The Spirit of Old West Point: (1858-1862)
THE BACKGROUND OF WAR
WHENEVER I review my cadet life, my fellow cadets, West Point, its buildings, its surroundings, and its ceremonies all seem to be clothed in the sweet, distance and softness of shadows in a pool,— as gravely beautiful and far away as the shadows of the trees and slowly drifting clouds I used to look at as a boy in a quiet spot where a brook (we called them “runs" in the West) halted and brimmed near some old beech trees on its glistening way through the sheep pasture. And yet, when the war is interposed for a background, and the fields that I have been on, and where some of them lost their lives, come back into view, with the quickness of a dream the battalion becomes distinct and real. The other day I saw the name of Pelham; and at once West Point flashed upon my sight, and I saw hint as if he were alive, walking across the “area;” and then I saw myself riding across the field near Brandy Station, where he was mortally wounded on the 17th of March, 1863.
Of all the men at West Point in my day, either as cadets or as officers, his name will possibly outlast all save Cushing’s; and I have sometimes thought that at the last the dew will sparkle brighter on Pelham’s memory. And that for two reasons. First, he was closely associated with Lee, whose towering fame, like a softly burning torch, will light the face of the Confederacy down the murky galleries of time, wooing atonement for the South at every step. And, second, poetry and sentiment, under some mysterious and inexorable impulse, seem loath to turn away from great displays of courage and sacrifice of life for a principle; most lovingly of all will they cherish the ashes of brilliant youth associated with failure. The romance of defeat has more vitality, I think, than the romance of victory, — like the morning glory, it blooms freshest over ruins.
But however this may be, his name, the “gallant Pelham,” is now almost a household word throughout the South. He went directly from West Point into the service of the Confederacy, and soon was serving with Jeb Stuart. By his courage Stuart’s artillery checked our attacking column at Fredericksburg right under the eye of Lee, who, it is said, exclaimed, “Is it not glorious to see such courage in one so young?”
Later, in his general orders of that disastrous defeat of our army, John Pelham’s was the only name Lee mentioned below that of a major-general. He spoke of him as “the gallant Pelham;” — “and that from Lee,” says one of his distinguished Southern friends, “was worth more than any rank in any army, more valuable than any title of nobility or badge of any order.” He was known henceforward as “the gallant Pelham.”
There was something about him that gave to Lee’s extolling epithet that immediate response of aptness such as we feel when in poetry or elevated prose a word or phrase strikes the eye and ear as the complete expression. It was felt in our lines; for one of his West Point acquaintances,— I think it was Custer,—taking advantage of a flag of truce shortly after the battle, sent this message to Pelham, “I rejoice, dear Pelham, in your success.”
He was gracefully tall, fair, a beautiful dancer; it may well be asserted that nature was in a fine mood when she moulded his clay. Her final touch was to give him a pronounced cowlick on his forehead, which added a mounting swirl to his blond hair. His eyes generally were cast thoughtfully downward, and a little wrinkle on his brow gave just the faintest suggestion of a frown on his otherwise unclouded face.
In the winter of 1863-64, while with the Army of the Potomac, more than once I traveled the road to Kelly’s Ford, where he was killed, little dreaming of the height of his present fame. I have always thought of the circumstances connected with the coming home of his body to his widowed mother in Alabama, as having about them all the beauty and mystery of night. It was on a night when the moon was full; and her still, white light lit the way by the cotton fields he knew so well, and lay softly white on the roof and in the dooryard of home. His mother stood waiting for him on the doorstep, and, as they bore him up to her, she whispered through falling tears, “Washed in the blood of the Lamb that was slain.” She is buried beside him in the little village graveyard at Jacksonville, Alabama. He was only twenty-five years old.
And while I have been writing about Pelham and the battle of Fredericksburg there has come into my mind another face, that of a member of Pelham’s class whose fate was in marked contrast with his distinguished comrade’s. His case in brief was this: His first action was with the regulars in one of the battles before Richmond in 1862, and, to the absolute surprise of all who knew him, he disappeared with the first volley. Had one passed down the battalion searching for the bravest cadet in it, his square, bulldog jaws and resolute face would have certainly caught the eye for the honor. After the engagement he reappeared and acknowledged his failure to do his duty, alleging in explanation the low state of his system. But at the next fight off he went; and then his commanding officer had a private interview with him, telling him that such conduct could not be overlooked, that he must remember he was a graduate and a regular. The poor fellow cried, and begged for just one more chance to redeem himself. The chance was given, and it occurred at Fredericksburg.
Forward moved the regulars. The fire swept them; still they went on; but notWhite as the moonlight that fell on Pelham’s dooryard, he broke to the rear, and was dropped from the army. And I have never had anything but pity for him; for I am as well satisfied that fear is often congenital as I am that there is courage in the world. He should not be blamed. What must have been his feelings as he struggled with himself before the command moved forward! Pelham was in D Company and-was in C, and to the latter I loaned my trunk when he went on his furlough in 1858. The details of his conduct were given to me by a fellow officer who was present on both occasions; and I have no doubt there are grizzled old regulars living who with charity remember the “Leftenant.”
