and constitutional problems of the fast-growing country fragmented its citizenry….

And after discussing particulars of the John Brown raid, the text continues:

Abraham Lincoln’s election to the Presidency on November 6, 1860, triggered the long-simmering political crisis.  Lincoln’s party was opposed to the expansion of slavery into the new western territories.  This threatened both the economic and political interests of the South, since the Southern states depended on slavery to maintain their way of life and their power in Congress….

Yes, pretty much what Colonel Seidule said in the video.

The text I quote here is from the 2009 version of the textbook. Specifically Volume 1 of American Military History.  When I was a cadet, we only had one volume of American Military History (so much history had yet to be written??? Or perhaps expounded upon?).  But the gist of the text was the same.  And the teaching was the same (I can refer you to my ROTC instructors if you wish to press that point).  The same in the sense that teaching pinned the “cause” of the war as slavery, not states’ rights.  In fact, if you were to look back at the 1973 and even the 1969 editions of the same textbook, the only reference made to “states’ rights” is where such political doctrine worked against the Confederate war effort (i.e. where Governor Brown’s pets were not made available to General J.E. Johnson).

Clearly Colonel Seidule’s remarks are not the result of some change in thinking at West Point, the Center of Military History, or in the Army in general.  It is the teachings of the organization (the Army) dating back almost fifty years.   In my experience, when the Confederacy was mentioned it was in the context of being “the enemy” or “an insurgency” or, with respect to individual leaders or soldiers, a foe who’s experience is to be studied and learned from.  And as a southerner, I found nothing objectionable about that approach.  It was the right, proper way to approach the subject.

And I must take pause to ensure the reader understands the approach to teaching military history as part of military science, in context with other course offered to the cadet (student).  Some will complain that Colonel Seidule’s and the Army’s textbook are lacking in some details about slavery, secession, abolition, and some other political aspects of the war.  That might be valid criticism if the cadet’s only exposure to American history is the Military History course.  Such is not the case.  Under the normal curriculum, the cadet is first given the standard American History 101 and 102 courses, to impart the full understanding of the social, political, and economic factors, before exposure to the military history course.  Such ensures proper footing before the deep dive into the history of military science.  In other words, not much different than any other field of study – going from general to particular.

All this said, I can see where this “gushing and flattering” about an Army opinion about the war will go.  The voices which embrace the video as an educational tool will soon question the messenger… oh wait… it’s already happening….

2 thoughts on “Civil War, slavery, professors, and what the Army’s been teaching cadets since the 1970s

  1. It is all the more ironic, of course, that then and more recently West Point was criticized for teaching States’ Rights and the right of secession, which in turn (or so went the argument) “justified” the resignations of so many southern officers to go fight against their old flag.

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