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Chapter XXIV

  • Superintendent at West Point
  • -- General Sherman's ulterior reasons for the appointment -- origin of the ‘Department of West Point’ -- case of the colored Cadet Whittaker -- a proposed removal for political effect -- General Terry's friendly attitude -- a Muddle of New commands -- waiting orders, and a visit to Europe -- again in command in the West -- the establishment of Fort Sheridan at Chicago.

in the centennial year, 1876, I committed the mistake of my life by consenting, in deference to the opinions and wishes of my superiors and in opposition to my own judgment and interests, to give up the command of a military division appropriate to my rank of major-general, and accept a position which by law and custom was appropriate to the rank of colonel. The following extracts from correspondence will sufficiently explain the reasons for this extraordinary action, and the assurances which induced it:


Washington, D. C., March 28, 1876.
General John M. Schofield, San Francisco, California:
Will you accept the superintendency of the military academy at West Point? I advise it. Your rank and history will elevate it and solve all trouble. Admiral Porter's example at Annapolis is suggested as precedent. The President, Secretary Taft, and I are unanimous on the wisdom and propriety of it. [440] Advise me of your decision as early as you can—certainly this week. You will be subject to no supervision except by the usual board of visitors and the general commanding the army.

W. T. Sherman, General.


I appreciate the importance of the superintendency of the academy, and the compliment paid me by the President, Secretary of War, and yourself in desiring me to accept it. Under the circumstances I cannot decline. . . .

J. M. Schofield, Major-General.


Headquarters of the army, Washington, D. C., March 30, 1876.
General J. M. Schofield, San Francisco, California:
Despatch received, and am much pleased; think you can add new luster to the old academy. It has always needed a head with rank and experience, and now I am sure that the whole country will be satisfied. . . . I am not yet resolved on my own course of action, but will be governed by events to occur in this week.

W. T. Sherman, General.

headquarters Mil. Div. Of the Pacific, San Francisco, Cal., March 30, 1876.
General Sherman, etc., Washington, D. C.
my dear General: I was not taken entirely by surprise by your despatch relative to the West Point superintendency. General Grant mentioned the subject to me soon after the war, and army officers since that time have spoken of it often enough to keep me in mind of the fact that I might some time be called upon to assume that responsibility. Yet it is with a strong feeling of reluctance that I have brought myself to regard [441] it as a thing to be done. This feeling results from several causes, which I desire to explain to you, while I know you will give me credit for a desire to do what appears best for the public service, and satisfactory to all concerned, without too much concern for my own personal preferences.

In the first place, I have no little doubt of the possession of any special fitness for that position, and have pretty strong appreciation of its difficulties and importance. I do not feel at all confident that the flattering expectations of my friends will be realized from my management of the academy.

I have been there enough to know pretty well how difficult a post that of superintendent is, and how varied the good qualities a man ought to possess to fit him in all respects for it.

Rank and reputation will of course be of some assistance, but their good effect will be greatly impaired without the dignity of command belonging to them. To transfer an officer of rank from a high command and post of great responsibility and trust to one heretofore regarded as appropriate to an inferior grade, may be regarded as elevating the dignity of the new command, but looks much more like degrading the officer, and to that extent impairs the good effect desired to be produced. Besides, it is impossible for any officer not to feel that in taking such inferior command, although it is even for the avowed purpose of raising its dignity, that he is stooping to do so. Especially must both these effects be produced when the assignment is only an executive act. If it was done in pursuance of law, the case would be materially different. . . .

We were all delighted at the news of your return to Washington and the prospect of your restoration to the proper duties and authority of general of the army; and I sincerely hope the events to occur this week, alluded to in your telegram to-day, may be such as to justify you in taking the course universally desired by the army. We want our general where he can best look after all the interests of the military service, with power to command the army in fact as well as in name.

I have read with the greatest pleasure your capital speech to the Knights of St. Patrick.

Please present my respectful compliments to the Secretary of War, and my kindest regards to the President.

I am, dear General, as ever, truly yours,


During the Civil War the demand for the services in the field of the most capable officers had, as was generally understood, been prejudicial to the interests of the military academy; and this continued some time after the close of the war, in consequence of the unusual increase of rank of those officers who were known to be fitted in all respects for the head of that institution. This difficulty was increased by the very unreasonable notion that because the law had opened the academy to the line of the army, the superintendent must necessarily be taken from the line, and not from the corps of engineers, although the latter contained many officers of appropriate rank who had then added to their high scientific ability and attainments distinguished services in the field. Even in the line, officers were not wanting of appropriate rank, character, ability, education, and experience to qualify them for the duties of superintendent. For example, my immediate predecessor, Major-General Thomas H. Ruger, then a colonel of infantry, was in all respects highly qualified for that office; and when I relieved him I found the academy in about the same state of efficiency which had characterized it before the war. There was, in fact, at that time little, if any, foundation for the assumption that the interests of the military academy required the assignment of any officer of higher rank than colonel to duty as superintendent of the academy. Of course I did not know this before I went there, and it was a matter for the judgment of my superiors, whose duty, and not mine, it was to know the facts.