Had the corps been called upon in my day to name its best type of soldier and gentleman, the one who by manners, bearing, and dignity wielded unconsciously the widest and most elevating influence, it would have been Kingsbury of Pelham’s class. He was from New York, stood near the head of his class, was highbred and distinguished in appearance, and had that composed voice, natural dignity, and air of command, which cannot be mistaken. There was nothing studied and nothing artificial about him, none of those strides, attitudes, and fierce glances which are often the amusing concomitant of what is termed “military.” He had the fortune of good birth and inherited wealth, both of which were reflected in his ease, address, and cultivation. He remained loyal, distinguished himself early as a battery commander, and was mortally wounded, a colonel of volunteers, at Antietam, at the early age of twenty-six. Like so many who fell, and who are long since forgotten, his name will be that of a stranger to the reader; but if out of the overarching West Point her spirit could speak for her ideals, I believe his name would be among the first to pass her lips.
His father was a graduate; his brotherin-law, also a graduate, was the Confederate General Buckner of Kentucky, who surrendered Fort Donelson to General Grant in 1862. Buckner, a stocky, broadchested, and ruddy-faced man, I saw at West Point twenty years after Donelson; his hair was then snowy white. In the suit of a Kentucky planter he sat alone on one of the benches under the elms near the superintendents’ quarters, taking a puff from time to time from a long, whitestemmed pipe. Was he living the days of his youth over again, and looking wistfully backward upon them as the cadets passed and repassed him ?
In the battalion with me, there were many more than those I have mentioned, whose records and fate it would give me a sweet pleasure (though sometimes sadly tinged) to record. Ames, who stormed and carried Fort Fisher; Babcock of Grant’s staff, one of the best friends I ever had; Beebe of my class, who won a medal of honor; Mordecai, who, although Southern in all his family connections, remained loyal, and who, with Michie, was brevetted for conspicuous daring while carrying on the siege of Fort Wagner; the handsome Guenther, whose battery will be remembered by hundreds of veterans of Sherman’s army; and Blount, Willett, Faison, Ball, Wearing, and many more who went South; but I cannot do more than I have done. The dear fellows do not need my pen; history, it is true, is silent; but as long as West Point, lives they will live with it; and when (to give her personality) she and the spirit of our country— and may I add that of the dead Confederacy—meet on nights to come and talk over those days of trial, when epochs closed, and history was made, then they will all be mentioned.
While in 1858 and 1859 the heart of the country was stirring to its depths under the impulse of the inevitable conflict, at West Point there was absolute calm and peace. It is barely possible that the dire tragedy of oncoming events may have so weighed on the heart of the future that, at last, to some one of the officers or professors she unburdened herself, revealing to him, as an angel did to St. John on the Isle of Patmos, “things which must shortly come to pass.” But the chances are that no such revelation was ever made, at least to any one in uniform. For the military spirit, owing to its mediæval habit of thought and aristocratic isolation, rarely has felt those deep movements which, in the hearts of the people, have preceded great events and kindled the imagination. And so, however overcast the future may have been elsewhere, at West Point it lay glowing to us all. Not a word was said about politics; days came and went; the river flowed on, and the flag which we now call “Old Glory,” and which was so soon to feel the hot breath of civil war, with a spirit light as our own, rippled out its gleaming colors to every passing breeze.
To leave the above as the final image of West Point would be misleading. Away down beneath this political calm lay awake those unappeasable antagonisms which sooner or later always develop whenever members of a state make concessions of any kind to the social and political prestige of other members. Haughty disdain on the one hand, crouching hate on the other, invariably breed under such conditions.
The attitude of the New England colonies at the outset of their political intercourse with those of the South was one of stand aside, with bowed head, and hat in hand; while the patriot planters, with fine, dignified, unconscious good manners, acknowledged the honor as a matter of course. The sons of those planters carried into the life at West Point their fathers’ notions of precedence, and, to its honor and glory, their fathers’ tone of the soldier and the gentleman. But unfortunately,— yet very naturally, for once we grasp a sceptre we are apt to flourish it,—vainly asserted precedence every now and then marked the conduct of some of them. After slavery had become a national issue, they did not hesitate, when angered, to show their inherited contempt for the North; and I am glad to say that the North, and especially the West, would not and did not stand it. This spirit of domination on the part of the South lay at the bottom when Jessup of Maryland attacked Paine of Massachusetts with his sword; when Quattlebaum of South Carolina forced Strong of Massachusetts into a bitter fight,— the same Strong who fell so gallantly with Shaw at Fort Wagner; and later, when “Rip” McCreery pitched upon Harry Wilson, the captor of Jefferson Davis, more because he was a Northerner than from the nature of the affront.
But while these instances illustrate an elementary difference between sections, yet for the honor of the men themselves, and above all, for the welfare of the country, — for West Point friendships did more at the close of the war than any other agency to heal the scars,— the state a man came from, the political views he may or may not have held, or the name he bore, had little or nothing to do with determining his roommates, and the growth of the warm ties of friendship which blessed our youth.
When the question of politics was broached to me for the first time,— and I may say it was the only time,— it gave me quite a surprise. I was passing through the Sally Port just, after our first encampment in 1858, and, falling in with Willis of Georgia, I was accosted with the question, “What state are you from, Mr. Schaff ? ”
I answered, “Ohio.”
