- Historic Sites
On the eve of the Civil War differing loyalties sent some West Pointers north, others south, but their academy friendship survived the conflict.
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
Not all amusements were innocent. One mile down the river stood the cottage of Benny Havens, a former civilian employee who had been forever banished from West Point by Sylvanus Thayer himself. The food in the mess hall, prepared by contract caterers in those days, was terrible. The buckwheat cakes and roast turkey prepared by Benny’s Dutch wife were delicious. It was for no good, however, that the cottage was best known. Benny Havens made the best hot rum flip in the Hudson Valley. On dark nights, when the skating was good, the authorities had an unnerving habit of raiding his place, which was strictly off limits to all cadets.
One of Havens’ best customers, in the old days, had been Jefferson Davis—who later, as secretary of war, was the final authority over the Military Academy and all its works, and who, still later, was to be president of the Confederacy. Indeed, Davis was almost killed one night when he fell down a cliff while making a successful escape from Benny Havens’ place during a raid. One wonders if he remembered that escapade when the case of Cadet Justin Dimick came before him. Mr. Dimick had been absent and off limits without leave. It was his second offense. The Secretary was graciously pleased to give him another chance upon the boy’s pledge never again to violate paragraphs 115 and 116 of the Regulations. Four years later Justin Dimick gave his life for the Union at Chancellorsville.
The cadets worked hard, played hard, and occasionally fought hard; differences of opinion were settled with fists in the cold morning dew beneath the ramparts of old Fort Clinton. Hazing was in vogue, but most of it seems to have taken the form of rather innocent practical jokes. The cadets were almost completely dependent on their classmates for companionship, and the friendships they formed were expected to last a lifetime of dreary, lonely, and dangerous frontier duty. In actual fact those friendships did more than that; they even survived the trials of civil war, the hardest possible test for any friendship.
Time after time the old records tell the story. John Lea, Confederate States Army, had resigned from the June class when Mississippi left the Union. He was severely wounded and taken prisoner in the retreat from Williamsburg. As he recovered, he fell in love with the daughter of the family which had nursed him. Finally they were married. Who stood up with the groom? George Armstrong Custer, United States Army.
“I am not disloyal when I tell you we heard with secret pride of his gallant deeds on the field of battle,” wrote Adelbert Ames of Alabama’s John Pelham. “It was what we had the right to expect of him—he was our classmate for five years—he was one of the best of us—who should win honors and glory if not he? And we were deeply grieved when we heard of his death.”
These friendships extended beyond immediate class limits to bind all those who had been cadets together. “Late one night, while I was on my way from Montgomery to Atlanta just after the war,” wrote Morris Schaff, class of 1862, “the ramshackle train stopped at a lonely station. Charles Ball [class of June, 1861], still in Confederate gray, entered. As soon as he recognized me, he quickened his step and met me with such unaffected cordiality that the car seemed to glow with new lamps. In view of what had gone before I would not have been hurt had he merely bowed and passed on, for I realized how much there had been to embitter. Yet he sat, and we talked over old times half the night. I could not help wondering, as he parted from me, whether I could have shown so much magnanimity had the South conquered the North, and had I come home in rags, to find the old farm desolate. I doubt it.”
The impersonal records tell how the Confederate General Dodson Ramseur’s headquarters flag was carried to the War Department in 1864—part of the booty Sheridan’s men took when they defeated and captured that gallant graduate of 1860. But personal letters tell how the wounded Ramseur was carried to Sheridan’s headquarters; how Union surgeons labored with a Southern doctor to save him; how friends in blue uniforms took down messages for Mrs. Ramseur and cut off a lock of brown hair for the baby daughter the young general would never see; and how, after long hours of agony, Dodson Ramseur died in the arms of his classmates.
One of the most enduring of these friendships was that between Custer and Thomas Lafayette Rosser. Rosser, three years older than Custer, was a member of the May class. He had been born in Virginia but was raised on a pioneer’s farm in Texas. He was big—six feet, two inches—and strong in everything but book learning. Rosser roomed with John Pelham, and the three had one thing in common from the beginning: they were the best riders in the corps. If Custer, Pelham, or Rosser could not stay on a horse, that horse could not be ridden.
John Pelham was as fair as Rosser was dark. He was a quiet boy, a shade higher than the other two scholastically. He was one of the best-liked men in his class, and later in the Army of Northern Virginia. And he has probably had more children named for him than any other bachelor in military history. These children included Virginia Pelham Stuart—the last-born child of Pelham’s commanding officer, the famous Jeb Stuart.