The vast majority of the generals both North and South had been educated at the nation's premier engineering school before the outbreak of hostilities in 1861. What was the nation's premier engineering school you might ask? It is none other than the United States Military Academy, popularly known as West Point.
Each new officer upon being commissioned in the U.S. Army takes a vow to protect the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. It was true back then; it is true now.
But for those officers of the Old Army, who followed their states out of the old Union and resigned their commissions, must not that very vow have come back to possibly haunt them as they wrestled with the right decision to make? To turn one's back on home, family, friends for one's country and comrades? Or to turn one's back on the very government and institution which had trained them and given them opportunities for leadership precisely because their native state, indeed their "country", had dissolved its compact with the Federal republic?
In Michael Shaara's famous book about the Battle of Gettysburg, "Killer Angels", there are two instances where this very conflict is profoundly exampled in dialogue. In one instance, Longstreet is discussing with Lee how the enemy over on Cemetery Ridge does not quite feel like the enemy in a true sense and that, "we broke the vow". (I do not know if Longstreet and Lee actually spoke the words Shaara puts in his Longstreet and his Lee, but it could possibly have happened.) The other instance is when Armistead tells Longstreet of the parting between him and Winfield Scott Hancock in California, when so many of themóArmistead includedóreturned to their homes in the South after their states seceded and they resigned their commissions. Armistead vowed to Hancock that if he ever lifted a hand against his best friend from the Old Army days, for God to strike him dead.
Did the officers in the Old Army who "went South" break "the Vow" or did they obey the call of their homes, families, friends and their "country"? Moreover, what of those who remained with the Union and stayed with the Army? Did they keep their "Vow" knowing they risked the loss of family, friends and home?© 2002