The Spirit of Old West Point: (1858-1862)




THE week during which so many of the Southern men left, whose reunion has just been recounted, was full of intense interest. Perhaps in all of West Point’s life there has never been its equal, or one even like it. For the hearts of the people from one end of the country to the other were heaving from their depths, depths of feeling which are reached only when mankind is on the verge of some great trial and about to fight its way to some azure crest in the range of ideals; one of those times when the shrines of our better natures are all flashing, and mysterious hands are sweeping those harps which are hung in the sky of our being; oh, yes, when Poetry and Art, and their heavenly sister, Religion, are all active in behalf of our sentiment and imagination, that its great creative instincts may make new advances toward the light of God.

I wish I could translate that week’s record of our country’s deep feeling into terms that would satisfy our inner sources of reason and of history and of divine interpretation; for I have a consciousness that in it lie those movements which at last become epics and lyrics, and those exalted terms which we find on the lips of the great seers and prophets.

Whatever the week’s record may embrace of the inspiration I have intimated, it marked the display of what is known as West Point friendship. And in due time for that friendship I shall claim our present peace and national welfare and, what is more, the salvation of our land from pages of horrible history; but for the present let the following letter written by my classmate McCrea on Saturday, the 27th of April, 1861, throw its light on what had transpired at West Point in the week then closing: —

“On Sunday night, or rather Monday morning, for it was after 12 o’clock, some of the cadets serenaded Lieutenant McCook. On Tuesday night we serenaded Captain Seymour, one of the heroes of Fort Sumter, who was here visiting his father-in-law, Professor Weir. It was a clear moonlight night, and there were about fifty cadets in front of the house. Captain Seymour came to the window and made us a patriotic speech. We could see his features well and he looked as if he had had a hard time at Fort Sumter. When he made his appearance at the window the cadets applauded everything that he said, from beginning to end. But he would have been applauded if he had not said a word, for actions speak louder than words, and his actions at Fort Sumter had preceded him and endeared him to every true American heart.

“On Friday the officers serenaded Lieutenant Lee (Fitzhugh), who is a Virginian and has resigned because his state has seceded. He was the most popular officer that I have ever seen at West Point. He was liked by the officers, cadets, ladies, and in fact by every one that knew him. It was a bitter day for him when he left, for he did not want to go, and said that he hated to desert his old flag. But he thought that it was his duty to do as Virginia did. He was the Commandant of my company, and on Friday evening he came to bid us goodby. He went to every room and shook hands with every one of us with tears in his eyes, and hoped, he said, that our recollections of him would be as happy as those he had of us. When he shook hands with me I expressed my regrets that he was going away. He said that he was sorry to leave, but as he belonged to the other side of the line, it was time that he was going. On Saturday morning after breakfast the cadets gathered in front of the barracks to see him off. As he passed in the omnibus we took off our hats and waved them. This may appear very natural and matter-of-fact to you, for you do not know enough about military usage to recognize the great difference that there is between an officer and a subaltern. I believe it is the second time that I ever shook hands with an officer, although it is three years that I have been here.

“Sunday evening. To-day directly after dinner a large boat passed down the river loaded with volunteers from the northern part of the state. I never saw such a crowd before on a single boat, for it appeared like a hive of bees, as all the volunteers crowded to the guards to exchange salutes and cheers with the cadets. The boat was so heavily laden that it moved very slowly through the water, consequently remained within saluting distance for some time. The Graycoats on the shore would give three cheers and wave their caps and handkerchiefs; then the Bluecoats on the boat would return the cheers, wave their handkerchiefs, the captain of the boat would blow his steam whistle, ring his bell, and every one showed his patriotism and excitement in every possible way. This was kept up between the cadets on the shore and the volunteers on the boat until it had passed out of sight. It was an exciting scene, and it gladdened every patriotic heart to see so many noble volunteers on their way to defend the nation’s capital. Even the officers forgot their dignity and waved their caps and handkerchiefs. And the strict old Commandant even went so far as to permit us to go off of limits in order to see and be seen better. The ‘sick’ in the hospital crawled out of their wards on to the porch and saluted them as they passed. The ladies smiled upon them and also waved their handkerchiefs and all wished them success in their holy mission. These are not the first troops that have come from the North, but all heretofore have come down on the railroad which is on the other side of the river, thus preventing us from seeing them.”

There was an incident in connection with Lee, not mentioned in this letter, which is worth preserving. Some of the cadets of his Company “A”, hailing from the North, decorated their rooms by pinning little flags on their alcove curtains. This display of patriotism flamed out too rapidly for him in his then troubled state of mind, and he ordered them removed, on the ground that it was a violation of the regulations. McCrea in obedience to the order took his down, collected his paints and brushes which he used in the department of drawing, and then proceeded with firmly set jaws to paint his water bucket with bands of red, white, and blue. Now this utensil was a part of the authorized furniture of the rooms, and the regulations did not prescribe how it should be painted. What Fitz thought of this flank movement is not recorded; and, so far as the writer knows, this was the only really historic picture that Tully ever executed; and yet he helped to make a celebrated one, namely, that which was painted on the country’s memory by Pickett’s charge, with McCrea and others facing it undaunted between thundering guns.

