February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
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.
Thus little Edmund Kirby, dying of his wounds three weeks after the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, was much cheered by a visit from the President of the United States. Mr. Lincoln made the young first lieutenant a brigadier general of volunteers on the spot. Kirby was 23, the son of an army paymaster’s widow, and the sole support of his mother and sisters.
He had been wounded while helping rescue some guns for a volunteer battery. The contract surgeon who dressed his wound bungled the job; after Kirby was sent to a hospital in Washington, infection set in and the leg was amputated. But it was too late—medical science of the day could not do much once an infection took hold—and Kirby was told that he could not recover.
At West Point he had been a leader in cadet prayer meetings. He was not afraid, but he grieved for the mother and sisters he must leave behind. Now, as the tall shadow of Abraham Lincoln receded on the hospital wall, he turned his cheek gratefully on the pillow and gave up his young life with a smile. The new rank assured an adequate pension.
His classmates in both armies grieved when they heard of his death. They grieved for many friends in those hard years. Looking back, one is surprised at a feeling which still comes down from those classes through all the smoke of battle. For that feeling is love! They were very hard fighters, yet those young men from West Point quite literally loved their enemies. That was one great thing West Point had given them, and it stayed with them through years of deadly combat.
It came to them naturally, out of the very air they had breathed as cadets, and its survival through the war is one of the haunting things that makes it worthwhile to take a glance now, a century afterward, at the Military Academy as it was in the years just before 1861.
In those days West Point was a very small, isolated village, almost wholly cut off from the outside world during the long winter months, remote enough at the best of times. The cadet corps was very small. There were only four companies—A, B, C, and D—each having fewer than seventy members. The cadets began their lives together at an impressionable age. The average new cadet in the 1850s was seventeen and a half years old when he entered the academy—the oldest just twenty-one, the youngest an unshaven sixteen. Once members of the corps, these boys led an almost monastic life, compared to which today’s Spartan regime seems positively relaxed.
In the four years (five years for the classes of 1859, 1860, and May, 1861) they had one furlough. It began near the middle of June, two years after their arrival; it ended when the 2 P.M. boat touched the South Dock on August 28. There were no trips to athletic contests, no week ends, no breaks in the routine of their days. Unless granted leave by the secretary of war because of death or serious illness at home, they did not leave the post A weekly exception was made for the handful of Roman Catholic cadets. Since there was no chapel of their faith on the post, these boys attended Mass each Sunday in Highland Falls. The priest knew how many gray uniforms should appear in his congregation, too, and anyone cutting church received four demerits.
The only organized recreations were dancing, riding, and fencing—all more in the nature of necessities than sports. (Every officer had to be able to ride a horse and use a sword, and on the isolated western posts regular “hops” were one way of passing the long winters.) On Christmas night the fencing academy was lighted until tattoo, and the cadets performed waltz, polka, and quadrille to the music of the Military Academy Band. For the most part they danced with each other. Only during the too-brief summer months did young ladies manage to reach the post. Then there were dances, picnics, and the usual aimless strolling along the river paths.
Cadets, as always, had very little spare time and used it according to individual inclination. In the summer they swam; in the winter they skated. They hiked and rode, unencumbered by companions in hoop skirts. Some did a little sketching from the ruins of old Fort Putnam. Now and then these sketches grew into small oil paintings which were proudly mailed home. The cadets also, one must suspect, did quite a bit of resting in the warm grass around the old fort.
They wrote and very much enjoyed receiving letters. On Saturdays they read in the library. Magazines, the novels of Scott and Cooper, and a book titled Horse Shoe Robinson were very popular. Not all the reading was fiction. Emory Upton (an excellent student and officer, he also wrote extensively on tactics and military history), as might be expected, gave himself two educations at once. His roommate, John Rodgers, matched him almost volume tor volume. Alonzo Cushing, with a brother at Annapolis, dipped into naval history. Many plowed doggedly through biography, history, travel, and tactics. Cadets even read books which today, if read at all, are read only by girls.
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.
In March, 1863, Rosser was wounded at Kelly’s Ford. In May of that year he married his young lady. It was a sad wedding. Pelham, who was to have been best man, had taken his death wound at Kelly’s Ford. In his place stood James Dearing, who would have graduated in 1862 had Virginia stayed in the Union. Before the war ended, Dearing too would be killed in a last futile battle just before Appomattox.
Rosser was one of the few who did not surrender with Lee. He was a major general of cavalry by this time. He had put in almost a year fighting Custer up and down the Shenandoah Valley. Now he tried breaking through to the last Confederate command in the Carolinas. He almost made it. The Yankees caught him near Lynchburg.
So the war was over. Most of his friends were dead, and Tom Rosser was a professional man barred from his profession—a major general with no job and a hungry family. He went to work with a pick and shovel for the Northern Pacific Railroad.
Soon they allowed he was an engineer and gave him the job of surveying the line’s route to the West Coast. Regular regiments were assigned to guard these operations from whatever Indians might not like the idea of a railroad so near home.
“Well, I have joined the engineers,” wrote Custer to his Elizabeth in 1873. “I was lying half asleep when I heard ‘Orderly, which is General Custer’s tent?’ I sprang up. ‘I know that voice, even if I haven’t heard it for years!’ It was my old friend General Rosser. Stretched on a buffalo robe, under a fly, in the moonlight, we listened to one another’s accounts of the battles in which we had been opposed. It seemed like the time when, as cadets, we lay, huddled under one blanket, indulging in dreams of the future.” In the weeks to come they refought the old battles and called up the young faces gone forever.
Three years later, when Custer’s command was cut off on the Little Big Horn, Rosser prepared to lead a volunteer force to the rescue. Before he could start, word came down the river that it was no use. But Rosser’s friendships did not end with life. To the end he defended Custer’s reputation.