“What are you, a Democrat or a Republican ? ”
“A Democrat,” I replied.
Then, with the cordial, fascinating Southern manner, he observed, “You are all right,” and passed on.
It made an impression, for up to that time the question where a man came from, or what his politics were, had had no importance whatever with me.
“Ned” Willis was small, lithe, and noticeably voluble; he had yellowish hair, and a voice which, when raised, screamed like that of a hawk. The night when the late General Upton of New York and the late Major Wade Hampton Gibbes of South Carolina had their great political battle, I heard him scream well. In many ways he was the incarnation of the fierce, wild, and delirious spirit which got control of the South at the breaking out of the war. In many ways also he resembled his classmate, Cushing, especially in the color of his hair, the high, quick tones of his voice, and wide, open, laughing mouth. In due time the Upton and Gibbes fight will be described; but now I would rather think of Willis in the light of the letters he wrote to his mother from the field. Some of them appear in the Sovuthern Historical Papers, and are very sweet and lovely. He was Colonel of the Twelfth Georgia, and was killed near Bethesda Church the 31st of May, while on our campaign from the Rapidan in 1861; and I suppose his ashes are resting with those of many others of whom Georgia is justly proud, and whom she bears tenderly upon her breast.
“JOHN BROWN’S BODY”
When the news of the John Brown raid reached West Point, and it was learned that the father of one of the cadets, James Barroll Washington, the great-grandson of the brother of Washington, was a prisoner in the fanatic’s hands, the feeling was very great. The release of Colonel Washington, the trial and the execution of Brown, with its upheaving effect on the country, followed rapidly; and at each step in the tragedy West Point was deeply engrossed.
Oh! how little we cadets at West Point realized what the death of that tall, gaunt, gray-bearded and coldly gray-eyed man meant! that the trap of the gallows creaking beneath him was the first wail of a dying age; that civilization was facing about; and that the creative spirit had her brush in her hand once more, and was outlining a new field for the imagination, one darkly and mysteriously suggestive, as are all the works of God in the affairs of men.
I have called John Brown a fanatic. If we view him in the light of a slave auction where father and mother and children are all under the hammer, their pleading eyes on a brutalized audience, he appears with the halo of a martyr; if we estimate him by the feasibleness of the means he employed to carry out his scheme, he appears an unmitigated crank; if we dismiss both reason and sentiment and direct our view across the plain of history, he rises into the blazing company of those who have marked the epochs of the world.
But let this be as it may, I hear voices floating, as it were, down a valley of the past! Have they ascended to some open crest ? Surely their notes are growing clearer. Sing on ! I know you well, for I have heard you more than once. It is the old Army of the Potomac. It is the surging of that deep refrain which proclaims that John Brown’s soul is still marching on, — as we marched under moonlight and starlight along the roads of Virginia.
When the full purpose of Brown’s devilish plot was divulged, involving as it did on final analysis a general massacre, if need be for its complete fulfillment, many of the Southern cadets broke out into natural and violent passion, denouncing in unmeasured terms the Abolitionists, and indirectly also every one in the North who shared their antipathy to slavery.
And now, indirectly as an outcome of the John Brown raid, the first collision at West Point of an unmistakable political nature took place between Northern and Southern cadets. It is true there had been instances where combats had been more or less tinged by sectional feeling, — to which reference has already been made,— but this one, between Wade Hampton Gibbes of South Carolina and Emery Upton of New York, was distinctly political in every feature. It was the most thrilling event in my life as a cadet; and, in my judgment, it was the most significant in that of West Point itself. For it was really national and prophetic, in this respect, that this battle between two of her spirited cadets, one from the South, the other from the North, duly represented the issue between the states, and duly the courage and bitterness with which it was fought out to the end.
I have been urged by one whose friendship I cherish, whose blood is all Southern, and whose record of loyalty and courage during the war has added lustre to his name, to pass this battle over lightly. But it foreshadowed too much; leave it out of West Point history, and one of her most presageful pages is gone. No, it threw into our life visions too ominous and foretelling to be suppressed; it was the first determined stand by any Northerner against the long, aggressive, and unchallenged dictatorship of the South. I had no bias through acquaintance, friendship, or sympathy with either of them. Upton I came to know well while serving with the Army of the Potomac, and loved him. Gibbes, four years my senior as a cadet, I never exchanged a word with socially; but he was a gentleman through and through, and worthy of his historic name and state. I am told that, after his gallant services to the Confederacy, he manfully endured the never fully appreciated disappointment of defeat, passing into an old age of engaging sweetness.
Now Upton, before coming to West Point, had been a student at Oberlin, an institution hated and despised by the South for its pronounced attitude on slavery and for admitting negroes as students. While he was being quizzed on his arrival as a new cadet, as to what he had studied, and where he had been to school, he openly and frankly declared that he had been at Oberlin and was an Abolitionist,— the first and, I believe, the only cadet who ever had the temerity to plant himself squarely in the ranks of that unpopular band of liberty-loving dreamers, who, bigoted as all reformers are in their views, were impatiently unwilling to listen for a moment to any further compromise with slavery. Upton’s sincere declaration of his position — obnoxious in the last degree to the South—made him a marked man at once.
