The Spirit of Old West Point
BY MORRIS SCHAFF
ON THE THRESHOLD
SOME time during the winter of 185758, I received from the Hon. Samuel S. Cox, Member of Congress from Ohio, and representing the district composed of Licking, Franklin, and Pickaway, an appointment as cadet at West Point. I know it was winter time, for, across the vanished years, I can see the family gathered before the big wood fire, and my father entering, clad in his greatcoat — he had been to Newark and on his way home had stopped at the post office in Kirkersville—and bearing in his hand a large and significant-looking official letter.
Removing his coat and adjusting his glasses, he opened the communication from Washington and read my appointment. Oh, the quiet radiance of my mother’s face! And never, I think, did fire burn so cheerily as ours burned that night, — and somehow, I am fain to believe, the curling smoke communicated the news to the old farm; for every field that I had wandered over from childhood seemed to greet me the next morning, as I walked out to feed the sheep. We sat long round the fire, and read and re-read the formidable entrance requirements, both physical and mental, as set forth in the circular accompanying the appointment.
This circular, prepared by Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War, and a graduate himself, announced that only about a third of all who entered were graduated, and counseled the appointee that unless he had an aptitude for mathematics, etc., it might be better for him not to accept the appointment; thus he would escape the mortification of failure for himself and family. In view of my lack of opportunity to acquire a knowledge of mathematics, or, for that matter, more than the simplest rudiments of an education in any branch, I wonder now that I dared to face the ordeal. But how the future gleams through the gates of youth!
It was in the days before competitive examinations, when appointments to West Point and Annapolis were coveted —and usually secured—by the sons of the leaders in business, political influence, and social standing; and ours was the capital district. The debt of gratitude I owe to Mr. Cox is especially great, — greater than it was ever in my power, while he was living, to repay by word or deed. Widely known and dearly beloved, he has long since passed beyond the reach of human utterance; but whatever defects may characterize the course of this narrative, I want the light of acknowledged gratitude to him to fall across its threshold.
At that time our country was a very different one from that in which we are now living; and so great have been the changes that, could the leading merchants of our cities of fifty years ago, or the farmers who settled amid the primeval timber of the West, return, the former would not recognize one street from another, and the latter would look in vain for the fields and woods that met their eyes from the doorstep. The population of the country, now rising eighty millions, was less than thirtytwo millions, not counting the territories; and of these nineteen millions were in the North, or free states, and twelve in the South, or slave states. The frontier was along the western boundary of Arkansas, and thence north to the Canadian line. The great tide of emigration that set in with the building of the National Road was still flowing west; while the railroads and telegraph were just beginning to push their way after it. Steamboats, called “floating palaces,” could be seen at almost every bend of the beautiful Ohio and on every long reach of the solemnly impressive Mississippi.
Practically all the vast area lying west of the Hudson was devoted to agriculture, while the South, as from the early days, was still raising cotton and tobacco, finding itself year after year dropping farther and farther behind the more progressive North in commercial weight and importance. But there were no great fortunes at that time, either North or South; it is safe to say there were not throughout all the land half a dozen men worth a million dollars. If an estate amounted to fifty thousand dollars, it was considered large; and yet, under those conditions there were refinement, courage, good manners, and wide knowledge — qualities that went to the making of gentlemen. Colleges, called universities, were springing up everywhere over the land. Irving, Hawthorne, and Bancroft, Longfellow, Whittier, and Emerson, had laid the foundations for our literature. In public life the foremost statesmen of the time were Benton, Cass, Corwin, Douglas, Chase, Wade, and Giddings in the West; Seward, Hale, Banks, Sumner, and Adams in the East; while the South counted among its leaders such men as Jefferson Davis and Quitman of Mississippi, Alexander H. Stephens and Toombs of Georgia, and Hunter and Mason of Virginia. Besides these there were Breckenridge and Crittenden of Kentucky, Benjamin and Slidell of Louisiana, Wigfall of Texas, and Yancey of Alabama — not to mention a group of arrogant and almost frenzied agitators for secession, who seemed to rise right up from the ground that was thrown out when Calhoun’s grave was dug, and to whom may be attributed in great measure the dire adversity of our Southland.
The war with Mexico was still fresh in the memories of the people, and the majority of the officers who had gained distinction in it were still living, as well as veterans here and there of the War of 1812; and to emphasize the march of time, I may say that a frequent visitor at my father’s house was a French veteran by the name of Gênet, who had actually fought under Napoleon at Waterloo. Save with Mexico, our country had been at peace with all the world for nearly fifty years; its future, save as shadowed now and then by slavery, glowed warmly, and pride and love for it burned in every heart.
The army consisted of 16,435 officers and men; its organization was made up of engineers, topographical engineers, ordnance, supply departments, artillery, infantry, cavalry, dragoons, and mounted rifles. The heaviest guns in the forts were 10-inch columbiads, and the small arms were all muzzle-loading smooth bores and rifles.