The serenade by the officers to Fitzhugh Lee I remember very well: Guilford D. Bailey, who was killed on the Peninsula, and several others, occupied the tower rooms wfith him. I had often heard them laughing and sometimes singing at late hours in his quarters while I roomed in the Angle. To many readers who have inherited or imbibed from one source or another more or less of the passions of the war, it may seem strange that loyal officers, and above all officers on duty at West Point, should serenade a Southerner like Lee on the eve of his taking up arms against the government.

I can readily understand the present generation’s surprise at an event of this kind; had such a manifestation been made elsewhere in the North, so violent was the feeling at that time a riot would certainly have followed. Yet totally unconscious of any significance, the same kindly feeling and sad parting prevailed at every post between officers. But it was soon attended by an evil result, for it was not long before throughout the North a feeling doubting the loyalty of all West Point men was diffused. And by the end of the second year of the war this feeling had risen so high that a movement to put civilians at the head of the army was openly discussed by influential Northerners.

It is not necessary to resurrect these long-since buried charges, so unjust and so disheartening in their day. But it is due to West Point to exonerate her from the insinuation that her friendships ever stayed the delivering of attack, or that one of her sons ever failed to give the most loyal duty to his civilian commander. One in every five of those engaged laid down his life, one in every three, and probably every other one, was wounded. No, no, it made no difference who was in command. On the other hand, there is something due to West Point friendships which she has a right to claim : I refer to the part they played at Appomattox, and my heart leaps with pride as I think of it.

For on that day two West Point men met, with more at stake than has ever fallen to the lot of two Americans. On the manner in which they should meet, on the temper with which they should approach the mighty issue, lay the future peace of the country and the standards of honor and glory for the days to come. There was the choice between magnanimity to a gallant foe and a spirit of revenge; there was the choice between official murders for treason and leaving the page of our country’s history aglow with mercy; there was the choice between the conduct of a conqueror and the conduct of a soldier and a gentleman; finally, there was the choice for these two men, who for over a year had fronted each other on so many fields, to garland the occasion by the display of what is greater than victory, — terms that the Christian and the lover of peace in all ages of the world will honor. These two West Point men knew the ideals of their old Alma Mater, they knew each other as only graduates of that institution know each other, and they met on the plane of that common knowledge. I cannot avoid expressing the belief that the greatest hour that has ever come in the march of our country’s years was on that April day, when Grant and Lee shaped the terms at Appomattox. And then what happened ? The graduates of both armies met as brothers and planted then and there the tree that has grown, blooming for the Confederate and blooming for the Federal, and under whose shade we now gather in peace. West Point has rendered many a service: she opened the gates to Grant’s undreamed-of abilities; with beating heart she was with Thomas as he stood at Chickamauga that mighty September day; she was at Warren’s side on Round Top; she was with little George B. McClellan when he rallied the Army of the Potomac after Second Bull Run; all these were great services. But her greatest service was in inspiring and revealing the ideals of the soldier and the gentleman, and in knitting friendships which, when called on by the world’s love of gentleness, responded at Appomattox by bringing back enduring peace, leaving our country’s history unshadowed by revenge and unhaunted by the victims of political gibbets.

Lee’s attitude has never, it seems to me, had due recognition. Had he yielded to a sense of mortification over defeat, had he been ill-natured and revengeful, one word from him and the conflict would have degenerated into bloody and barbarous guerrilla warfare. On the contrary, by his dignified, yet full and manly, meeting of Grant on his high level of magnanimity and statesmanship, he rendered a great service to his country and generation.

On that occasion he was dressed like and looked the gentleman. Grant, in simple garb stained with the campaign, bore himself and acted the gentleman; both honored their Alma Mater and both honored their country; and both little dreamed that they were marching abreast up the broad stairway of the Temple of Fame, not to take their places among the world’s conquerors, but among the heralds of civilization and all the mild, brave, and blessed benefactors of the world. For their example is bound, it seems to me, to be influential hereafter when the heads of armies and governments meet to settle upon the terms of peace.

While I have written these last few paragraphs the overarching West Point has seemed near. At times so near and so definite that I thought — perhaps it was a mere, but not, I trust, vain-glorious illusion — I could almost read the thought in the faces of the spiritual embodiments of truth, and honor, and courage, and duty. To this statement of possible community with creatures of the imagination, science and reason will give neither weight nor credence, treating it as sheer fantasy. Perhaps they are right in discouraging all converse with ethereal messengers ; but science and reason should not overlook the fact that language itself, through its primitive associations, has intercourse with the very elements of the matter on whose properties they build their cold and verdureless eminence, deaf to and unconscious of the communion that is ever going on around them. But who knows how soon the day will come when imagination’s now shadowy world will be real, when mankind will see truth and virtue and honor as we see and know the heavenly bodies glowing steadfastly so far away in the depths of space.