Under the natural exasperation over the Brown raid, men from the South, as already intimated, gave vent to their feelings; and, in the course of some talk with his fellows, Gibbes, in referring to Upton in connection with his student life at Oberlin, made remarks on his intimate association with negroes, of a character keenly offensive, and such as no self-respecting cadet could stand for a moment. There has never been a suspicion in my mind that the South Carolinian expected these unpremeditated remarks ever to be repeated; but they were, and Upton promptly called for an explanation. It was just after the battalion had broken ranks from the march from supper; and soon the word was passed through our companies beyond the Sally Port that Gibbes and Upton were to fight in a room on the first floor of the First Division.
The national significance of the affair was interpreted at once; there were more than personal matters involved; and a crowd soon gathered on the pavement, on the stoop, and packed into the hall. I squeezed my way into the First Division, with Willis, “Comanche” Robinson, and others from beyond the Sally Port, and with them gained a place on the stairway. The sentinel, an inexperienced “yearling,” brushed aside and unheeded, was calling loudly for the corporal of the guard. But no one cared for him or his corporal of the guard, or any authority vested in them or in anybody else: the excitement was too great, as from time to time during the progress of the battle we could hear angry voices, the scuffling of feet, and those other dull sounds which fall so heavily on the ear and mean so much. Personally I do not know what took place in that room; but there are those living who do, and who, wisely enough, perhaps, are unwilling to disclose what they saw and what they heard. I do know, however, what was going on in the hall and on the stairway.
I have heretofore told how Willis and Robinson were screaming, and I remember distinctly the face of the latter as he howled about the use of bayonets; but how or when he was to use that savage implement I have no remembrance. I do remember this, however, that when the fight was over I saw Upton’s resolute face bleeding.
And now came an incident that burned its way into my memory. John Rodgers, Upton’s roommate and second, overheard, amid the mighty turmoil after the fight was over, some of my immediate friends shrieking their maledictions. He came to the head of the stairs, and, with eyes that no man ever looked into and discovered fear there, called out, “If there are any more of you down there who want anything, come right up.” His eyes were glaring like a panther’s.
It is needless to say that nobody wanted to face that man. I am satisfied that the South then and there beheld what iron and steel there was in the Northern blood when once it was up. I was born and bred in a family some of whose ties were Southern and all of whose political views were sympathetic; but I felt proud of Rodgers as he stood on the stairs defying that mob —for it was nothing less than a mob. When it was over we all went back to our rooms, little dreaming that this was but the prelude of that mightier collision between the states. It is fortunate that we cannot penetrate the future, for then there would be no Past, that vast ocean whose long, silent beach is the playground of Imagination.
Almost fifty years have passed since that December night. Gibbes and Upton are in their graves; — the south wind breathes softly over Auburn, where Upton’s ashes lie;— the dawn breaks, the twilight comes softly on, the stars appear, and lo! the mocking-bird is still singing among the hollies that redden above Gibbes s grave. Not in anger, not in malice, and not with indifference to the feelings of the living, have I referred to this episode in the lives of these men, both so brave, both so high-minded, both sure to be honored and mentioned with affection, as I believe, when the spirits of West Point meet in her upper sky, and talk over the battalions of ’58 and ’59.
There was another incident connected with the John Brown raid which, besides being characteristic, has a bordering of humor. The late Major-General Pierce M. B. Young of Georgia, a conspicuous cavalry leader, a member of Congress after the war, and minister to Russia under Cleveland, observed one day during Brown’s trial, in the hearing of a Massachusetts man, as they were marching off guard, “ By God, I wish I had a sword as long as from here to Newburgh, and the Yankees were all in a row. I’d like to cut off the head of every damned one of them.”
Newburgh, faintly visible up the river, lies about eleven miles from West Point, or something over fifty-eight thousand feet. If we allow two heads to the foot, Pierce would have beheaded over a hundred thousand Yankees at a slash, which might have made a material difference in New England’s ability to fill her quota two years later. I am afraid, however, that, if Young had had his gory WestPoint-and-Newburgh blade, it would have been bothersome sometimes. It was too long; he never could have got away as he did when Custer and Merritt and Wilson got after him on several occasions. But he was a very good fighter and a very good-hearted fellow, and, as a member of Congress, never failed to do cheerfully all in his power for his old West Point friends.
The Massachusetts man, who was my first roommate, and for whose ears Young’s extravagant wish was intended, preserved in 1859 that discreet silence which was characteristic of his Puritan blood. At Gettysburg, however, in 1862, he spoke. The position his guns occupied is still pointed out to the visitor of that field, and when the official guide reaches it he says, “Here are Calef’s guns; they opened the battle.”
There was another occasion that autumn when the smothering feelings of the Southerners broke into a little flame which, for the time being, was very amusing. It was at a meeting of the Dialectic Society. I wonder if that celebrated society is still in existence. It never held but two meetings while I was a cadet, and yet when I graduated it gave me a dignified and almost stately diploma, adorned with a copper plate engraving, and a broad red ribbon bearing a large seal. I never see it that it does not evoke a smile. Well, on the programme was a play (I think it was Bob Acres) given wholly by cadet talent. The narrow, bare, cold, and high-ceiled hall over the Sally Port was crowded; and during one of the scenes there was a fierce stage combat with swords between Kilpatrick of New Jersey, the great cavalry leader, and the handsome and popular “Jack” Garnett of Virginia. It was reported that the former during his furlough had made a Republican speech, and well he might, for he was a most blatant and interminable talker. Both were good swordsmen, and they clashed and lunged at each other in great style.