Grant, in utter obscurity and almost utter poverty, and fronting an outlook of utter hopelessness, was a clerk in a store at Galena. Farragut was sailing the seas and not dreaming of the days to come, when, lashed to the rigging, he would lead his squadron into the battle of Mobile Bay. Lee was commanding a post in Texas, and probably had never heard of the little town of Gettysburg; Sedgwick and Thomas and Jeb Stuart were all on the Texas frontier, and the future seemed to offer only a slow chance for promotion; and yet, in less than five years they had risen to enduring fame. Stonewall Jackson was an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute — the West Point of the South; but he was dwelling more on the sins of this earth than on its honors, either military or civil, and was regarded by his intimates as a queer and uninteresting type of a belated Roundhead. Within five years he was to rise to the pinnacle of fame, his star to the country’s zenith. Sherman was teaching in Louisiana, little dreaming that he would one day lead a victorious army from Atlanta to the sea, Longstreet, the Johnstons, the Hills, Hooker, Bragg, and Forest — the latter a slave dealer, but the ablest cavalry leader of the Confederacy — and the many who in blue and gray rose on the waves of the mighty rebellion, were all unknown outside of their local and professional associations. Of these, Reynolds, who fell at Gettysburg, Webb, Warren, McCook, Howard, Griffin, Schofield, Hartsuff, Saxton, Weitzel, and Hazen, of the Union; Hardee, Beauregard, Fitz Lee, Alexander, and Field, of the Confederate Army, were on duty as officers at West Point. In the corps as cadets were Wilson, Upton, Hardin, Horace Porter, Merritt, Custer, and Mackenzie of the North, while bound in ties of friendship with them were Ramseur, Wheeler, Rosser, Pelham, Young, Semmes, and Deering of the South. Whenever and wherever I have thought of them as officers or cadets, — and it has been many and many a time, — imagination has painted them marching unconsciously toward the field of the high test of the soldier and the gentleman.
The war between the states was gathering much faster than we realized. Every little while, as from a cloud, sounded low and heavy rumblings; but, like distant thunder in summer, they died away; and notwithstanding that they came again heavier and at shorter intervals, yet hopes of peace, like birds in the fields, sang on. And yet everywhere there was a growing fever in the blood.
The progress of events in the seventyfive years during which they had been bound together in the Constitution had forced freedom and slavery, so mutually and organically antagonistic, nearer and nearer to each other. The closer the approach, slavery on the one hand saw herself growing more and more repulsive, while on the other, the South, with increasing anger and alarm, saw in the cold look of the self-controlled North that her prosperity, happiness, social fabric, and political supremacy were threatened if not doomed. In the Ordinance of 1787 she had seen herself excluded from all the territory north of the Ohio; in 1820, forever prohibited in all the territory ceded by France, and known as Louisiana, north of 36° 20"; in 1846, excluded from all the territory purchased from Mexico; in 1850, California admitted as a free state, and the slave trade abolished in the District of Columbia. In 1854 she saw slavery expelled from the territory of Kansas, the blood of freemen dripping from her hands, after a savage and brutal contest with freedom. During this process of being hemmed in she became more and more irritable, and, unfortunately for her, more domineering.
Naturally enough the social, idealistic, and temperamental difference elementary in the natures and traditions of the people grew apace. We in the West, especially those of us with Southern affiliation of birth, hated slavery and hated New England, but generally sympathized with the South; yet in her arrogance she fast assumed an attitude of condescension and superiority over us all. Meanwhile, the abolitionist, despised on all hands, had begun the most systematic, deliberate, and stubborn crusade that ever was waged against an institution, giving birth to the Fugitive Slave Law out of the compromises thus enforced. It was a law hateful in every feature, arousing the indignation of every, natural impulse, and humiliating to the self-respect of every official called on for its execution. Then Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared; from door to door it went; and slavery heard its knell from every hearthstone before which it was read.
From that time an open hostility to the institution was in the plank of every platform, and was constantly engaging the earnest discussion and purpose of every benevolent and religious association. There was no respite day or night henceforward for the great body of the people, who, standing between the fire-eaters on the one hand and the abolitionists on the other, were ready and longing to do anything for the peace, glory, and welfare of South as well as North.
As early as 1851. South Carolina and Mississippi in their provincial egotism had threatened secession; declaring in a bullying way that they would not submit to degradation in the Union, — referring to the barricades that the people of the free states had thrown up against the extension of the institution of slavery. Meanwhile, Sumner, with manners more imperious and egotism more colossal than the Southern states had ever exhibited, assailed slavery and, indirectly, the representatives of the South in Congress, with a kind of dogmatic statesmanship and scholastic venom, — the latter intended to irritate, and succeeding in its purpose, — roared out in pompous and reverberating declamation. The effect of these deplorable extremes was to weaken the natural ties that bound the sections, to drive out friendship and good-will from many a home, and to substitute in their places deep and dangerous ill-feelings. Now, as I look back over it all, never, it seems to me, did provincial egotism born of slavery, and bigotry born of political and moral dogma pursue their ways more blindly to frightful wastes of treasure and blood. But let this question rest; the fire-eater is gone and the abolitionist is gone; were they to come back, the surprise of both at the results would be astounding. However that may be, in due time an idea took possession of the North, as if it had seen a vision; the Democratic party began to break before it, and the Republican party sprang up from Maine to California with almost the speed of a phantom.
When I finally left home for West Point, James Buchanan was President, and drifting placidly into a deeper eclipse than has befallen any other who has filled that high office. Abraham Lincoln was still unknown beyond the prairies of Central Illinois.
In company with J. C. Ritchey, an appointee from the adjoining district, a son of the Honorable Thomas Ritchey of Somerset, Perry County, who, for the welfare and glory of the country, appointed General Philip Sheridan to West Point, I set out the last week in May for the Military Academy by way of Cleveland, Buffalo, and Albany.
Ritchey was a spare, dark-haired, wellbred, handsome boy, and, like myself, had never been twenty-five miles from home. Neither of us had ever seen a steamboat. And so, when we boarded the Metamora at Albany, and the colored porter proclaimed — ringing a bell with an air of great authority, as he made his way airily along the decks — that all the passengers should present themselves at the purser’s office and show their tickets, neither my companion nor myself had the faintest idea which way to go. The steamboat swung out from her berth, and down the broad sweeping Hudson, glittering in the June sunshine, between its pleasant banks of richest green, under the blue Catskills, all dreaming, and some towering loftily in the distance. To us both the trip was like an opening to another and a surprisingly beautiful and mystic world.