As this is in all probability the last time the writer will refer to the overarching West Point, for one of his little crew that has labored so faithfully and willingly throughout the course of this narrative reports that around another headland lies a vast and silent deep, — it is the end,—the writer begs to say as he parts with the idea, that to it his narrative owes whatsoever color and atmosphere it may have. And if it has left through its inspiration a clearer and, he hopes, kinder image of his Alma Mater; that it is not a school of blood or of pomp or of the mere science of the Art of War; if through it he has given to any young man one single uplifting thought, he parts with gratitude from what has been to him a source of intellectual pleasure.

Owing to the great demand for regular officers to help drill and organize the three months’volunteers that were rushed by the states into Washington in reply to Lincoln’s proclamation, orders came to graduate Dupont’s, Upton’s, and Babcock’s class.

The personnel of the officers changed rapidly : McCook left for the field, followed by Warren, Vincent, Holabird, Benton, Hascall, Comstock, Symonds, and Du Barry; and in the summer and early autumn went Reynolds, Williams, Breck, Biggs, and Carroll — and all rendered valuable services. Comstock, to whom I remember to have recited on one or two occasions, — he and Mendell were our instructors in mechanics,— became a member of Grant’s staff in the Vicksburg campaign and accompanied him to the Army of the Potomac. Like his great commander, he was a modest, quiet, unpretentious man, and one to whose judgment Grant gave more heed, I believe, than to that of any other of the younger officers on his staff. Warren I messed with at Meade’s headquarters and served with temporarily in the early days of the Rapid an campaign. Carroll I saw frequently in the field. In the Wilderness and at Spottsylvania his services were brilliant. I have sometimes thought he saved the day at Gettysburg and at the Wilderness.

“The time had come,” says Walker in his history of the Second Corps, referring to the battle of the Wilderness, “for him to do the same feat of arms which he had performed on the night of the 2d of July at Gettysburg. Putting his brigade into motion [it was composed of the 4th and 8th Ohio and 14th Indiana], himself with bandaged arm, at the head of the column, Carroll dashed on the run across the road, and then coming to a ’front,’charged forward, encountering the exultant Confederates in the very moment of their triumph, and hurling them head foremost over the intrenchments.”

On the 13th of May, 1861, by order of the Secretary of War, the superintendent was directed to call upon the professors, officers, and cadets to take the oath of allegiance according to a prescribed form sent from the War Department. In compliance with the above order the Academic Board, officers and cadets, assembled in the chapel at 5 p. M. on Monday, 13th May, 1861, and took the oath of allegiance before William Avery, justice of the peace. I have always thought that this order was inspired by the conduct of the Southern men in Dupont’s class, who resigned at once after graduating. However that may be, in August the War Department concluded that we had better take the oath again, but this time they introduced into the form, “That I will maintain and defend the sovereignty of the United States, paramount to any and all allegiance, sovereignty, or fealty I may owe to any State, county or country whatsoever.” When the time came, two men from Kentucky declined to take the oath and were dismissed. One was Dunlap, whose rough-and-tumble fight with Kilpatrick in the 5th Division has already been told; the other was a member of the 4th class. After returning home the latter entered the Union Army and was killed in battle. I have often thought of that boy; and his pale face, the target of every eye in the battalion, still comes and goes — and I believe that of all the men of our day Fate handed him her deepest cup: the struggle at West Point, the burning punishment of that hour in the chapel, the weight of twilight that night, his lonely and heavy-hearted departure, his last despairing look at the place. His reason for declining was, I suspect, his boyish love of and pride in Kentucky. But when he reached home he found his state a divided household; who knows why he took a step at home so inconsistent with that at West Point? Did his sweetheart love the Union, and did he follow the flag for her sake? Was her look kindlier than that of any other in the world ? and for that show of charity, did he go to the side of her choice, and yield up his life ?

The writer does not know on what field he fell, but hopes that it. slopes to the east and the morning sun, that some little brook winds murmuring across it, and that here and there over it are primeval trees like those which dignify and bless his Blue Grass country, where the night winds breathe a requiem through their tops for the ill-fated but dear boy. The chances are that he was only nineteen or twenty years old.

Our first shock of the war was the death of Lieutenant Greble, which occurred on June 10, 1861, in the battle of Big Bethel, Virginia; and I remember to this day the impression it made upon me, for he and Webb were the very first of my instructors. The papers gave every detail of his death and of his burial from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. A few days ago, to refresh my memory, I read the account of his funeral. He lay in state on a bier that had borne the bodies of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, and for three hours the young and old of the people of Philadelphia filed by his remains; in the long procession were the children of the schools he had attended. His sword lay on the colors, and, near by, his hat with a long black plume, and there were wreaths of mingled jessamine, heliotrope, and mignonette, with white roses, on his coffin. Two long white ribbons hung gracefully from it, on which was printed the single word “Purity. ” No word in the language was more fitting, and no word, I believe, does the spirit of West Point like better.