As the battle progressed the excitement grew, till Ned Willis and “Comanche” Robinson of Texas concluded it was the South against the North, and yelled from the pit, “Kill him, Jack, kill him!”
Counter voices screamed, “ Go it, Kil! ”
It was the funniest performance, I think, I ever witnessed. All four of these cadets were cast for parts in a greater play: Kilpatrick, well known as a brave and reckless fighter, became a majorgeneral of cavalry ; Willis has been mentioned ; “ Comanche “Robinson, so named for his resemblance to an Indian in more ways than one, attained rank in the Confederacy; and “Jack” Garnett commanded Garnett’s battalion of Confederate artillery at Gettysburg. I met him after the war. He was still the same handsome and popular Virginian; but life for him was clouded, and in a few years he died.
The mention of Garnett recalls the one other meeting of that wonderful Dialectic Society. It was held in the library, the only time while I was there that the old authors on the shelves had a chance to hear the voices of youth. On this occasion Garnett read Horace Porter’s famous lines on “Life at West Point.” We thought it a mighty good production then, and as I read it over lately, it still sparkled. The other night, while the Loyal Legion was banqueting at Delmonieo’s, and Porter was delivering a memorial on Schofield, he referred to our cadet days, and to officers on duty at the time. As I listened to him the years fell away from him; I saw him again as cadet adjutant, and heard once more the thundering applause with which we welcomed his rhyming effort.
FURLOUGH IN 1860
In June, 1860, our class went on its furlough, which, by way of explanation, is a leave of absence during the encampment, granted to each class at the close of its second academic year. It is a great event in a cadet’s life, for it is the only time he can leave West Point during the four years’ course, and he looks forward to it with longing. It steals in upon him as he rambles alone; it is floating in his mind as he goes to sleep; and I am acquainted with one, at least, who never failed to think of it in church. And how could he help it, with his forehead cushioned in gloves and handkerchief on the pew rail, and the clergyman solemnly droning the stately Litany, lulling the very air of the chapel into slumber ?
And, by the way, Robert E. Lee, Jr., in his delightful recollections of his father, says, referring to their life at West Point while General Lee was superintendent of the Academy, “I never knew him late for Sunday service at the post chapel . . . and I remember he got always very drowsy during the sermon, and sometimes caught a little nap.” However many little naps the Confederate chieftain (and for one I am willing to vote him the leading gentleman of his time) may have caught in that dear little chapel, there were some of them still left haunting the choir loft in my day.
After the Te Deum, the curtains were slyly drawn, and I saw more than one of my fellow choristers take advantage of the opportunity: Wesley Merritt, the cavalry leader, “Jack” Garnett, Harris, “Lengthy” Smith, and fiery red-haired Randol, whose clear soprano voice led us all. It was his battery at Frazier’s Farm, on McClellan’s retreat to the James, which fought the enemy at their very muzzles, stirring the blood of friend and foe to admiration. How firmly then his tenor voice must have rung out to his cannoneers, — with another tone than when he sang the Venite, and with another vibration than when I heard it singing, “When shall we meet again, meet ne’er to sever,” on the last Sunday before graduation. On that occasion there was deep feeling and sweet pathos in his voice, and in every other voice, too; and well there might have been, for down below us in the body of the church were a good many splendid-hearted cadets who in a few years were killed.
But it is while the cadet is performing sentinel’s duty in the dead hours of the night, while there is around him the mystery of darkness, that he dwells on his coming furlough most fondly. He clothes every hour of it with the light and beauty of dreams. In his fancy he hears the timber and the fields welcoming him home again; he feels the paws of the old dog he hunted with as he leaps up on his breast to kiss him; he sees the plain, country church spire reverently pointing starward; and soon, in his uniform, he is walking up its aisle, and his mother is at his side. Yes, yes, furlough days! you are lifting again through the mists, and with all the freshness and spicy odor of blooming sweetbriers. And yet no old graduate ever looks back to them that a smile does not gather. And why? Oh, because he sees not the visions of his boyhood’s fancy, but a youth gloriously unconscious of his rank callowness.
On reaching home we found the political campaign of 1860, probably the most exciting and certainly the most fateful which our country has gone through, in full swung. The very air was charged. Lincoln had been nominated by the Republicans; Breckinridge by the Southern extremists. The Democratic party of the North had rallied behind Douglas, the Unionists of the South had put forward Bell of Tennessee. I was too young and altogether too immature to realize the situation; but it was easy to see that the haughtiness and disdain of the South had at last challenged the manhood of the West; and that the followers of Lincoln were ready to face the issue for good and all, and, if need be, to fight it out to the bitter end.