The day came when Thomas Rosser even renewed his old friendship with the United States. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War he and two other former Confederate officers—Fitzhugh Lee, class of 1856, and Joseph Wheeler, class of 1851—thought it an excellent example of unity to lead their part of the country back into the blue fighting ranks. Rosser was 61 years old when he received the commission for which he had trained in his youth—brigadier general, United States Army.
“There were veterans down our way,” writes a native of Alabama, “who were considerably shaken by the event. I remember one old fellow saying, I'm a Confederate, and a Christian, and I always aimed to live right, so’s I’d go to Heaven. But if them newspapers ain’t lyin’, an’ this here is true, I ain’t so sure. Now I reckon I’d ruther go to Hell an’ see the Devil rip them blue coats off Tom Rosser and Fitz Lee!’”
It was a short war in ’98. General Rosser soon returned to his plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia. He became postmaster of the city. His acres were secured by the money he had earned in his bitter western days right after the old war. He died in 1910 an honored and respected man, his children and grandchildren about him, his country unified, happy, and at peace.
Fates more terrible awaited some. Perhaps there were boys in gray who died in Union prison camps in the very state where they had gone to school. It is hard to trace these young southerners. Once a man had resigned, the old records usually cut off his career with the bitter words, “Joined in the rebellion against the United States.” Occasionally, if he were killed while “in rebellion,” that grim fact is noted. So died at Gettysburg William Westwood McCreery, class of 1860, known to his fellow cadets as “Rip.” He died commanding the guns of a North Carolina battery on July 3.
The artillery seems to have been particularly unhealthy at Gettysburg. Lieutenant Malbone Watson of the 5th Regular Artillery, a member of the May class of 1861, took a bad wound in his right leg on Little Round Top on July 2. A few moments later his classmate Charles Edward Hazlett bent down to catch the final orders of Brigadier General Stephen Weed, who was dying beside Watson’s guns. As he bent over his commander, Hazlett took a bullet through the brain and fell dead on Weed’s body.
The June class of 1861 also had cause to remember that second day at Gettysburg. Patrick Henry O’Rorke had headed the class of which Custer ingloriously occupied the foot. At Gettysburg he led the 140th New York Infantry. On his way to the field he halted the regiment and addressed it briefly; he expected every man to do his duty, and if any man failed, the fileclosers would shoot him! In the famous struggle for Little Round Top—at just about the time Watson and Hazlett got hit—he led the 140th up that craggy little hill just in time to repulse a Confederate charge, got a bullet in the throat, and fell dead.
On July 3 at Gettysburg, at the precise part of the Union line which Pickett’s famous charge was getting ready to hit, there were two batteries of regular artillery, each commanded by a member of the old June class. One was George Augustus Woodruff, who was put out of action by a serious wound just before the great charge got started; the other was Alonzo H. Cushing, a slender, almost girlish young lieutenant who was only sixteen when he entered the Military Academy and who was a cadet captain when he graduated.
On that third day at Gettysburg the Union line was pierced, through no fault of Alonzo Cushing’s. He fought while his limbers were blown up and his caissons shot to matchwood. He fought while his guns were disabled one by one. He fought while his gunners died at his side. He was wounded, bandaged the wounds, and fought on. His second in command was killed. Every other officer in the battery was gone. Cushing took a ball through his right shoulder. Still he refused to leave his guns. White to the lips from loss of blood, he ordered Sergeant Fuger to hold him on his feet.
He fell into Fuger’s arms, wounded again. This time the shrapnel had torn open the lower part of his abdomen. That was a mortal wound, but Cushing clamped his left arm against his torn belly, struggled to his feet, and continued to whisper perfectly rational orders to his frantic sergeant.
At last only a single gun was left. It was triple-charged with canister—the very last of the battery’s ammunition. The few remaining men managed to run it down to the wall. As Alonzo Cushing jerked the lanyard, a bullet sped between his parted lips and slammed into the base of his brain. The sergeant laid him on the bloody grass, just as the Confederate General Lewis Armistead leaped on the wall, put his hand on the still-smoking gun, and then fell mortally wounded beside it.
Early on the afternoon of July 4, George Woodruff died of his wound in a little stone school house two miles behind the lines. On that same day the surgeons cut off Malbone Watson’s right leg; he would return to West Point, on recovery, to teach French at the academy during the rest of the war.
All of these men, and many others like them, are commemorated in the great Battle Monument which towers above the plain at West Point—the one memorial to men of the Regular Army built with contributions from men of the Regular Army. Nearly a century has passed since the site of that monument was dedicated. Far below it, the Hudson flows on its endless course; on the plain around it, the academy classes come and go, and down the marching years a few return to the scene …
one cup before we go;
They poured their life-blood freely out,
pro bono publico.
No marble points the stranger
to where they rest below—
They lie neglected far away
from Benny Havens Oh!
Many do lie far away from the paths their youthful steps climbed. George Woodruff’s body was taken back to Michigan; Justin Dimick sleeps in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, within sound of the restless sea; John Pelham lies among the blue hills of his Alabama home; and Tom Rosser slumbers at Charlottesville, far from his old roommate. But they all seem to linger in the place they all loved. The bones of Custer came back from the shallow grave along the Little Big Horn and lie at West Point, and not far away there is a headstone of the type a class buys for someone whom it really loved. This stone, with a cross at the top, has an inscription:
BREVET LT. COLONEL
ALONZO H. CUSHING
FELL JULY 3RD, 1863,
There are three more words on this white stone, words which might well stand above the headstone of everybody who once marched with the two classes of 1861, and it matters very little whether he wore a blue uniform or a gray one, once he came down from the wind-swept plain—three terrible but beautiful words:
“Faithful unto death.”