The writer has given this detail of his instructor’s funeral for these reasons: because he was drawn toward him by his gentleness at a time when everybody at West Point seemed to him so cold and hard; that the present generation may have some idea of the depth of feeling, and of what the war meant to the living; but above all, that it may open the gates of reflection, and that through them the generation may behold two or three splendors in the distance, — gentleness, courage, and a country ready to meet death for a principle.

Shortly after the battle where Greble lost his life, orders came to graduate Mordecai’s, Hill’s, “Shang” Parker’s, and Edie’s class. On June 24 they were graduated without the usual impressive ceremonies, and all left for the field, save Custer, who, being officer of the guard, instead of stopping a fight going on between two plebes over whose turn it was at the water faucet, rushed in with sword and sash, formed a ring, and then and there proclaimed that it was to be a fair fight. Meanwhile the officer in charge appeared, and Custer was put under arrest, and charges filed against him. Fortunately for the country, they were not pressed, and he got away just in time to reach the field before the battle of Bull Run.

The graduation of his class advanced mine to first rank in the corps, a dignity already commented upon, to which the writer never looks back without a consciousness of some evocation from the uplifting influences of the Academy.

The next event of importance in chronological order was the famous battle of Bull Run, the first of the great battles in Virginia. The news of the disaster reached us late in the afternoon, and strangely enough my first informant was Professor Church, The early dispatches from the field had all been favorable, arousing great enthusiasm, and we were expecting to hear at any moment that McDowell had won. The news, growing more and more exciting as the afternoon wore along, had slowly filtered down to the hospital, where I had been for a day or two with some trifling ailment; and, to get the latest, I went up to camp. It was on my return that I met the professor. He was talking earnestly with two army officers at the junction of the path which runs under the elms before the barracks, with the driveway to the hotel ; in other words, diagonally across from the little chapel. As I saluted he turned to me with blanched face and said, “Mr. Schaff, the news has just been received that our army has met with defeat and is fleeing to Washington in utter rout.” As soon as I could recover from my surprise, I asked if any one of our officers had been killed, having in mind the West Point battery and those who had lately left us as officers and cadets. He answered, “I hope not, but the dispatch gives no details.” I did not presume to inquire further, saluted again, and went on my way. And from that day to this the writer has been unable to decide which was the more astounding, the news of the army’s defeat or the source of its conveyance. For two long years he had, day after day, in the section room scanned the broad face of that little, deeply-brown-eyed old professor, striving in vain to read the riddle of his being, never discovering a single indication that he shared the power to feel with his fellow mortals, — and yet those who knew him well told me in after years that he was the tenderest of men: — and now, to have him, totally unconscious of self and the gulf that lay between us as professor and cadet, address me with so much feeling and share news of such mighty import, opened more than one shutter of the windows of my mind. There are little plots in fields, there are lilies in the woods, and there are islands in the sea, which suddenly please and surprise, but a turn of a character on its orbit, showing beams of light over a cold and inscrutably dark waste, carries a peculiar pleasure to the inward eye, one that in its mystery is far and away above the lights and shades of the natural world.

On my arrival at the hospital I told the news, and can see now the surprised and dumbfounded look of everyone, and especially of the hospital steward, a middleaged German with a nervous, keen face and rodential air of having caught a whiff of something like cheese. He was an old soldier and a competent hospital steward, but we most heartily detested him, not because he failed to do his duty, but because he did it too well. Boylike, we often tried his patience, and as often resented his exercise of authority; but he always got even with us. For whenever the surgeon would prescribe a disagreeable dose, he seemed to take special pleasure in seeing to it that we swallowed every bit of it; and when he had to use a probang, found infinite delight in getting a good grip on our tongues with a bent, spoon-like, clammy iron instrument, and then ramming his sponge up and down our throats till we were black in the face. Well, steward, we were the offenders, and if at the final day you need a friend to say a word to the Judge of all, call on any one of the Class of 1858-62 and I will guarantee that he will say a good word for you. There will be no question of rank between us then, steward, and, I sincerely hope, no probangs about.

The blow to the North was a staggering one, and its effects at this time can hardly be realized. But it was the best turn in the wheel of fortune for the North. It eliminated vainglory and pulled off the mask from all those deceptive allurements of war, and in their place substituted resoluteness, and drew the curtain displaying the glories which shine at last in the faces of generations which yield to and follow the high moods. We did not see it so then, but we do see it so now; I mean its providential ordering; for had we gained a great victory at the outset, or at any time before slavery had exhausted every element of strength of the people on which she had fastened, enduring peace could not have been established between North and South.