We met tows making their way laboriously with their long trains of forlorn canal boats. The decks of the Governor Clintons, the Queens of the Mohawk, the Mary Anns of Buffalo, were deserted, save here and there a man in coat sleeves lolling in an armchair, a dog sprawling asleep near him in the warm sunshine, and now and then a little bareheaded child, whose only play-yard was the deck, toddling by its mother as she strung up some promiscuous laundry, — the whole, from the high, animated deck of our proud steamer, a moving picture of cheerless and hopeless isolation. And yet who knows the secret pride that lingers about the captaincy of a canal boat? who knows the good spirits that visit him, the mother and the child, as his craft by fields and woods and church-spired towns pursues its silent way ? Every little while, off across the glittering water, where the river broadened widely, men tugged waist deep at a seine, for the shad were running. Now and then we passed a sloop or schooner with sails set, or waiting patiently for wind or tide.
I had never seen a sailing-vessel before, and at that time did not know one from another. I learned the difference one golden summer afternoon while lying on the velvety green parapet of Fort Knox. (What a view and what memories the name will bring back to every graduate whose eyes may follow this pen!) There were four or five of us in the party, and every little while some one would speak of how some sloop or other which we could see below us was heading away from a certain schooner, or how the schooner was beating the sloop. Well, it was all Greek to me, and I finally asked, “Which is the sloop and which is the schooner?” as there were quite a number of them, and from that point they looked more like birds, they were so still and so far below you.
As most of the party were Eastern men my question had barely passed my lips when they howled, “For God’s sake, Schaff, where are you from ? Don’t you see that the schooner has two masts and the sloop one?” After a month or two, by remembering that the word “schooner” had more tellers in it than “sloop,” I was able to distinguish them.
About noon we entered the Narrows. The low, green banks, which for miles and miles had been so soothingly winsome, with their tranquil prospects reaching off to leaning distances, suddenly drew nearer to each other, and loomed up ahead into great, majestically calm, green-timbered heights. I had never seen a mountain before and, as we drew closer to them, they filled my eye with wonder.
Soon we were abreast of Storm King, and now we were at the foot of Crow Nest, which, clothed in evergreen, rises sheer fifteen hundred feet from the water’s edge, its deeply silent face marked here and there with patches of gray overhanging cliffs. This mountain, Fort Putnam, the stately river, and the wide, dreaming prospect beyond it, that recedes in undulating lines of quiet fields, brooding woods, and darkening ravines to a distant, elevated horizon line sweeping far to the north with the pensive beauty of remote charm, — these with Crow Nest fill the background of every West Point memory.
The passengers had gathered in the forward part of the boat, and what a scene of river and mountains lay before us! Whatever our walk in life may be and whatever our hopes, the Hudson and the Highlands convey at this point a certain sweet exultation to the mind of all. Oh, Mother Earth! endeared by mists and trailing clouds, by lone trees on crests against the evening sky, by voices of waters falling far up some wild ravine on starry nights, by fields where bees are humming, — dear as all these are to me, if I could choose one scene of all your mighty compass of beauty to fill my eye at the last, it would be the Highlands of the Hudson.
The boat sped on, and I heard a passenger near by observe: “There is West Point!" My heart beat. And at once I caught the flag crimsoning in the distance. It needs but this bit of color, the proud banner lifting and swirling out gracefully, and sinking back tenderly to the mast, to blend the scene with the thrill of its heroic associations.
Soon we were at the dock, and soon we were ascending the slope that Grant, Lee, McPherson, Stonewall Jackson, Longstreet, and Warren, and many a highhearted one — boys like ourselves — had ascended. The road from the wharf, supported by substantial retaining walls, bears up the face of the precipitous bluff with a commanding grade. Approaching the summit it swings sharply to the left, around massively shouldered, lichened rocks overshadowed by native forest trees, then turns to the right, flanked by a heavy wall, and emerges near the library upon the Plain, one hundred and sixty feet or so above the level of the river. The Plain, which is the counterpart, of the campus at universities and colleges, is as level as a floor, and has an area of forty odd acres.
Although West Point has been an army post with forts and batteries since an early period in the Revolutionary War,— in fact, it has never known civil life,—yet there is nothing severe or austerely military in its presence. On the contrary, the first view one gets of it near the library is so quiet and genial in its affluence of beauty that it seems more like a realized dream than an army post. The double rows of venerable elms margining the Plain mask the library, chapel, and the turreted, four-stoned, granite barracks on the south side, and on the west the unpretentious quarters of the superintendent, the commandant, and the professors and instructors, all overlooking the velvety sward of the extensive parade.
Dominated by Crow Nest and darkly green, — for they are clothed with cedar, — the hills rise immediately, stern and shaggy, forming a mighty and lofty background for West Point. And whoever has climbed up among the hoary ledges to the ruins of old Fort Putnam and from its idle parapet looked down on the plain and the river, or off to the west where the hills upheave in massive, picturesque confusion, or has viewed this background with the clouds trailing over it, or the crescent moon skimming the top of Crow Nest, has a memory which time cannot efface.
The hotel, a stone and brick structure, stands within a ragged hedge on the north side of the Point, and on the very brink of its bluff. It was built by the government, and was intended primarily for the accommodation of distinguished foreign guests and for the members of the Board of Visitors appointed yearly by the President to attend the annual examinations in June, and to report to Congress on the state of discipline and course of instruction. At this time and through the summer months it has a large patronage of cultivated and light-hearted people from all over the country. The views from its broad, elevated porch are beautiful in all directions; and that to the north, with the river breaking between Crow Nest and Bull Hill, the eye traveling on over Newburgh eleven miles away to the distant Shawangunk Mountains, is matchless.
