Halls of Montezuma

Been playing the game Halls of Montezuma over the weekend.  Coming out on May 20, I purchased an advance copy.  The first computer strategic level simulation of the Mexican War, it gives a good feel for the actual conflict, with the center piece being Scott’s march up county from Veracuz to the war winning seizure of Mexico City.  It struck me as I was playing the game how ill prepared this conflict left the West Pointers who participated in it for the Civil War.  This was the type of War that West Point had trained them for:  short and sharp with the Regular Army leading the way and volunteer regiments playing a distinctly secondary role.  The War ending with the seizure of the capital of  Mexico and the US dictating peace, had a Napoleonic feel to it, and the campaigns of Napoleon were what the West Pointers tended to study during the brief period in their four years when any attention, and it wasn’t much, was paid to how to conduct a military campaign.  The Mexican War would have seemed to West Pointers to confirm what they would have been taught at the Point.

Then thirteen years passed swiftly, as the years of a man’s life tend to pass, and the junior officers of the Mexican War found themselves to be senior officers in a vast new conflict.  They had to unlearn much that they had learned in the Mexican War.  The tiny Regular Army was dwarfed by the volunteer regiments of this conflict, all of which had to be trained in the basics before they would be of any use in the conflict.  The vast armies of this conflict presented logistical problems undreamed of compared to keeping the relatively small armies of the Mexican War supplied.  Mexican War casualties would seem insignificant compared to the casualties of the Civil War, where in the Battle of Shiloh more battle deaths occurred than in all the previous wars of the US combined.  The tactics learned in the Mexican War were all wrong, with rifled muskets making bayonet charges suicidal instead of the decisive instrument they were in the Mexican War, ditto the use of “flying” horse drawn light artillery batteries which had been so effective in the Mexican war and relegating cavalry charges largely to the history books.   Instead of a short and decisive conflict, the Civil War was a bloody war of attrition in which 640,000-750,000 men would perish and leave an indelible impact on the Republic.

The education received by the graduates of West Point left them ill-prepared for the Civil War, and the experiences of the Mexican War taught the wrong lessons to the officers who fought in it for the Civil War.  The combat experience benefited them to be used to a field of battle where men died, but that is about all that can be said for their experiences in a conflict often erroneously described as a crucible for the Civil War.  The great exception to this was Captain Lee, who carried out reconnoitering missions behind enemy lines for General Winfield Scott and who learned how valuable maneuver could be for an army confronting a numerically superior foe.

Published in: on May 26, 2021 at 3:52 am  Comments (2)  
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