From West Point Brothers to Battlefield Rivals: A True Story of the Civil War
420 pages. Notes and index
This idea behind this book is to tell the story, in parallel, of six West Point cadets who were friends, who went on to serve in the Civil War.
How do we know they were friends? It was a custom, back in the day, to risk sneaking out from West Point for food and a few drinks (known as 'flip') to a local tavern known as Benny's. Getting caught risked being expelled, so it took a certain level of risk-taking to make the endeavor. And on a particular night in April 1860, the six who dared were:
- Wesley Merritt
- Stephen Dodson Ramseur
- Henry Algernon DuPont
- John Pelham
- Thomas Lafayette Rosser
- George Armstrong Custer
The author then proceeds to give us a general history, beginning with life at West Point, proceeding through the Civil War (with the emphasis on the fighting in the East), with information about the six subjects inserted where known. The book ends by adding the post-war histories of the survivors.
Each of the six eventually distinguished himself in the course of the war. Merritt and Custer served in the Union cavalry; DuPont with the artillery. Ramseur, who hated Northerners, was at one point the youngest Confederate general; Pelham commanded light artillery under J.E.B. Stuart; Rosser commanded cavalry under Stuart.
The problem with the book is that the stories of the six soldiers are overcome by the history of the war itself. Instead of reading like six intertwined biographies, the book reads like a history of the war with biographical notes thrown in. Some of the six are active in the war from the start, while others don't really see action until the middle years, which leaves the book unbalanced; and their interactions with each other are quite rare, making one question the sense in picking these six individuals. My sense is that this concept was too thin to make an entire book, or would have been better served as a novel where undocumented gaps could have been filled in.
One nice thing is that, because of the subjects' fields of service, the reader gets a greater glimpse into cavalry and artillery action in the war.
I found the book quite interesting at first, then struggled to plow my way through 'just another history of the war in the East', interspersed with the occasional interesting bit about the six subjects. Not recommended.
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .