Jon Scott Logel is Associate Professor in the War Gaming Department of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. This interview is based on his new book, Designing Gotham: West Point Engineers and the Rise of Modern New York, 1817-1898 (LSU Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Designing Gotham?
JL: My research into the relationship between the men of West Point and New York City began while I was an American History instructor at the U.S. Military Academy. One of my additional duties at the Academy was to provide tours of the West Point Cemetery and the various figures interred there. At the pyramid tomb of Egbert L. Viele, I had to explain that he was a graduate from the class of 1847, served in the Mexican-American War, was the first designer of Central Park, and was a Union general in the Civil War. It was the phrase “the first designer of Central Park” that left me concerned that I might be embellishing Viele’s legacy, especially given the rightful place of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the history of the park. So in an effort not to be embarrassed while leading tours, I began my research.
The project expanded from Egbert L.Viele into a larger question of what was the relationship between the graduates of West Point and the rise of New York City in the nineteenth century. Specifically, how were graduates such as Viele, George S. Greene (1823), and Henry Warner Slocum (1852) able to influence the politics, culture, and urbanization that occurred in Gotham from 1817-1898. What I discovered is that this dynamic relationship of engineering expertise and the rise of the modern city fostered the professionalization of the civil engineering field, and influenced the manifestation of American progressivism at the turn of the twentieth century.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Designing Gotham?
JL: West Point graduates who came to New York City before, during and after the Civil War leveraged their professional relationships and military experiences to influence the transformation of New York into a modern metropolis by 1898. Moreover, in New York, these West Point engineers with their city peers contributed to the development of civil engineering, professionalization, and civic administration in the United States.
JF: Why do we need to read Designing Gotham?
JL: Most histories of New York marginalize or ignore the role of West Point graduates in the building and development of the city. This book not only recovers the experiences of these military figures in the city, it also describes a time when the relationship between American military and American society was more intertwined than today. The primacy of engineering in the Military Academy curriculum led to an American officer corps that was more pre-disposed to building aqueducts, canals, and railroad than fighting wars. As a result, military-learned ideas and actions served as the forerunner to the reform impulse that accompanied American urbanization more than a century ago.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JL: In 1998, the United States Military Academy selected me to attend graduate school and then teach U.S. history to the cadets. For two years I studied at Syracuse University under a cadre of gifted professors. Scott Strickland, Peggy Thompson, David Bennett, Bill Stinchcombe, Roger Sharp, and Stephen Webb provided a foundation in American history and the finest example of how to be an historian. At West Point, I became committed to the field and have remained fixed on leveraging historical context for understanding current challenges.
JF: What is your next project?
JL: At the Naval War College we have been experiencing a renaissance in the art of war gaming. Many leaders in the Navy have looked to the war games of the interwar years as their model for how to be innovative and respond to the prospect of future wars at sea. My current project seeks to understand the interwar experience of American Naval leaders who studied at Newport and how that experience affected their World War Two actions and decisions. In many ways, this project is similar to Designing Gotham in that I am seeking to explore the connections between an institution of military education and the outcomes manifest in its graduates.
JF: Thanks, Jon!