The sensations of the new cadet when he reaches the Plain linger a long while. There are two West Points, — the actual West Point, and the overarching spiritual one, of which the cadet only becomes conscious about the time he graduates. The determinate West Point that is to be his master for four years and the shaper of his destiny, meets him at the top of the slope with ominous silence. He hears no voice, he sees no portentous figure; but there is communicated in some way, through some medium, the presence of an invisible authority, cold, inexorable, and relentless. Time never wears away this first feeling; it comes back to every graduate on returning to West Point, let his years and his honors be what they may. And perhaps it is just as well that it is so; that there is one place left in our country where the vanity of asserted ancestry, and the too frequent arrogance of speculative and fortuitous commercial leadership, find a chill.
In the “bus” that carried us up to the hotel we fell in with another new cadet, conspicuously well-dressed and with heavy dark eyes. I can recall his luxurious gold sleeve-buttons now. Nature had bestowed on him an enviable air of solemn dignity and a most promisingly developed head; yet he never mastered the course. Strange as it may seem, he was from farther west than either of us, — he was from Iowa.
A universal, incomprehensible smile met us at the hotel; the board of visitors had arrived, and there was the usual gay throng,—young ladies in the beauty of the spring of youth, and officers, spangling groups of them, with their bullioned uniforms. The unaccountable smiles conveyed an uncomfortable impression that there was something out or queer about us all. At first I thought it might be my hat,—one about the color of dried corn blades, with an ambitious crown and a broad, swaggering, independent sort of brim. (I would take many a step to see it or its like again.) But I soon discovered that my Iowa friend, whose hat and clothing were in the full bloom of fashion, was quite as much a source of suppressed amusement to the young ladies, and equally the occasion of some sudden, deep pain in the sidelong glances of the young officers; so I concluded that the source of this amusement and of the looks of the officers lay deeper than our clothing.
In view of the significance that Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus gave to clothes, I will add that my coat, a long-tailed one, went to old Bentz, the bugler, who had my laundry for the first year, and the notes of whose bugle, calling us to recitations, still float in my memory. Oh, how much his bugle-calls meant in those days! Thundering guns have long since died away; professors, instructors, superintendents, and commandants, once so overwhelmingly forceful, are resting mute on the distant ridges of our memory; while Bentz’s uplifted bugle still glitters, and its notes vibrate softly clear across the lengthening years. May sunlight and moonlight fall lovingly where the sturdy old soldier lies!
My pants and hat were traded off with some other like apparel by “Jim” Riddle of my class to a “bum” boat from Cold Spring, just after dark one night after going into camp. The transaction was carried on in one of the quiet, deeplyshadowed coves between Gee’s Point and the old wharf, just below the hotel. The exchange was made for a bottle of mighty poor whiskey, and some kind of berry pie, my share being a hunk of the latter.
Finally, some charitable soul at the hotel told us that we had better go to the adjutant’s office (then in the library building) and report. Thereupon down the steps of the hotel we went, passed out through the ragged hedge, — henceforth our limits for four years, — and followed the level, yellow, sun-beaten road toward the cool library under its bending elms. On the right, as we pursued our way, lay the deep, green plain, afterwards trod so many times, now at drill, now at parade, and now at will with some dear fellow cadet at our side: its every blade we may believe holds in sweetest recollection the boys who with courageous and loving hearts trod it in the glow of their youth. On the left was the cavalry and artillery plain; and I have no doubt the old brass guns of the light battery parked upon it exchanged smiles as they saw us pass, three green boys headed toward the adjutant’s office. And yet, for all your mirth, we came to know you well! We drilled beside you for three years, we saw you move off to the war, — led on by Captain Charles Griffin, our instructor in light artillery, that winter morning of 1861 with the moon just settling down behind the dark brow of Crow Nest, — and heard the good-by of your rumbling, chuckling wheels. Once more I saw you, — when you were wheeling into “action front” near Grant’s headquarters in the battle of the Wilderness.
One or two incidents of that morning of the great battle I must make a place for here. I was carrying a dispatch from General Warren to General Wadsworth, — the latter was killed, and his lines driven through the woods before I could reach him, — and while on this ride I saw a soldier sitting at the root of a tree near the Wilderness Run amid a clump of blue and dog-tooth violets. He had plucked some of them, and they were lying loosely now in his white, dead hand, while his head had fallen limply to the left as he rested against the tree. Was his last dream of home, of the violets blooming along the run he followed as a boy ?
It was when I was returning from this ride, and had nearly reached Grant’s headquarters, that the battery came rushing by. They were Regulars, and I did not know which battery it was till, as the trail of one of the pieces fell, the sergeant turned; his eye brightened and then, much to my surprise, he smiled at me; and behold! it was the old West Point battery! And I recognized the sergeant as the leader of those little devils, — the West Point drummer boys of my day! My heart never spoke more warmly or sincerely than at that moment as my glance met his; and if I could have done so, I ’d gladly have grasped his hand. Yes, we and the guns of the West Point battery came to know one another right well after that sunny day when we first met on our way to the adjutant’s office.
FINDING OUR PLACE
We found the office, and on reporting, crossed the boundary between civil and military life, —and there is no boundary in this world like it in its contrasts. And now, as from the height of years I look down upon ourselves at this fateful crossing, our personalities become objects of almost pathetic interest.
The adjutant was James B. Fry, who during the Civil War rose to some distinction, but not nearly to that which his services deserved, as the head of the recruiting department of the army. He took our names, the occupations of our parents, and their address. When he heard mine, “Kirkersville, Ohio,” he smiled, as about everybody has smiled from that day to this when it is mentioned. And yet, from within a radius of twenty-five miles of Kirkersville, have come Sherman, Sheridan, McDowell, Rosecrans, Curtis, Griffin, Brice, and Woods, — all graduates of distinction.