Shortly after supper the writer slipped out of the hospital and started for camp again. As he passed the little chapel he heard his class singing, — clearer and clearer their voices reached him as in the twilight he traversed the plain, — and with quickening step he crossed the sentinel’s post to join them at the head of one of the camping streets. In the face of the defeat they were singing patriotic airs with fine spirit.

Before tattoo sounded I made my way back to the hospital and sat long on the porch, having for a companion a gentleman from Baltimore who, while practicing with a pistol in the riding hall, had wounded himself slightly. He was a brother-in-law of Lieutenant Carroll, later General Carroll, and, if my memory serves me right, had been appointed, but not yet commissioned, as an officer of the army. What he said — and he was a most voluminous and nimble Munchausen talker — I do not remember. But I do remember a full moon mounting serenely, diffusing a flood of chaste light over the Highlands and down into the face of the tranquil Hudson, which, as viewed from the hospital, bears on in sunlight and moonlight so beautifully great.

The circumstance that two young men sat on the bank of the Hudson on the night of the battle of Bull Run, that a moon bedecked the heavens, shedding her blessed light down through leafy tree-tops, and over fields and spires, and upon flocks asleep, contributes nothing to the reader’s store of knowledge as to West Point or its spirit, or as to the drama whose stage at Bull Run was dotted at that hour with pale, fallen actors. And yet had some Briton sitting on the banks of the Thames on the evening of the battle of Hastings, or had some Moor sitting on the banks of the Darro the night before the Alhambra fell, told us how the night looked, whether there were moon and stars, it would have brought the scene a little closer and added perhaps that little æolian chord to history which always sounds so enchantingly distant when nature and our simple emotions are translating themselves into each other’s terms.

The authorities at Washington, wrought to the highest pitch by the defeat of the crude army, ordered our class to be graduated at the very earliest date. We hailed the news with boundless delight, and at once took up our studies in field engineering and ordnance. In the former we recited to Lieutenant Craighill of the engineers, later the chief of his distinguished corps; now, retired as a brigadier general, he is passing the evening of a long and useful life in the Valley of the Shenandoah. May blessings fall on our old instructor to the end!

Well, we started off in high glee. In a few days — I believe the superintendent thought he could get us ready in three weeks — we would be officers of the army and at the front, realizing what it was to go into battle and see our lives take on all the hues of that radiantly illusive phantasmagoria set in motion by what we read or heard of war. What fortune! For suppose the war should end suddenly and we have no part in it, would we ever get through bemoaning our luck ? But now we were sure to see some of it. Imagine our collapse then, when one day, while we were reciting in ordnance and gunnery to Lieutenant Breck, the adjutant came in and whispered something in his ear. Whereupon Lieutenant Breck, with a sardonic smile, said, “ Young gentlemen, you may suspend recitations,” addressing several at the blackboard; “the order for the graduation of your class has been revoked. Had we been photographed at that moment, there certainly would have been anything but angelic dreaminess in our countenances.

I do not recall ever having heard the class quite so voluble as when we broke ranks and could speak out. Matthew Arnold says that Gray never spoke out ; well, he could not have said that of the Class of ’62 on this occasion; and if any of the readers of these articles, who have gained an impression that butter would hardly have melted in the mouths of these young gentlemen, — they were so refined and good, — could have heard a few of the remarks that were made that day, there would have been no place left in their minds, at least temporarily, for illusions. We went back to camp disgusted through and through, and some of the more despondent said hopelessly, “The war will be over before we get out of the — place.” But it was not over; no, we had all we wanted of war.

About this time, Mackenzie, the leader of our class, of whom Grant speaks so enviably, was “broken,” and the writer was appointed a lieutenant in his place, and carried a sword proudly behind C Company until that unfortunate trip across the Hudson already detailed.

It is not my purpose or inclination to dwell at length on that last year at West Point. In some ways I enjoyed it deeply, and the fountains of those joys are still flowing. But before referring to them let me reflect, vaguely to be sure, some features of our West Point life which I think prevailed in great measure at every college, at Princeton, Yale, Harvard, in fact wherever a college bell rang: namely, the utter neglect of study, and indifference to class standing. The war absorbed everybody, it began to be talked of at sunrise, it was still the topic at sunset, and among college men it was talked of long after night fell and laborers were asleep. They gathered in their rooms and talked; they sat on the fence under the elms at New Haven and talked; they sat on the steps of the historic dormitories of Harvard; and the Tigers were on those of old Nassau long, long after the lights in the professors’ quarters were out; and I have no doubt more than once the clock pealed midnight and the college boys — God bless every one of them of every college in the land to-day! — were still talking of the war.

