Prelude to War 1860 – 1861

This section covers the year 1860 up until Fort Sumter was fired upon, April 12, 1861. It presents first-hand accounts of decisions made by the administrators of the Academy and the hard decisions cadets from Southern states had to make to either stay loyal to the Union or follow their home states’ decisions to secede from the Union and resign from the Academy. The administration itself was in disarray in the winter and spring of 1861. On 28th January Colonel P.G.T. Beauregard, who had been appointed superintendent the previous November and had just reported for duty five days earlier, was compelled by Special Order 19 to return command to his predecessor Colonel Richard Delafield, who was followed by Colonel Alexander Hamilton Bowman on March 1, 1861. The Superintendents' records and the letters of Cadets Tully McCrea, Emory Upton and other classmates describe in matter-of-fact prose the ensuing series of unprecedented dramatic events. 

United States Military Academy Five Year Curriculum 


Portrait of General Joseph G. Totten

Joseph Gilbert Totten, 1788-1864, USMA 1805, an engineer officer rising to the rank of Chief Engineer of the United States Army, served in the War of 1812, the War with Mexico, and was on active duty through the Civil War. Appointed as Chief Engineer of the United States Army in 1838, Totten oversaw the Corps of Engineer activities from fortification to civil engineering projects to harbor improvement. Totten trained George W. Cullum, Pierre G.T. Beauregard, Alexander D. Bache, and John G. Barnard in advanced engineering techniques. Among Totten’s achievements were the invention of “Totten shutters” embrasures which would open as the cannon fired and then swing shut protecting gunners from incoming rounds, and the construction of Minot’s Ledge lighthouse. This structure, uniquely supported by its own weight allowing it to withstand the extreme weather conditions, still stands. After conducting experiments with various mortar compositions, Totten published the article, "Brief Observation on Common Mortars, Hydraulic Mortars, and Concretes." Joseph G. Totten was on active duty for six decades and served as Chief of Engineers until his death in April 1864.

Three textbooks used as part of the Five Year Curriculum introduced by Joseph G. Totten

During the 1850s, West Point underwent a period of curricular change, implementing a five-year course of study in 1854. Long championed by Chief Engineer Joseph Totten, its adoption was largely the result of a debate over what kind of education the school should offer. For several decades, Army leaders had expressed concern about the emphasis on technical and scientific studies at the expense of professional military education and subjects such as history, languages, and ethics. In the new curriculum cadets took courses in those areas even as the overall emphasis remained largely on the technical fields. During the decade before the Civil War, education at West Point relied upon a combination of European and American texts. 

Sectionalism at West Point

Emory Upton, 1839-1881, USMA May 1861


Emory Upton Class Album Photograph (May 1861)

Emory Upton letter to his sister, December 1, 1860

Upton comments on a letter written by cadets from South Carolina sent to the editor of the Columbia (S.C.) Guardian regarding South Carolina's impending secession from the Union.

“My Dear Sister: You must pardon me, but I must introduce the general and all-absorbing topic of conversation- secession. What do people at home think of it? I believe the Union is virtually dissolved. South Carolina cannot retract. Her honor demands that she secede, else she would be a “by-word.” But secession is revolution. She will seize Fort Moultrie, and hence a collision with the General Government must follow. War would alienate all the other Southern States from the Union, and a terrible and bloody revolution will result. Everyone in South Carolina is for disunion, at least none dare avow themselves for the Union, and from the accounts in the New York daily papers I sincerely believe she will secede on the 18th or 19th of this month. If so, the North and the South will be speedily arrayed against each other, and the result will be that the North with be victorious.”

Before his appointment to West Point, Upton attended Oberlin College in Ohio. It was the first desegregated college in America, adopting a policy to admit Black students in 1835.  In 1841 Oberlin was the first college to incorporate a coeducational program granting baccalaureates to women. Emory Upton did not shy away from sharing his views against slavery and the fact that he had attended Oberlin made him a target of ridicule and taunting by cadets from Southern states.