We were turned over to a soldierly orderly, and soon were tailing behind him towards the barracks. And oh, with what form and step he preceded us, breasting, as it were, the soft June air with a front of irresistible authority; on past the dear little chapel, the only one of all the buildings enthroned with tenderness in a cadet’s memory; on past the Academic Hall, and thence into the area of the barracks. By this time he had increased his step, gaining distance somewhat between us for reasons that soon became obvious; for, shortly after we turned the corner of barracks, first one and then another pattering shower of saved-up buttons began to fall around us. This noiseless salute was coming from the cockloft, and from those and those only who just a year before were on their way to the seventh and eighth divisions with countenances as serious as those we wore.
The orderly led us across the area, up the iron steps to the stoop, and thence into the hall of the eighth division. There he tapped respectfully on the door to the left. “Come in!” responded a voice in military tones, and we entered. The little slips of paper which the adjutant gave us had barely reached the hands of the cadet officers, Kingsbury, Chambliss, and Babbitt, detailed in charge of new cadets, when instantaneously all three at once shouted to us to take our hats off and “stand at attention!” — whatever that might be — with voices boiling with indignation, and eyes glaring with pantherlike readiness to jump on us and tear us to bits, as though we had seriously meditated the overthrow of West Point, and possibly of the Christian religion itself. There is something so ludicrous, when once it is seen through, about the airs of some cadet officers, especially the lance corporals, — and for that matter of some of the tactical instructors also, — that it ripples like a brook in sunshine clear down through the meadows, so to speak, of West Point memories.
Ritchey and myself were commanded imperiously by Babbitt to follow him, —the day for “Will you please, sir,”or “May I have the pleasure,” had passed. We had had a view of his chest expanding in a full, broad swell of glory; and now we had one of his back, his coat embracing his waist with the lines of a wasp, his white pants creased and immaculate, and his cap tilted just a little jauntily across his forehead, his thin, light hair brushed with such careful attention as to give an air of fastidiousness. He mounted the stairways of the seventh division, with elastic sprightliness, to the cockloft, and at the room on the left hand facing the area rapped peremptorily, and the next moment — had he been bursting through an animated impertinence he could not have shown more determined vigor — he sent the old door swinging on its hinges. Then marching up boldly, as only an ambitious yearling corporal can march, to some posted regulations condensed to the limit of comprehension, — I can see them now, printed on blue paper in heavy black type, and prescribing the arrangements of clothing, bed linen, stationery, the care of the room, and what not, — he turned about face, and announced that when our trunks were delivered, we should see to it that then were obeyed, indicating the regulations. This announcement having been made with due firmness and volume, he strutted away, giving us a parting look full apparently of intentions on his part of the most desperate character if we did n’t look out. On his departure we turned and gazed into each other’s faces, seeking hopelessly, and, from the standpoint of old age, piteously, for some explanation of our experiences at West Point up to that moment.
Later in the day George L. Gillespie of Tennessee was put into the room with us —a boy with blue eyes kindled with the light of natural merriment, well formed, with coal-black hair — and a friend from that day to this. He has lately been retired a major-general at the close of an enviable record on the field, and through all the grades of the corps of engineers. God bless him this day and on to his end!
That night in the midst of profound sleep we were all yanked out by the heels, upsetting in our flight the waste-water bucket on our new woolen blankets. We had barely regained our beds when suddenly there was a startling noise in the room across the hall. At first I thought the whole barracks were tumbling down. It seems that the occupants, who had had the previous night the same experience as ourselves, had decided that they would provide an automatic awakener if the visitors should repeat their devilish call. So they placed the washstands, and on top of them their chairs, against the door; when it was opened, away went the furniture with a most infernal racket. A silence as deep as the grave followed, and Custer—the light-hearted and gallant fellow, I cannot mention his name without swimming eyes!—who with Watts of Kentucky was engaged in the hazing, told me afterward that his heart thumped like an engine, expecting every moment to hear the footsteps of officers who roomed in the division adjacent, called the “angle.”
When they found the danger past, Watts entered, and in a voice loaded with revenge, asked, “Who lives in here ?”
There was a strange contrast in that room. It was occupied by Kenelm Robbins, a large-boned, mild, despondent boy from Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Reuben A. Higgason, a tall, sallow. freckled and glassy-eyed Mississippian, who had the richest vocabulary of expressive and penetrating oaths of any one I have ever met. In reply to Watts, Robbins answered with peculiarly unassuming and deferential tones, bringing out faithfully the last three letters of his name “Mr. Robbins!”
Then we heard, “Good God! Mr. Robbins, come out of this!” and the next moment our ears recorded him hustling the overturned chairs aside and then scooting to the end of the hall, followed by Higgason, whose bony ankle was in Custer’s grasp. Then their tormentors let go of them, and softly and quickly vanished down the stairs. Soon we heard them making their way back. Robbins was speechless, but Higgason opened every stop of his oath-organ, and he kept it going till I went to sleep, and I don’t know how much longer.
The poor fellow, as well as Ritchey, failed in his entrance examinations, and together they disappeared. I have never seen or heard of either of them since, and have often wondered where life’s currents bore them at last, — I hope to good cheer, success, and happiness.
Perhaps at this point, as well as at any other, some reference may be made to hazing, for it has been made to appear that it assumed a brutal and vulgar phase at West Point. When I reported, it was running full tide, and while it made life sufficiently miserable for me, yet, as I look back over it all, smiles rather than frowns gather. At the risk of being charged as a covert advocate, I must say that it was a mighty leveler in my day; and that the fellow who got it worst and most frequently, if he did not deserve it, at least courted it by some lofty manner, or resented witticism. To be sure, sometimes, a profoundly rural simplicity, some queer wild look, tone of voice, or manner, would get faithful, if not undue attention.