But General Sherman had other reasons, some of them very cogent in his own estimation at least, for desiring my presence somewhere in the Eastern States; and the West Point ‘detail’ was the only way in which that could readily be brought about. He had just been restored, or was about to be, to the actual command of the [443] army, after having been practically suspended from command a long time because of his differences with the Secretary of War. He desired especially to bring the military academy under his command, and appears to have been assured of President Grant's support in that regard. General Sherman also wished me to revise the army regulations, so as to incorporate the theory of relation between the administration and the command which he and General Grant had maintained as the true one, but which had generally, if not always, been opposed by the Secretaries of War and by the chiefs of staff departments. These were doubtless the principal reasons for General Sherman's anxiety to have me accept the assignment to West Point. But very soon after my arrival in the East I found that I was also expected to preside over a board of review in the case of General Fitz-John Porter and in that of Surgeon-General William A. Hammond; and that my junior in rank, MajorGen-eral Irvin McDowell, could not be given a command appropriate to his rank unless it was the division which I had consented to vacate. Of course I could not but feel complimented by this indication that my superiors thought me capable of doing well so many things at once, nor yet could I fail to see that, after all, my care of West Point had not been considered of so vital importance, since it would not interfere with the all-important revision of the army regulations, and the retrial of Porter and Hammond.

But I had given my consent, though under erroneous impressions as to the reasons and necessity, to what my superiors desired, and hence determined to keep my thoughts to myself so long as the promises made by General Sherman were fulfilled. But I had hardly got settled in the academic chair before I received a great affront from the Secretary of War, through the adjutantgeneral of the army, in direct violation of General Sherman's [444] promise that I should ‘be subject to no supervision except by the usual board of visitors and the general commanding the army.’ This offensive action arose not simply from ignorance of General Sherman's promise, of which the adjutant-general and the Secretary of War had evidently not been informed, but from culpable ignorance of the academic regulations on the part of the adjutant-general, and still more culpable disregard of the invariable rule of courtesy enjoined by military law among military men. With no little difficulty I restrained my indignation so far as to write a calm and respectful letter to the Secretary of War, inclosing a copy of my correspondence with General Sherman respecting my command at West Point, and pointing out the regulation which he or the adjutant-general had ignored, and requesting him to submit the whole matter to the President. It is due to the Honorable Secretary, and is a pleasure to me, to say that he did not wait the slow course of the mail, but telegraphed me at once that it was all a mistake, and that he made all the amend that a gentleman could make under the circumstances. He as well as I had been made the victim of the ignorance and discourtesy of a staff officer, in a matter about which the Secretary of War could of necessity know nothing unless the staff officer informed him. But I was determined to guard against any such outrage in future, and hence insisted that West Point be erected into a military department. By this means I would become entitled to the effective intervention and protection of the general of the army. This is the origin of that anomaly which must have puzzled many military men, namely, the ‘Department of West Point.’

But I discovered in time that even this safeguard was by no means sufficient. I had some apprehension on this subject at the start, and telegraphed General Sherman [445] about it; but his answer of May 25 was accepted as sufficiently reassuring. Indeed it could hardly have been imagined that a President of the United States would disregard an honorable obligation incurred by his predecessor; but before I got through with that matter I was enlightened on that point.

In the spring of 1880 there arose great public excitement over the case of the one colored cadet then at West Point. This cadet, whose name was Whittaker, had twice been found deficient in studies, and recommended by the academic board for dismissal; but had been saved therefrom by me, in my perhaps too strong desire to give the young colored man all possible chance of ultimate success, however unwise his appointment to the military academy might have been. As was stated by me at the time, in my report of the case to the War Department, that second and unusual indulgence was based upon the fact that he was the only representative of his race then at the academy. Being again, for the third time, in danger of dismissal, that colored cadet, either by his own hands, or by others with his consent (of which he was finally convicted by a general court-martial), was bound hand and foot and mutilated in such manner as, while doing him no material injury, to create a suspicion of foul play on the part of other cadets. An official investigation by the commandant, Colonel Henry M. Lazelle, led him to the conclusion that the other cadets had no knowledge whatever of the outrage, and that the colored cadet himself was guilty. Not being fully satisfied with that conclusion, I appointed a court of inquiry to investigate the matter more thoroughly. The result of that investigation fully sustained the finding of Colonel Lazelle, that the colored cadet himself was the guilty person.