And so it was with our class at West Point. It is true that discipline was not relaxed, nor was there any abatement in the requirements of the academic departments; but, save now and then a natural student, the class as a whole were more like bees getting ready to swarm; the workers had all left the fields and were buzzing about the new queen — that is, the war. Our hearts were not in our books, they were off beyond the Potomac. There is a blank book now lying beside me which I used for a note-

book in the course of military engineering, and it bears abundant evidence on every page of the war’s domination and also of my indifference to my studies and waste of opportunity. Instead of notes on how to build temporary bridges, and make reconnaissances, on field works, or on martial mixed commands, or scores of subjects on which Lieutenant Craighill gave us valuable and practical instruction, it is filled with caricatures of my classmates while reciting, attempts at humor, and bungling and poorly drawn cartoons.

It may interest the present first class at West Point, however, to see my estimates of cost of outfit, — they appear several times and vary somewhat, but the following is a fair sample: —

Class ring $25.00
Class album 46.00
Flannels 17.50
Uniform coat 43.00
Trousers 10.00
Sword and belt 15.00
Pistols 24.00
Traveling bag 7.50
Underclothing 23.37 1/2
Boots and spurs 9.00
$220.37 1/2

But I must have been doing some pretty good reading at this time, for written in lead pencil I find these two extracts in the note-book: “Arguments are the sole current coin of intellect. The degree of influence to which an opinion is entitled should be proportional to the weight and value of the reasons.”1 On the same page is a badly drawn cadet making a recitation. Then follow a couple of pages filled with more trifling and wretchedly drawn pictures, and now appears the following: “Preface. There is a stirring and a far heard music sent forth from the tree of knowledge when its branches are fighting with the storm, which, passing onward, shrills out at once truths, triumphs and its own defeat.” 2

“‘The original stock or wild olive tree of our natural powers was not given us to be burned or blighted but to be grafted on.' Coleridge, Essay 12, gives extracts from what he considers as the most eloquent in our English literature.”

These are the only indications in the book of any seriousness on my part, and I feel grateful to it for preserving their favorable testimony. Meanwhile the thin old book — its binding a strip of faded brown, its covers a marbled green— has been all these years in that melancholy company which gathers in attics and garrets — with children’s schoolbooks, their little toy houses, chairs, skates, hobbyhorses, and sleds, old trunks and chests, pictures, curtain poles, wrinkled cast-off and caved-in traveling bags, and sturdy old andirons. And now, after this little furlough out into the light and song of to-day, — the apple-trees are just blooming, — it must go back to its dreary and fading company; and I think the more chattering ones of the garret — some of that bric-a-brac, for instance, which once paraded so complacently on the mantels and bookcases — will ask as my footsteps die away on the stairway, holding me more or less responsible for their banishment, “Has he any more sense than he used to have, or has he learned anything in all these years?” “No,” replies the book, settling down into its old place, “he does not seem much wiser now than he was then; but I thought I discovered here and there little fields in his heart that were still green; and blooming like roses on a trellis were boyhood’s loves for old West Point and the cadet friends of his youth.”

There is little more to be told of my West Point life. While I have been writing this narrative about it — and let me confess that the pen at times has run with deep feeling, and many a time, too, in faint hope, yes, almost in despair, of doing justice to the dear old Alma Mater, to the men and times, and, above all, to that display of high and glorious manhood which met the country’s crisis — I say, while I have been writing of its life, and trying as faithfully as I could to build fair images of West Point in the minds of my readers, scores of workmen have been tearing down the old buildings or laying the foundations for those of a new West Point. In a few years the West Point of these articles will be no more; and if the men of my day should go back, so great will have been the changes, I fear they would feel more like strangers than graduates; and, like sons wandering about an old home, their hearts would be heavy. And because it is changed, should they go away mourning for the past, for the West Point of their day? Oh, no! change, blessed, everlasting change is the law of the universe — going on with music and triumphal processions which in due time all that is mortal shall hear and see. West Point is under its sway, as well as the humblest and loneliest hamlet. To white-haired veterans, men of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, the Wilderness, and Appomattox, and every graduate up to 1870, the West Point of our day was at the end of an era in her life — an era that began in 1820 with the Missouri Compromise, flowered in 1861 and 1865, and ended when the old board of professors had reached the end of their creatively intellectual, honorable, and inspiring lives. From that time on the new West Point began. And is there any reason to believe that in the days to come the graduates of the new West Point will not, if called upon, match the services of those of the old West Point ? None whatever, we hope. The officers who are there now must be hearing the same trumpet voices out of the sky over them that spoke to the hearts of the men of the old days.