The following incident illustrates fairly well, I think, the depth to which the feelings of the North were moved. I was visiting an uncle, who, born and bred in Rockingham, Virginia, was a giant in stature, but mild in disposition, of upright walk, and blessed with a child’s faith in his Bible and religion. In his dignified manner and old Virginian respectfulness of tone he turned to me just before the dinner was served, and asked, “Morris, what does the South say about this presidential election?”
I had started to tell him what I thought they felt were their rights under the Constitution as to slavery, — and I believed then and I believe now they were right.— when my uncle Sam interrupted, exclaiming, “Morris, I tell you slavery has no rights either before God or man; it is a curse and a disgrace to this land, and the South shall not bully us under the threat of disunion into its defense any longer;” and he brought down his big hand firmly on the table where lay the old Bible which he read every morning and every night before kneeling in prayer.
I looked at him with amazement. His face was illuminated, and in the light of the fires of his conviction I got my first clear view of the shadow of war; and I had nothing further to say. Could we have laid our ears to the lids of the old Bible, which must have felt the jar of his hand, I am inclined to believe that we should have heard the voice of Joel rising far above those of Miriam ’and David, saying, —
“Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain; let all the inhabitants of the land tremble: for the day of the Lord cometh, for it is nigh at hand; a day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains. . . . Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” . . .
It is true there were hundreds, yes, thousands. South and North, who were ready to make a compromise; who had no bitterness in their hearts; who loved the Union and could not bear to think of civil war. But the day for compromises had gone by. The crusade of the Abolitionists on the one hand, and the vanity, haughtiness, and disdain of South Carolina on the other, had got in their fatal work, driving both sections into positions from which neither prayer nor appeal could extricate either one of them. How haughtiness and disdain have characterized the bearing of the rich and powerful just before every great revolution! I fear they will characterize those to come. And the pity of it all is that so much blood will flow, so many young fellows, who have no ill-will and are innocent of a base ambition, will be called on to lay down their lives for the wrongs of others, to be the food of wars which should and might be avoided by a little forbearance of one toward another, by invoking the spirit of Christianity, and by a steady display of the qualities of the real gentleman.
We returned from our furlough on the 28th of August, 1860. In the next six months Lincoln was elected, the South seceded, and the war between the states began. These events are the broad foreground of a great picture, and one in which is reflected much of West Point’s life. The longer we gaze at it the more we see in it, and the more conscious we become, I think, of a mysterious historic effulgence. Does our imagination spiritualize the events, and make us see Fate forcing her way as she leads the country to its destiny ; is it Slavery dragging herself death-stricken at last out of the world; is it the glow from faces of highminded youths in gray and blue; or is the radiance in the face of Peace ? My heart beats before it.
There is a strange fascination to me in the memory of my life at West Point during those fateful six months.
I have referred to the circumstance that, through the suggestion of my Southern roommate, I had by the help of the New York Herald been assigned to D Company. It was the distinctively Southern company; in fact, over half, perhaps two thirds, of its members were from the South. In it at that time were Rosser, Young, Deering, Pelham, Patterson, Willett, Watts, Faison, John Lane, and “ Jim ” Parker, all of whom reached high rank in the Confederacy. From the North were Babbitt, Dimmock, of Dimmock’s battery, pure-hearted Sanderson, “Deacon” Elbert, and Custer. The latter, with Jim Parker, lived in a room diagonally below me; and with that wellmated pair, whom I shall mention later, I fooled away many an hour that should have been devoted to study.
West and myself occupied a room on the third floor of the 7th Division. It looked out on the gardens attached to the quarters of Professor Kendrick, and of Lieutenant Douglas, a smallish man with a voluminous red beard, who was an instructor of drawing, and who, besides an artistic sense, had a greater propensity for chewing tobacco (fine cut) than any one I ever saw. Behind the garden rose the hills, streaked with ribs of gray rocks, clothed with tapering cedars and struggling trees, whence, as spring drew along, came many a richly warbled note.
Of course, between me and my roommate there was no concealment. We talked over the state of the country and everything else, as boys and loving friends might. He told me about his home, the slaves, and the plantation; and I got an impression — and I believe it was a true one — that theirs was a humane, just, and happy family.
And in this connection let me remark on what the North has never fully understood in the Southerner’s character, — I mean, his reluctance to differ from his fellow Southerners on all public questions, and his natural hesitation to lay his heart bare to any one, and above all to a Northerner. His traits are the result of several forces, — provincial isolation, long submission to a dominating public opinion, and the reserve of an inherited dignity. There is nothing he hates like smooth cunning. If you want to be sure of his inward convictions, he must be sure of your sincerity; you must know him well, and you must see him alone.
Well, we had barely settled down to our work again before the smothered excitement that had lain smoking ominously, blazed up all over the country, like fires in a clearing. What had happened to the patient and stolid North, that night after night the streets of her cities and towns should flicker with the torches of marching processions ? There they go, marching up Broadway by historic and stately Trinity, thousands of them, and the sidewalks lined four or five deep. Along the grassy streets of little country villages here they come, under overbending elms; and now, in far away Iowa, their torches flare between fields of ripening corn. How significant that here and there are old, white-haired men in the procession! Has some martial spirit beaten the long roll ? Or, what seems to me more probable, has not a spirit of deeper thought and closer ties with the heart talked low and confidentially to the bells in the steeples ? For the moral sense of the North is certainly aroused! Look where you may,the hearts of the people are stirring.