But those judicial conclusions did not suffice to allay the public clamor for protection to the recently emancipated [446] negroes in the enjoyment of privileges in the national institutions for which they had not become either mentally or morally fitted. A presidential election was pending, and the colored vote and that in sympathy with it demanded assurance of the hearty and effective support of the national administration. Nothing less than a radical change at West Point would satisfy that demand, and who could be a more appropriate victim to offer as a sacrifice to that Moloch than one who had already gone beyond the limits of duty, of justice, and of wisdom in his kind treatment of the colored cadet? It was decided in Washington that he, the over-kind superintendent himself, should be sacrificed to that partizan clamor before the coming election. Some rumor of this purpose had reached me, though it had been concealed from General Sherman, who assured me that no such purpose existed.

In General Sherman's absence, General Alfred H. Terry was chosen to succeed me. He came to West Point, August 14, for the purpose of learning from me in person the truth as to the assertion made to him that the proposition to relieve me from duty at West Point was in accord with my own wishes. When informed, as he had suspected, that I could not possibly have expressed any such wish under the circumstances then existing, he positively refused, like the honorable man that he was, to be made a party to any such act of wrong. There was not the slightest foundation in fact for the assumption that my relief from command could be based upon my own request, and no such reason could have been given in an order relieving me. That assumption could have had no other apparent motive than to induce my warm friend General Terry to accept the appointment. As soon as he learned the truth from me, General Terry went to Washington and exposed the falsehood of which he and I together were the intended victims. This [447] action of a true friend, and the correspondence which had passed between General Sherman and me, sufficed to prevent the consummation of the wrong which had been contemplated.

After the presidential election was over, and partizan passion had subsided, I made a formal application, November 12, 1880, to be relieved from duty at West Point on or before the first of May following, and to be permitted to await orders until an appropriate command became vacant. I repeatedly expressed my desire that none of my brother officers should be disturbed in their commands on my account, and that no new command should be created for me. I was entirely content to await the ordinary course of events, in view of pending legislation relative to retirements for age, and of retirements which might be made under the laws then existing.

My relief from West Point was effected earlier than General Sherman or I had anticipated. Before the end of 1880 the following correspondence passed between me and the general of the army:


headquarters, army of the United States, Washington, D. C., December 13, 1880.
General J. M. Schofield, West Point, New York.
dear General: General Drum has just shown me the memorandum for orders. The President has worked out this scheme himself, without asking my help, and I am glad of it, for I would not like to burden my conscience with such a bungle.

He creates a new department out of Louisiana, Arkansas, and the Indian Territory, to be commanded by the senior officer present. . . .

You are to command the Department of Texas and this new department, called a division, of what name I don't know.

Howard is to replace you at West Point. I suppose the order will issue at once.

Yours truly,


my dear General: I have received your confidential letter of yesterday, informing me of the bungling scheme which has been worked out without your help. I presume it would be fruitless to attempt any opposition to the species of mania which manifests itself in such action. It may be best to let it run its course during the short time which must yet elapse until a reign of reason is again inaugurated with the incoming administration. But it occurs to me that you may be able to save the useless expense to the government and the great inconvenience and expense to staff officers which would necessarily result from the organization of a division which could only last for a few months. To me personally it is a matter of little moment; but not so with the staff officers and the military appropriations. I am not willing to have such a thing done, even apparently, on my account. Please advise what official action, if any, should be taken by me in this matter. Personally I am perfectly ready to obey the President's order, without a word of protest; but I am not willing to be the occasion of manifest injury to the public service, and of useless inconvenience and expense to the officers of the general staff who must be assigned to the headquarters of the new division.