As an example, Custer, Noyes, “Gimlet” Lee, Edie, and Cushing — the Cushing of Cushing’s battery — and others of their set, would gather about one of my classmates from Maine, a serious, rather broad and logy countryman, and insist on seeing and examining the wheels of a huge, double-cased silver watch he had brought with him; then they always wanted to listen to its ticking, and would ask many questions. They never seemed to get tired of having him wind it, and tell them about tbe last man that repaired it, or of asking how he dared to risk his life through New York with it; insisting daily on taking him to the sun-dial in the area, and threatening at last that if he did n’t bring it to running accurately with the dial, they would have to report him for carrying a timepiece that discredited the official time, and thereby reflected on them as officers of the army. I can see the crowd around him, and more mischievous countenances never twinkled in a light-hearted group.
One of them, Cushing, saw me leaning dismally — yes, and lonely enough — against a post of the stoop a day or so after reporting. It was after dinner and I was overlooking the crowd of yearlings who had assembled at the verge of limits. The brass buttons, jaunty caps, trim figures, and white pants still glitter and enliven the memory of that old drum-echoing area. Cushing fastened his eye on me and then asked, his prominent white teeth gleaming through his radiant smile, “What is your name, Animal?” — the title given by the third-class men to all new cadets.
“Schaff,” I answered demurely.
“Come right down here, Mr. Shad,” commanded Cushing.
Well, I went, and had the usual guying, and subsequently was conducted over to a room in the second or third division, where I was ordered to debate the repeal of the Missouri Compromise with another animal by the name of Vance, from Illinois, whose eyes were so large and white as almost to prolong twilight. And, by the way, the next day at dinner while sitting just opposite him, a boiled potato grazed my ear and landed with a great splash into his soup. Vance, seeing it about the time it passed me, involuntarily closed his eyes, but the spatter of the soup opened them - and so widely as to display an additional zone of white. Then he began to apply his handkerchief, — we did not have napkins in those days, — muttering what sounded like horrible oaths, while some of us who had escaped grinned, wondering how soon another missile would come our way. Of course, the potato was not aimed at Vance; and I don’t suppose the cadet who threw it ever knew where it landed. For the first captain (it was the tall, darkeyed, sombre, gaunt, determined Payne of Massachusetts, whom Jessup of Maryland attacked with his sword just after breaking ranks one day in marching from that, same mess hall) was on the lookout for that sort of thing. To avoid detection the yearling had to watch his chance, have the potato in his hand ready, and when he thought the way clear, let it go, resume his fork, and fasten his eyes on his plate almighty quick, even before the potato had cleared half the length of its journey.
On the field of Gettysburg, where I stayed for over a month after the battle, collecting and shipping arms and guns left on the field, — there were 37,574 2 of them, — more than once I stood where the brave Cushing gave up his life, right at the peak of Pickett’s daring charge. Oh, that day and that hour! History will not let that smiling, splendid boy die in vain; her dew will glisten forever over his record as the earthly morning dew glistens in the fields. Fame loves the gentleman and the true-hearted, but her sweetheart is gallant youth.
Two or three others died there who were at West Point with me, namely “Rip” McCreery in the Confederate service, Hazlett, little “Dad” Woodruff, and “Pat” O’Rorke, in our own. McCreery and Hazlett were second-class men; Woodruff and O’Rorke in the class just ahead of mine. The latter drilled me when I was in the animal state, and I was very — and I ’m afraid hopelessly awkward, for I was among the last to be drilled alone. Somehow, for the life of me, I could never swell out my breast, or plant one foot after another, with that determination of movement and sternness of countenance indicative of mighty and serious purpose which characterizes what is known as a “military” carriage. O’Rorke, spare, middle size, raven-black hair, his face inclined to freckles, but as mild as a May morning, his manner and voice like that of a quiet gentleman - O’Rorke had been a hod-carrier in Rochester when he was appointed to West Point. Previous appointments all having failed to pass, the Congressman, his pride probably ruffled by the fact, set out determined to find somebody in his district, who could graduate at the Military Academy, and, turning away from the rich and the high social levels, made choice of O’Rorke.
There is something that sets the heart beating warmly in the fact that when his friends of toil learned that he stood at the head of his class, they chipped in some of their hard earnings and bought him a costly, richly engraved gold watch as a token that they were proud of him.
He drilled me under the blooming horse-chestnuts on the east side of the academic hall; I can see him now, and the pompon-like, pink-tinted blossoms among the long leaves over us. Moreover, I well remember his looking at that same watch while giving me a little rest, probably nearly bored to death, and wondering how much longer he had to endure it. He graduated at the head of his class, and in less than eighteen months was brevetted twice for gallant and meritorious conduct. The fall before the Gettysburg campaign he became Colonel of the 140th New York; and some time in the winter of 1862-63 I received, while at Fort Monroe, his wedding-cards, and the bride’s name was Bridget. Many a time since, I have thought that this was his boyhood love, to which he had remained steadfast while honors were falling about him. However that may be, he was killed while standing on a large boulder, his regiment immediately before him, and fighting almost at the very muzzles of its guns on Round Top. It was Warren, his old instructor, who had led them thither, and most fortunately, too, for that regiment saved the hill - and perhaps the day. Again and again I visited the spot where this brave, mildvoiced, and sweet-hearted friend fell.