This exhibition by the passive North, marching four abreast with flaming torches, now and then bursting into a deep, hoarse cheer for Lincoln, was hailed with sardonic delight by the original secessionists. It gave them the one chance they wanted, namely, to appeal to the sensitive pride of their naturally conservative yet impulsive people. They at once translated it into the terms of a challenge, something that no Southerner could overlook. The danger of oversensitiveness as to personal courage! what calamities it has wrought for nations,— and what saddened hours for individuals! The papers and the political orators took it up, and, before the conservative spirit could get into action, a fierce desire to engage in war with the North had bedded itself permanently in the hot blood of the Southern youth. Oh, gallant men who fell in Virginia, I have often thought that if your fathers could have met the North as equals, and, uninflamed by oratory, talked the question over calmly and without arrogance, the extreme secessionists never could have swung your Southland into desolation.
It may sound strange to civilians, and especially to students of the history of that period, to be told that national affairs even at that time were not discussed at West Point. The discussion, by officers or cadets, of the politics dividing the nation into parties would have struck the average man as crude, and totally unbecoming young men or old men whose lives were consecrated to the service of the country, regardless of which party might be in control. I fully agree that there is nothing more amusing to the silent and observant bystander than a discussion over politics between two old fellows or two young ones. But during that critical period we offered no such diversion. The nearest we came to it was habitually, morning,noon, and night, to damn every politician in the country, save the one who had appointed us. Moreover, the tension was too great, and inasmuch as we professed to be gentlemen, we naturally refrained from touching on disagreeable subjects. Representing, however, as we did, every Congressional district, we were in miniature the country itself. The letters and local papers from home kept us acquainted with the state of public feeling, and, since the consciousness of a national crisis is always contagious, it was not long before it was felt at West Point.
As a result, a state of recklessness as to discipline, and a new indifference to class standing, were more or less noticeable in the conduct of the entire corps, save among that laudable few who worked day and night to get into the engineers; and — judging from one or two I knew — I doubt if anything short of a cataclysm that would have tossed half the sturgeon in the Hudson up into the “area” would have diverted them from calculus or engineering. The effect on the conduct and temper of some of the Southern cadets was marked by provoking arrogance; and strangely enough, savage encounters took place between Southerners themselves. For instance, my roommate engaged in one with a fellow Southerner, which I believe was wholly due to the prevailing impatience and irritability aroused by the political situation. I have no idea what it was about, or who was to blame; but I do know that I urged West to settle it. His Southern blood was up, however, and seeing that I could do nothing to stop it, I asked him to get somebody else to go with him, for I could not bear to see those two friends in a fight. With a heavy heart I stayed alone in our room; and when he came back, terribly punished, I went with the impulsive, warm-hearted fellow to the hospital. The day came when he and his antagonist were the best of friends, and fellow officers of the same Confederate battery.
THE STRAW BALLOT
In October, 1860, some evil spirit stole his way into West Point and thence into the room of a couple of the bitterly partisan Southerners in my division. The next day — as a result of his visit — a box was set up at a suitable place, with a request that cadets should deposit therein their preferences for president of the United States.
Now, the father of big, swarthy John Lane, a member of my company and one who subsequently joined the South, was running for vice-president on the ticket with Breckinridge. Although John was very far from being a leader intellectually, nevertheless he was a well-meaning, whole-souled, and generally popular man. Whether his personality had anything to do with the result of the balloting, I do not know, — the fact of his father’s candidacy is mentioned only to give the situation a little more reality.
A better scheme than this straw ballot to embroil the corps, and to precipitate the hostilities between individuals which soon involved the states, could not have been devised. When I went to deposit my ballot I met Frank Hamilton of my class, who had just voted. “How have you voted, Frank?” I asked good-naturedly.
“Oh, for Honest Old Abe,” he answered with his peculiar bubbling chuckle. “I suppose you are for Douglas ?”
“Yes, for the ‘Little Giant,’ Frank.”
Now Hamilton was from the Western Reserve of my state and a Republican, and I should have been surprised had he not voted in harmony with his courage and convictions. My roommate voted for Bell.
When the ballots were counted (I cannot recall the exact number of votes for each candidate) the South with surprise and indignation found that there were sixty-four votes for Lincoln. It was always a peculiarity, almost a childlike simplicity of the old South, to take it for granted that every one was going their way; it never understood the silence of the Puritan. At once, with almost astounding effrontery, the self-constituted supervisors of the election appointed tellers for each division to smoke out those whom some of them saw fit to designate luridly as “the Black Republican Abolitionists in the Corps.”