But there are certain changes going on that are much more significant than the replacement of old by new buildings — changes that are fundamental and are the obvious as well as inherent characteristics of what is known as militarism. I refer to the progressive subordination of the Academic Board to the military staff of the Academy. In our day the former were predominant, and rightly so. Mahan, the head of the Department of Civil and Military Engineering, had graduated at the head of his class and then distinguished himself and honored his country by taking a like position at the Polytechnic School in France. Upon his appointment, as professor he laid the foundations of the present course in civil and military engineering and the Art of War, by a series of text books which at once became authority on these subjects. Bartlett by like original works in mechanics, Church in mathematics, and French in the English course, established themselves and West Point abreast of the times. Kendrick was carrying on Bailey’s pioneer work in geology and mineralogy; Robert Weir, the professor of drawing, had risen into the company of the great artists of his day by his celebrated picture in the rotunda at Washington. Now, add to these intellectual acquirements that one great subtle quality called character, I mean that element of stimulating power which emanates with pervading and constant force from men of ability, of achievement, of courtly good manners, and, above all, of high moral standards, and it is easy to see what a tone they would give and what reverence they would receive. And in our day that reverence was not confined to the cadets alone, it characterized the bearing of every officer on duty at the Academy. And as a result the atmosphere of Cultivation and Scholarship prevailed over, uplifted, and refined that of barracks and camps.

It is far from my intention to say that a complete change has taken place, that the Academic Board has changed places with the Military Staff in the active and formative influences of West Point life. But I cannot resist the conclusion that, if militarism grows more ascendant, serious changes must take place in the ideals of West Point ; for ideals feed on culture, they lie down in the green pastures of knowledge, their shrines are not in drums but in the aspirations of the heart. Militarism once fully entrenched tolerates no challenge of precedence and culture; scholarship, idealism, those great liberating forces, must grow less and less influential as less and less they are appreciated and reverenced. Nothing it seems to me could be worse for West Point or worse for the army as a profession than to have the Academic Board sink to the level of mere teachers; in other words, to see West Point fall from the level of a university to that of a post school at a garrison — fall back to the condition in which Major Sylvanus Thayer, the Father of West Point, — before whose monument, now facing the plain, no graduate should pass without lifting his hat, — found it when he took command in 1817; that is, detached from the elevating influence of civil life, in other words, encrusted with the impervious lacquer of garrison life. When he left it, as we all know, every feature of West Point life, and especially its martial features, were softly illuminated by the inherent glow of scholarship: not mere technical scholarship, not the patchy stenciling of pedagogy, but that deeply reflecting scholarship which comes from a mingling of science and literature with idealism.

In giving expression to these reflections I trust that no officer on duty at the Academy or any graduate of late years will think that I am claiming any vanished ideals for old West Point, or that, as they look back, the new West Point will not be as dear to them, and they be as justly proud of it as I am of the dear old West Point. The change which I have indicated, the subordination of the Academic Board, is so fraught with danger that I could not refrain from sounding a note of warning. But on the other hand the Academic Board cannot, any more than the faculty of a University, stand still; in other words, it cannot blossom year by year and produce no fruit. What a cadet expects — and he and the country have a right to expect it — is that the professors shall have recognition for learning, not in the narrow but in the wide sense, commensurate with the fame of West Point.

To this end there should be created a professorship of literature and philosophy, with a general supervision of the course in English studies, with a provision in the act creating the chair, that it should be filled by a civilian of broad views and acknowledged ability, and, as prerequisites, a knowledge of the world and the quiet address of a scholar and a gentleman. It is with no little trepidation that I have offered advice and ventured to mount the steps of Admonition. But sometimes an observer out in the field, beyond the shadow of the oak, can see and judge of its health better than those who are beneath it; for as they look up, so deep and strong is the green that they do not see those limbs at the top torching with crimsoning leaves the approach of decay.

But to drop all that brings the old in contrast with the new, let me say that the most sober period in the life of old West Point was, I think, those last six or seven months of my stay there. For while to us the future was brightening like a dawn, to her it must have been gray and sober. Her sons were off undergoing the trials of war; on their conduct and their character as men and on their powers to do what she had taught them to do as soldiers and officers, all of her pride, and above everything else, the holy purposes of her aims, were at stake. She could do no more for them or for their country, and, like a mother whose sons had gone off into the world, she thought of them often. Thus, while our faces were free from care and lit up by the prospects, — graduation and then the wide stirring field of the war, — care, in the language of metaphor, was ploughing hers deeply.

Well, spring came, the elms around the plain and before the barracks leaved out and drooped, it seemed to me, with more benediction than ever; the horse chestnuts under which Pat O’Rorke had so patiently drilled me four years before, were abloom, and on the face of Crow Nest and on the brows of the hills the laurel was blooming too. Our trunks and outfit had come. Tiffany had our class rings ready, and one after another our final examinations were being held. We had attended the last service in the little chapel: the last look had been given to the picture over the chancel, where my eye had rested so often; the legend on the tablet, “Righteousness exalteth a nation but sin is a reproach to any people,” had proclaimed its last divine monition; and the touching hymn, “When shall we meet again ?” had been sung. From my place down in the body of the church I heard Bolles of my class, the tenor, leading the choir, and my eyes grow dim now as I recall the scene and think of him, for in less than a year he died.