Meanwhile fame’s trumpet has been pealing; but not over his grave. Ah, how fickle she is! Everybody knows of his classmate, Cushing; not one in a thousand of dear old Pat! I wish the hodcarriers of his race would chip in once more, and, if possible, secure St. Gaudens’s evoking genius. I think we should see a figure of a young soldier ascending a Jacob’s ladder, and angels with garlands hovering and leading upward to the clear, open space where the spirits of Bayard and Sidney are reaching out their hands to grasp the gallant boy and welcome him to the company of gentlemen of all ages.
Hazlett — how often I saw him bearing the cadet colors, for he was the colorsergeant — fell on Round Top about the same time as O’Rorke. He was a handsome youth; had very dark hair, deep blue eyes, and in many ways, I think, the most distinguished air of all the cadets that I recall—that mingling of the gentleman and the man of the world, a characteristic rarely displayed in one so young. While bending over Weed, who had been in the corps with him, to catch his last murmuring word, Hazlett was killed — I believe instantly. The last time I saw him alive was at Hooker’s headquarters on the banks of the Rappahannock, playing chess with Flagler. Weed I never saw. But thus, on that famous hill of Round Top, and near together, that July afternoon, West Point lost three fine men. O’Rorke was twentyseven, Hazlett twenty-five, and Weed thirty years of age.
Woodruff— he was called little “Dad” - was one among the few very small men in the battalion. He too, like O’Rorke, had dark hair, a rather clouded, oldish, firm face, and serious dark eyes, and was universally popular in his class. He was mortally wounded during Pickett’s charge. He was so small and frail, so courageous and so well-beloved, that those of us who had formed under the elms and marched to parade day after day with him felt sorrowful enough when we heard he was gone. I never saw so many horses lying dead on any field as along the ridge where his and the adjacent batteries stood.
McCreery, known as “Rip” from his superfluous activity, and loud and persistent loquacity, was from Virginia. When the war came on he took his place beside his brothers of the proud old Dominion, and was killed while carrying the colors of the 26th North Carolina the first day at Gettysburg. I heard of his death from some Confederate surgeons who had been left in charge of their wounded, and whom I met daily and always on the pleasantest of terms. I think if any of them are living, they will possibly remember some mint juleps or whiskey toddies that we drank while sitting on the pavement in the shadow of a bank building in the square at Gettysburg. I fear that some of the volunteer officers who passed us doubted my loyalty, hobnobbing, as I did, with them; but those Confederates were first-rate fellows, and I wish now I had put a little more whiskey into every one of their glasses.
THE RAW MATERIAL
The class having reported, we were summoned to our physical and mental examinations; the latter was held in the old Academic Hall that had echoed so many footsteps, and whose walls were clammy, so to speak, with the ooze of distressingly exacting recitations. That morning for the first time I saw the Academic Board. It is made up of the superintendent, commandant, and professors, and is a formidable reality to youthful eyes. They were sitting at small desks, arranged in a crescent; their heavy bullioned epaulettes, and the flat, brass buttons on the deep blue, scholastic dresscoats of the professors, pointed the dignity of the solemn array. In full uniform in the middle of the Board sat the superintendent, Major Richard Delafield, a pudgy man with heavy, sandy eyebrows, abundant grayish sandy hair, and a pronounced eagle nose. He wore glasses, and had the air of an officer and a man of cultivation, invested, furthermore, with the honor of a wide and well-earned distinction. Colonel William H. Hardee, the commandant, sat on the left of Major Delafield. He was a tall man with large, solid gray eyes, a low forehead, heavy, grizzled mustache and imperial, and soldierly in every bearing. Colonel Hardee was a trusted friend of Jefferson Davis, and later a lieutenant-general in the Confederacy. In his sketch of Cleburne, the great Confederate killed at Franklin, he said, “He fell before the banner he had so often guided to victory was furled; before the people he fought for were crushed; before the cause he loved was lost.” The man who could write prose like that was no ordinary man. Church, Mahan, Bartlett, French, Kendrick, Angel, and Weir, the professors, were all beyond middle life; benignant, white locks softened the faces of most of them.
The examination was thorough, as it should have been, but it was extremely simple. I wondered then, and I wonder now, that any boy who has had a fair training at a common school should have failed to pass it; yet a number did fail. And in this connection, there is no question that I have ever thought over seriously that offers more perplexing factors than the requirements for admission to West Point. But so long as we feel a pride in Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Sheridan, McPherson, Michie, and a host of others, any exaction that puts admission beyond the reach of a farmer’s or mechanic’s boy who has had only a common school to go to, ought not to be adopted without overwhelming reasons.
There was one incident in my examination that has always left a doubt as to whether I crossed the boundary between truth and falsehood. It was this: I had got through with everything but reading when Professor French called on me to read aloud, handing me an open book. I was rattling it off when I came to Mosheim’s History of the Middle Ages. I had never heard of Mosheim and knew mighty little about the Middle Ages. I first pronounced it “ Mosheem,” and then said “Moshime.” The old professor looked up — he had a sweetly soft, generously broad face, bald, well-formed head, afountain of still white light streaming from its dome, liquid black eyes, and that air of scholarship that manifests itself in tones of voice and in a reserved mental quiet and mental simplicity which cannot be mistaken — and inquired, “Why did you change the pronunciation, Mr. Schaff?”
Now, to make my case perfectly clear, I must say that I had noticed at chapel that he always pronounced “either” and “neither” with a long “i,” and that, as I had never heard it before, it made a deep impression. Of course, the eyes of every one of the Board were on me at once, some looking mildly intent over their glasses, and some peering through them.
Whereupon I manufactured this explanation quicker than lightning. “I believe the best speakers pronounce the diphthong ‘ei’ i.” Of course, it was all based on his pronunciation.
“Very good,” he answered, and I sat down; and how near I — well, to say the least — prevaricated, has never been fully settled in my own mind.