And now was exhibited the most equivocal if not pusillanimous conduct that ever I saw at West Point. When the tally was over, only about thirty could be found who had voted for Lincoln, and, according to the tellers, every one of these was from west of the Hudson River, the bulk of them from north of the Ohio; while it was notorious that every member of Congress east of the Hudson, save, possibly, Arnold of Connecticut, was a Republican! What had become of Lincoln’s backers from east of the Hudson ? Well, well! I suppose the everlasting din the South raised over their voting for Lincoln was so disquieting to the intellectual repose of our New England friends that all took to reading Emerson — Emerson on “Idealism,” wherein he says, “The least change in our point of view gives the whole world a pictorial air.” So, when the dreaded tallymen came round, with their proverbial shrewdness they concluded that they would give the world— at least a part of it—a “pictorial air” by changing their point of view from Lincoln and Hamlin to Bell and Everett. Or had those descendants of the heroic Puritans who, unshaken, faced the question of the execution of a king, answered the tallymen with stern and resolute countenance, “What business is it of yours how I voted ? You get out of this!” Whatever may have happened, according to the tellers there was not a single recorded vote from New England for Lincoln.
One of the tallymen was from Vermont, a Yankee of Yankees, who with humiliating subserviency, as it seems to me, accepted complacently the duty of smoking out his fellow Northerners for the scorn of certain partisan Southerners. While performing his despicable mission (that term sounds harshly, but nothing softer describes the service), he came to the room occupied by Tully McCrea of Ohio and G. L. Gillespie of Tennessee. With a loud and impertinent voice he wanted to know how they had voted. When McCrea announced his vote for Lincoln, the tallyman made a disparaging remark, whereupon McCrea told him in significant tones to get out of the room, and after one glance from Tully’s chestnut eyes he promptly complied. How often I have seen those same warm chestnut eyes swimming as they responded to the tender and high emotions of his heart!
On account of his political views, a Kentuckian, who fell at Chickamauga, assailed McCrea violently. Two or three years later, McCrea was called on once more to show his courage. It was the afternoon of Pickett’s charge, and all through those terrible hours he stood with his battery on the ridge at Gettysburg; over him were the scattering oaks of Ziegler’s grove; and with his commanding officer, Little Dad Woodruff, who there met his death, he faced the awful music. In one way I really think it took more courage to vote for Lincoln than to face Pickett; but however that may be, he met both ordeals well. At the battle of Olustee, Florida, he was shot through both legs. He is now retired, a brigadiergeneral, and when I last heard of him, he was living at Atlantic City. I imagine him watching the long waves endlessly breaking on the beach; and I hope that as again and again they swish up toward him and sadly lull away, nothing but pleasant memories come back of our boyhood days.
I do not wish to encumber, mar, or lower these articles with combats between boys; but there is one I never look at from the porch of my memory without real amusement. This lively encounter took place between Dunlap of Kentucky and Kilpatrick, in the hall of the 6th Division, just after undress parade on the stoop, and while the companies were forming to march to supper. Hearing the row, I got through the crowd and on to the stairway. A very fair view of what was going on in the hall below me now presented itself; and whatever may be the speed of the thoroughbreds of Kentucky, New Jersey certainly had the pole and the race at the outcome that night. A funnier row I never saw in my life. Well, no sooner was it over than those of us who had remained to see it through discovered that we were hungry; but meanwhile the battalion had marched to supper, and the regulations provided that any one entering the mess hall after the doors were closed should be reported. We all gathered in front of the door and decided to go in together, each one flattering himself that he might be the lucky one to escape the eye of the First Captain, now the widely and favorably known General James M. Wilson of Washington. I got immediately behind the tallest man in the corps, red-headed Cowan of North Carolina, thinking thereby to be masked, at least at the outset of the movement.
The door was opened suddenly. We started with a rush; but unfortunately for me, Cowan stumbled at the threshold and nearly fell headlong on the floor, leaving me in full view.
The next night at parade, when the adjutant read the reports for delinquencies, my name was duly mentioned. I think Wilson spotted every one of us. I had a good many reports, far too many to be consistent with the exercise of common-sense, but this one I have never regretted; for a little spring of humor has always bubbled from it.
On the 6th of November, 1860, the people reversed our little boyish ballot, solemnly, and overwhelmingly; but the undreamed-of flat had gone forth. With the election of Lincoln the doors of the new era, which in the fullness of time the Ruler of the World had ordered, began slowly and inexorably to swing open. There is always an idea of morning about the coming on of a new era; but to those who are near the opening doors, “the wings of the morning” (which I have always thought to be the most, beautiful piece of imagery in the world) are not visible. And for very good reasons: for have they ever yet opened but that the dreadly-bosomed clouds of war were moving fast, and the sky growing fearfully black ?
No, to the living there is nothing of the morning when the doors of a new era begin to open, creaking wailingly the mortal agony of ill-featured wrongs as they turn on their old and sin-incrusted hinges. The mornings of new eras have dawned only in the eyes of prophets and martyrs, whose foretelling lips and far-seeing eyes are generally dust long before what they have said, and what they have seen, have become accomplished facts. But the interesting thing about it all is this, that as soon as the mask is lifted from any great historical event, its resurrection begins before our inward eye, clothing itself in symbols, and appealing to the imagination for utterance. And the character of our speech is directly related to our understanding of the spiritual significance of the event itself.
So it will be with the history of our great Civil War; and so it will be with the West Point of my day. We were at the birth of the era, and the sky was black enough; but the history of those days, and above all of West Point itself, will have its resurrection morning. For Nature makes provision that at last every event which marks the upward progress of the world shall bloom in the heavendyed language of the poet.
(To be continued.)