Classmates Divided

It was just a century last summer since a tall, raw-boned Ohio farm boy stepped from the two o’clock boat to West Point’s South Dock. He shouldered his baggage and climbed the steep path to the plain. Sun-drenched fields, dipping elms, indigo hills, and silver river spread out before him: the almost unbelievable beauty which would be the backdrop of his life for the next four years.

He stood for a few moments, awkward and shy, more alone than he had ever felt in all his seventeen years; more alone than he would ever feel again until his years had readied thirty-seven. Then he made the necessary inquiries reported to the necessary places, signed the necessary papers in a bold, splashing hand, and became that lowest form of animal life—a new cadet.

His family and close friends had always called him Autie. His classmates took one good look at his rather long, Hessian-yellow hair and joyously dubbed him “Fanny.” In the footnotes of the history books and in innumerable Western films he comes down to us as General George Armstrong Custer.

He is just about the only member of his class who does come down to us!

Yet there were others, once well known, all still deserving of remembrance: and they were a fated group, for a pathetic conflict of loyalties and emotions was their lot when they left the Military Academy. In all the long history of West Point no cadets had gone forth into a more tragic world than the ones who left in the spring of 1861.

There is a strange and romantic haze resting on the high plain that overlooks the Hudson at West Point—that plain where so many of America’s greatest soldiers, living briefly in a world apart, learned the rudiments of their demanding profession. But there is an especially somber and haunting hue to the atmosphere of the late 1850s, for the country was breaking apart, and the line of fracture ran straight across the special world inhabited by young West Pointers.

Many things are learned at West Point; among them, the great fact of comradeship, the bond that ties together men dedicated to a common calling. And in the spring of 1861 the southern states were seceding from the Union, and war was upon the land, and so in a very short time many of the former West Point comrades were in opposition armies, fighting against one another. Some of them lived and some of them died, but all of them knew the strange, sad mixture of enmity and personal affection that was the peculiar heritage of the classes of 1861.

The word “classes” is used advisedly, for West Point sent forth two groups in that tragic spring of fire and conflict. The War Department had briefly tried the experiment of a five-year course in place of the normal four years; so the men who had become cadets in 1856 were due to graduate in the month of May, 1861, just ahead of the men who had entered in 1857 and would get their diplomas in June. Of the latter group, twenty-three men left when their states seceded, and thirty-four were graduated—of whom four immediately resigned to “go south.” Of the five-year men, five resigned when their states left the Union, and eight more resigned immediately after their graduation in May. (More correctly, they tried to resign; the war was on by then, and the War Department ordered these men dismissed for “tendering resignation in the face of the enemy.”) In any case, thirty-seven of the May graduates went to Washington, were commissioned in the U.S. Army, and set to work turning new recruits into soldiers.

All in all, of these two 1861 classes forty-five young officers fought, on one side or the other, at the first Battle of Bull Run, which came in mid-July. One of the most distinguished of the May group, Adelbert Ames, was almost killed there.

In May Mr. Ames had been a cadet captain. In July he was a very green lieutenant of the old 5th Artillery, a Regular Army outfit. He was a serious young man with grave dark eyes and a straight nose in a round face. He had graduated fifth in his class, and he was anxious to do the right thing in his first battle.

Although wounded, Ames refused to leave the field. The gunners propped him up on a caisson, obeyed his whispered orders diligently, and told themselves this lad, at least, had the makings of a good officer. Eventually he fainted, fell off the caisson, and was carried back to a hospital. He did not leave until September.

He survived; men from Rockland, Maine, are hard to kill. In fact Adelbert Ames reached the age of 97—the last survivor of his class. And in 1893 the government got around to giving him the Medal of Honor for his conduct on 21 July 1861. He was one of five from the May class to receive this award; the others were Eugene Beaumont, Samuel Benjamin, Henry Dupont, and Guy Henry.

Other soldiers got other awards, including that odd sort of promotion, in style then, known as brevet rank. This was, so to speak, a sort of unofficial promotion—a major might be given a brevet as a colonel, which meant that for the time being, and under certain circumstances, he could actually be a colonel, although his permanent rank was still that of major. One of the good things about the award of a brevet promotion was that the next of kin of a man who died while holding brevet rank was supposed to receive a higher pension, based on the brevet rather than the permanent rank.