Morris Schaff Class Album photogragh (June 1862)

Morris Schaff, 1840-1929, USMA June 1862

The fist fight between Wade Hamilton Gibbes of South Carolina and Emory Upton of New York. Excerpts from Schaff's memoir, Spirit of Old West Point, 1858-1862

“And now, indirectly as an outcome of the John Brown raid, the first collision at West Point of an unmistakable political nature took place between Northern and Southern cadets.”

“It was the most thrilling event in my life as a cadet; and, in my judgement, it was the most significant in that of West Point itself.”

Schaff describes events in early 1861 concerning the abrupt change in leadership at West Point:

“During the month of January… on the 23rd of the month occurred an incident of historic importance in the life of the Military Academy. On that day Beauregard of Louisiana, then a major of engineers, later so prominent as a general in the Confederacy, a small dapper man with noticeably olive complexion and French features, relieved Major Delafield as superintendent of the Academy. On the 28th, five days later, and before the post was formally turned over to him, Beauregard was relieved by order of the Secretary of War, and Delafield resumed command.”

Special Order No. 19 

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U.S. Military Academy
West Point, N.Y. January 28, 1861

In compliance with War Department Special Orders No. 19 of January 25th 1861 revoking Special Orders No. 238- Adjutant Generals’ Office of November 8, 1860 appointing me Superintendent of the Military Academy. I transfer back this day the said Superintendency and the command of this Post to Col Rd. Delafield Corps of Engineers in compliance with the above Special Order No. 19

G.T. Beauregard
Colonel of Engineers
As Superintendent Mil. Acady

Order No. 9

Head Quarters, Military Academy
West Point, N.Y. January 28, 1861

Order No. 9

          In conformity with the orders of the Secretary of War received from the Chief Engineer under date of the 24th and from the Adjutant General of the 25th January inst. Requiring the attention of Colonel Beauregard to his former trusts and responsibilities in Louisiana; and that Colonel Delafield should resume his former duties at this Post; the undersigned hereby resumes the command of the Post of West Point and Superintendence of the Military Academy:– All orders issued by Colonel Beauregard during his Superintendence command will be strictly carried into effect.

(Official,). (Signed)   Rich Delafield
                               1st Lt. Infy. Adjt. MA

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Portrait of Pierre G. T. Beauregard

P.G.T. Beauregard (Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard), 1818-1883, USMA 1838, was born in Louisiana and educated at a French preparatory school in New York City prior to graduating second in his class at the United States Military Academy. Beauregard served as an engineer officer in the Mexican American War and was named Superintendent of the United States Military Academy in 1861. Once Louisiana seceded from the Union, Beauregard resigned his commission in the U.S. Army, returned south and joined the Confederate forces. Appointed Brigadier General in the C.S.A. 1 March 1861, Beauregard took command of the defenses of Charleston and attacked Fort Sumter, which was commanded by his former artillery instructor Robert Anderson. On April 14th, after a siege of 36 hours, the Union Forces surrendered Fort Sumter. P.G.T. Beauregard was promoted to full general on July 21, 1861 and served until the end of the war.


Portrait of Richard Delafield

Richard Delafield, 1798-1873, USMA 1818, graduated first in order of merit in his class and as a cadet served as an acting assistant instructor in mathematics. Delafield’s engineering projects included Hampton Roads defenses, surveys of the Mississippi River delta, designing the Dunlap Creek Bridge in Browsville, PA, which was the first cast iron tubular bridge in the United States, and construction of coast defenses in New York Harbor. Appointed Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy in 1838, Delafield designed Academy buildings and a new cadet uniform displaying the “Engineer Castle” insignia. From 1855-1856, he led a commission to observe the Crimean War and to study the European military, publishing his observations in, Report on the Art of War in Europe in 1854, 1855, and 1856. Delafield returned to West Point as Superintendent from 1856-1860 and again from January-March 1861 following P.G.T. Beauregard’s short tenure as Superintendent. Promoted to Chief of Engineers April 22, 1864, Delafield held this post until his retirement in 1866.


Henry Du Pont Class Album photograph (May 1861)

Henry DuPont - 1838-1926, USMA May 1861 

Expresses his regrets about the division at West Point:

“I cannot look forward to graduation with the pleasure I did formerly. And if it is to be our lot to be employed in cutting our countrymen's throats and fighting our dearest friends and classmates, I'm very sorry that I ever came here.”