At last the examinations are all over, it is the end of a beautiful June day, the 10th of 1862, and the drum is beating the first call to fall in for the last parade. I go to my room — it is on the second floor of the 5th division facing the area. I am living alone; and as I put on my uniform hat and side-arms — at the last parade the graduates who are privates do not carry their guns —the musket I have carried for four years, No. 144, knows that the parting day has come, and I hear it say, “Good-by, we have been friends; good-by.” “Yes, we have been friends indeed, old fellow, but I have not treated you as well as I should have done. I have never honored you by getting on the color line or by winning, and, above all, by retaining, chevrons. Except for four or five months you have been in the ranks on the shoulder of a private.” “Do not speak of it,” exclaims the old piece. “I have stood here in the rack and enjoyed hearing you and your friends talk and laugh, — I have often wished that I could give you some help when you have been trying to master your mathematics, and you will excuse me if I say that I do not believe you ever were intended to shine in that department.” “I know mighty well I was not.” “Let that be as it may,” continues the old gun, “we have had many a pleasant hour alone. For, as we walked the sentinel’s post under starlight and moonlight through the dead hours of the night, you always made a companion of me. I listened while you thought and sometimes talked aloud of your home, your sweetheart, and the days to come; and you listened, I sometimes thought, when I talked.” “Yes, I did listen, but your speech, like that of the trees and the grass, the clouds and the winds, — and from boyhood they have all talked to me, — was in a tongue I did not know; only a word now and then have I understood in your speech or in theirs, but that word made me see for a moment another world. Indirectly you have always spoken to me of uprightness, of duty, and of courage; you have done your share of mute teaching. I hope I may live worthily of you and my other teachers of West Point. Good-by.” And I have no doubt that, when the volleys of the Wilderness were thundering in my ear, No. 144 and the old bayonet bristled in the gun-rack when some of the shots came near me.

And now the companies are formed — the adjutant, sergeant-major, and markers are ready out in front for the band to strike up; the usual crowd of visitors that come from all parts of the country, young and old, a long line, have gathered under the elms to witness the ceremony, the last parade of the graduating class with the battalion. The sun is just going down, the shadowy deepen the green, in tranquillity the day is ending. The band strikes up. the adjutant steps out, his plume waving; the companies are called to attention, and soon are under way. On they go with perfect step, harmonious lines of crinkling white, and over them the polished bayonets shining in the last rays of the setting sun. Where does the world see a finer sight than when the companies are marching out to parade ? The color company wheels into line, its banner drooping proudly, and with movements of matchless precision, ease, and grace, one after another the companies come up into line. The commandant has taken his place, the adjutant completes the formation, the battalion is brought to parade rest, and the troop beats off. With royal strains the band moves out on its march dowm in front of the line, and with music still high and fine it returns to its place on the right of the battalion. And now there is a moment of silence; we all know what is coming, and our hearts are beating softly.

The leader gives the signal, and West Point for the first time and the only time opens its heart to the graduating class — the band is playing “Home, Sweet Home.” And, as almost tearfully its deeply affecting notes float over the battalion, there is a deep hush. Hearts are beating low and tenderly in the breasts of the boys who entered in 1858. Are they thinking of their old homes ? Oh, no, the days of their companionship are ending — in sunlight and shadow they have passed the four years together, they know each other well, and besides, there in the ranks are friends tried and true. Oh, heart, come to the window and let us hear the strains again.

The last tone dies away, the last roll of the drums is beating, the evening gun is fired, and the flag — some of whose stars as it hangs at the masthead are looking up to the sky and some looking down kindly, we feel sure, on the boys who in a few weeks thereafter will meet their gaze from parapets and lines of battles, while Crow Nest is echoing back the discharge of the evening gun — comes softly down. In due time, for the commandant puts the battalion through the manual and the orders are to be read, the adjutant approaches, gives the orders for the privates of the graduating class to join the officers’ line, and soon we are all marching up to the commandant. When we salute he lifts his hat, we lift ours, and he says, “I congratulate you, gentlemen.” We bow our thanks and with light hearts go back to barracks. On the following day, without ceremony, our diplomas were given, and orders to report in Washington on the 15th of July, where we were assigned to corps and regiments, and, save a very few, went at once to the field.

And now, dear old Alma Mater, Fountain of Truth, Hearth of Courage, Altar of Duty, Tabernacle of Honor, with a loyal and a grateful heart I have tried, as well as I could, to picture you as you were when you took me a mere boy, awkward and ignorant, and trained me for the high duties of an officer, unfolding from time to time views of those ever-enduring virtues that characterize the soldier, the Christian, and the gentleman. All that I am I owe to you. May the Keeper of all preserve you; not only for the sake of our country’s past glories and high destiny, but for the sake of the ideals of the soldier and the gentleman!

(The End.)

  1. See Pliny’s Letters, vol. 2, p. 286.
  2. Coleridge, Essay 11.