I see by the original statement filed with the War Department and now before me, that there were ninety-one appointments to my class: sixty-six were admitted, eighteen were rejected, and seven did not report. Of the sixty-six, twenty-seven were from the South, and all save two, Gillespie of Tennessee and McKee of Kentucky, went with their section. The report of the examination is dated June 22, 1858; from that date therefore, my class was an integral part of West Point.
In our first appearance as a military body, marching to dinner, we offered, as every class before us had offered, the usual — and perhaps the most amusing — spectacle that there meets the eye. We were a column of gawky boys of all sizes, from five to six feet tall, clad in all sorts of particolored raiment; our eyes fixed, yes, glued, on the coat, collar of the boy in front of us, a grim dismalness hanging in everv face; all of us trying mechanically to point our toes and to comply with the fierce orders from sergeants and lance corporals who trod the earth proudly on each flank, filling the air with “hep! — hep!” Every little while some one of us lost the step or, treading on the heels of the man in front, threw the whole line into such a hobbling mass as to cause the sergeant in a high state of dudgeon to plant his heels and roar out, “Halt!”
This outraged officer now stalked up rapidly to the side of the awkward boy whose eyes were still glued on the coat collar ahead of him, with a hopelessness more abject than ever in his face, and in the maddest of tones threatened the most dire punishment if it should happen again. After the mighty wrath of the sergeant had exhausted itself, he would throw a withering glance up and down the line; then, putting himself into an attitude, with great emphasis he would order the march resumed. Whereupon the sergeants and lance corporals resumed their yelps louder and fiercer than ever; and so it went on until we poor devils reached the mess hall.
Yes, a “plebe” class marching for the first time is a mighty funny sight. But see them four years hence, marching up to the commanding officer at their last parade! What a transformation! Oh, the step now! No sergeant’s or lance corporal’s commands are necessary ; they walk proudly and gracefully; the grim dismal cloud of plebedom has drifted off, and the faces are lit up with a flushing pride. Great, great are the changes a class undergoes in four years at West Point, — and in more ways than one.
The member of my class who bore the proudest name was Singleton Van Buren of South Carolina, a grandson of ex-President Van Buren, his mother’s family the distinguished Singletons of the South. No one, I think, could fail to appreciate his good breeding; he wore its autograph in his face, his tones, his simple, quiet ways, his unobtrusive and habitual good manners. He had very dark chestnut hair and eyes, was above middle size, and carried his head in addressing you as if he were extending a compliment sincerely and deferentially. I am free to say that I never realized all the beauty of good breeding and simple good manners till I knew him. We entered the same section, — the “immortals” (the name borne by the last section or those at the foot of the class), — but I soon discovered that the road would be a hard one for him; and so it proved to be; for the following January he left us along with others, but carrying with him the affection of us all.
Among the appointments “at large” (those made by the President), besides Van Buren, was Ronald Mackenzie, son of Commodore Mackenzie, who graduated at the head of the class, and was easily the all-around ablest man in it, and who, in less than three years after graduating, commanded a division of cavalry with the rank of major-general. He had a very immobile, inexpressive face as a boy, and a little impediment in his speech; there was very little of the spick and span ways of a soldier about him, but he had a very sweet smile, with earnest gray eyes. Mansfield, another appointment at large, was a son of the able and venerable General Mansfield, who, with hair as white as snow, fell on the field of Antietam. George McKee, the son of Colonel McKee, class of 1829, of Lexington, Kentucky, and Charles R. Suter, now a colonel of engineers, who I have reason to believe meets the world with the same mild, sweet ways that characterized him as a pink-cheeked boy, — both were appointments by President Buchanan. Among us, too, was Oliver J. Semmes of Alabama, a stocky, dark-eyed, broadbreasted youth, whose father was in the navy and subsequently became the famous Raphael Semmes, commander of the Sumter and the Alabama. I do not know whether Semmes be alive or not, but alive or dead, he carried a brave, fine heart. There were very few of the class who had not been to some college. Borroughs of Boston, a typical Bostonese, had been at Harvard; Mackenzie had been at Williams; Hamilton of Ohio at Western Reserve; Lovejoy — how his honest, liquid dark eyes shine across the years! — had been at the University of North Carolina; Suter, and several more, had had more or less of their education abroad.
But as I view the class now across the slumbering years, all distinctions of birth, early advantages, and those morning promises of ability, so sparkling at the outset, but alas! strewing like dead fagots the hearth of prophecy, are lost. I see them with the flush of youth on their cheeks; and a mist gathers over my eyes as one after another their faces come into view. Oh! let the dew fall and the stars shine softly where the dead lie; and when the last trumpet blows, may the gates of Heaven swing wide open to all!
(To be continued.)
- I wish gratefully to acknowledge my obligations to Edward S. Holden, LL. D., Librarian at West Point, and especially to Mr. William Ward, who for over fifty years has been the faithful and courteous Chief Clerk in the Adjutant’s office, for generous and quickly responsive aid in the preparation of these articles.↩
- It was officially reported when those guns were examined that 24,000 of them were loaded, half containing two loads each, one-fourth from three to ten loads each. In many of these from two to six balls have been found with only one charge of powder. Twenty-three were found in one Springfield rifle, each loaded in regular order. Twenty-two balls and sixty-two buckshot, with a corresponding quantity of powder, all mixed up together, were found in one percussion, smooth-bore musket. In many of the smooth-bore guns of rebel make we have found a wad of loose paper between the powder and the ball and another wad of the same kind on top of the ball. For particulars, see the letter dated January 4, 1864, of the master armorer of Washington Arsenal to his commanding officer, Captain J. G. Benton.↩