Superintendent Bowman letter to E. D. Woods, March 22, 1861

The cadet referred to in this letter is Lewis Edwards Woods. Woods resigned and returned to Louisiana where he volunteered for service in the Confederate forces. He first enlisted with the 4th Louisiana Infantry. His uncle E.D. Woods had lobbied with the Confederate War Department for a commission and Woods was appointed a lieutenant in another Louisiana unit, Mile Legion. Both Woods and his uncle made considerable reference to his United States Military Academy credentials when trying to justify why he was qualified to be an officer in an army fighting against the United States, even including copies of his official reports as a cadet at West Point.

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March 22, 1861 
E.D. Woods Esq.
Plaquemine Iberville Parish La        

West Point. N.Y. March 22/61

Dear Sir. Your favor of the 13th inst: is just rec’d & in reply I beg to say, that no instruction has been received at this Institution from the War Department, that Cadets from the Seceded state are regarded in any other light than those from the states that remain in the Union and as every indication on the part of the General Government so far as I have seen, seems to regard the Seceded States as still members of the Union, and in view of your position with reference to Secession, I see no impropriety in your nephew remaining and graduating at the Military Academy, & do not think his honor can in any degree be compromitted by so doing until actual collision takes place. All good men and true patriots look with hope to a reconciliation upon terms alike honorable & acceptable to all the states, and I rejoice to hear your opinion, that there is a majority of the people of Louisiana who entertain the same hopes.

My advice is therefore, unhesitatingly, let your nephew remain, at least until actual hostilities commence, if such is to be the lamentable result of the present political difficulties.


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Portrait of Alexander Hamilton Bowman

Alexander Hamilton Bowman, 1803-1865, USMA 1825, served as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy from 1861-1864. Upon graduation, Bowman remained at West Point teaching Geography, and History & Ethics from 1825-1826 when both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were enrolled as cadets. Bowman then worked as an engineer in a variety of capacities including the construction of defenses and improvement of harbors and rivers in the Gulf of Mexico and Tennessee, construction of the military road from Memphis to the Saint Francis River, and construction of Fort Sumter and repairing the fortifications for the defense of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Bowman returned to the Military Academy as an instructor of Practical Engineering from 1851-1852 before returning to the field to continue work on harbors, lighthouses, fortifications, and the construction of the south wing of the U.S. Treasury Building. Following P.G.T. Beauregard’s brief tenure as Superintendent, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Bowman was once again recalled to the Military Academy as Superintendent from 1861-1864. Thereafter, he returned to practical engineering work modifying the defenses in Boston Harbor. Bowman died at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on November 11, 1865.


Tully McCrea Class Album photograph (June 1862)

Tully McCrea, 1839-1918, USMA 1862

Excerpt from letter to his cousin Belle, April 7, 1861:

“There is great excitement and expectation here today to hear from New York and Washington, for it is thought that war has commenced in the southern states. It is to be regretted that such a state of affairs is necessary, but I am glad that old “Abe” has at last come to some conclusion and is ready to inaugurate a vigorous policy.” 

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Tully McCrea Letter, April 7, 1861

Fort Sumter - April 12-13, 1861


Portrait of Major Robert Anderson

By November 1860, Major Robert Anderson (USMA 1825), a former mathematics instructor at West Point, had been assigned command of the U.S. army forces in and around Charleston, South Carolina with a garrison at Fort Moultrie. When South Carolina seceded in December 1860, Major Anderson remained loyal to the Union, despite being a native of Kentucky and a former slave owner. He moved his garrison to Fort Sumter, a presumably more defensive out post located in the middle of Charleston Harbor. In February 1861, the president of the Confederates, Jefferson Davis (USMA 1828) ordered the fort to be captured. Two months later, commanded by Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, who had been a student of Anderson’s military artillery instruction at West Point, the fort was bombarded by heavy artillery. The attack began April 12, 1861 until Anderson, outnumbered and outgunned, surrendered the fort on April 13. This battle began the American Civil War. 

Prelude to War 1860 – 1861