Very truly yours,

But the public interests, and my desire to make my own entirely subservient thereto, were alike disregarded. A new division was carved out of the three old ones, in violation of the plainest dictates of military principles. The government was subjected to a worse than useless expense of many thousands of dollars, and a number of staff officers to like useless expense and trouble. For all this there was no other apparent motive but to make it appear that there were appropriate commands for all the major-generals then in active service, and hence no reason for placing any one of them on the retired list. As a part of that scheme, one of the most active brigadier-generals, younger than one of the major-generals, was selected instead [449] of the latter to make way for an aspirant having greater ‘influence.’ The correspondence of that period shows the indignation felt in the army at such disregard of the just claims of officers and of the interests of the military service. Neither General Sherman nor any of the several higher officers at that time could hope to derive any advantage from the passage of the act of Congress, then pending, to retire all officers at a fixed age. On the contrary, such a law would most probably cut them off when in the full prime of activity and usefulness. But all were more than willing to accept that rather than still be in a position to be arbitrarily cut off to make place for some over-ambitious aspirant possessed of greater influence, of whatever kind. I know perfectly well that General Sherman was governed by a generous desire to give General Sheridan command of the army for a number of years, while the latter was still in the prime of life. But that he could have done, and had announced his intention to do, by requesting to be relieved from the command and permitted to await the President's orders, performing such duties, from time to time, as the President might desire of him. Such a status of high officers of great experience, whose inspections, observations, and advice might be of great value to the President and to the War Department, would manifestly have been far better for the country than that of total retirement, which deprives the President of any right to call upon them for any service whatever, even in an emergency. This was one of the subjects of correspondence between General Sherman and me while I was in Europe in 1881-2. But it was finally agreed by all concerned that it would be best to favor the uniform application of the rule of retirement for age, so that all might be assured, as far as possible, of a time, to which they might look forward with certainty, when they would be relieved from further apprehension of treatment which [450] no soldier can justly characterize without apparent disrespect to his official superior.

Such treatment is indeed uncommon. The conduct of the commander-in-chief of the army toward his subordinates has been generally kind and considerate in this country. But the few opposite examples have been quite enough to cloud the life of every officer of high rank with the constant apprehension of an insult which he could neither submit to nor resent.

Soon after the inauguration of President Garfield, the ‘Division of the Gulf’ was broken up, and I was permitted to visit Europe, as I had requested in the preceding November, until the President should be pleased to assign me to a command according to my rank.


Washington, D. C., May 3, 1881.
General J. M. Schofield, Commanding Division, New Orleans, La.:
In case the President will repeal the orders creating the new division and department, and agree to give you the Division of the Pacific in a year, will you be willing to take your leave to go abroad meantime? Telegraph me fully and frankly for use.

W. T. Sherman, General.

(Telegram—9:30 P. M.)

Headqrs. Mil. Div. of the Gulf, New Orleans, La., May 3, 1881.
General W. T. Sherman, Washington, D. C.:
Your telegram of this date just received. I am debarred, by a promise made to General McDowell about two years and a half ago, from making any condition affecting his command of the Division of the Pacific. If I am to displace him, it must be without regard to any wish of mine. If it is the purpose of the President to assign me to that command in a year, I would like to go abroad in the meantime, as it would not be convenient to go afterward, though I would prefer to go next year rather than [451] this. But I cannot afford to go on leave with reduced pay. If it is not found practicable to give me a command according to my rank, and so organized as to benefit rather than injure the military service, I am willing to await orders for a year without reduction of pay.

This is substantially the proposition I made in my application to be relieved from duty at West Point; and I am still willing to abide by it, although my wishes were then disregarded, if it will relieve the present administration from embarrassment. But I would much prefer to have a proper command. . . .

J. M. Schofield, Maj.-Gen.


Washington, D. C., May 5, 1881.
General J. M. Schofield, Commanding Division, New Orleans, La.:
Your despatch of the third was duly received, and a copy thereof laid before the Secretary of War, who has received the orders of the President to repeal all parts of General Orders, No. 84, of December 18, 1880, which refer to the Division of the Gulf and Department of Arkansas, restoring the status quo before that order was made. You will be placed on waiting orders, with full pay, till further orders of the President. You may take action accordingly.

W. T. Sherman, General.

My stay in Europe—from May, 1881, to May, 1882— was marked by only one incident of special military interest. Under orders of the War Department, upon invitation from the government of France, I witnessed the autumn maneuvers of the Twelfth Corps of the French army at and about Limoges. A few other officers of our army, and many from other countries, enjoyed the same privilege. The operations, which were interesting and instructive, culminated in an assault upon and the capture of Limoges. The next day the corps was reviewed in the streets of the city. The general-in-chief and his staff and suite rode along the line at full speed. The head of [452] the cavalcade, consisting of the French and American generals, and a few other officers of high rank, came out in good order. The others were much disordered, and so covered with dust that the uniforms of all nations looked very much alike. The ceremony was terminated at the public square, where the cavalry was formed along one side, and the opposite was occupied by high officials and prominent citizens of the town. The charge of the squadrons across the square, halting at command within a few feet of the reviewing general, was a fine exhibition of discipline and perfect control.

After the review the general-in-chief made a long address to his assembled officers, explaining in much detail the important lessons taught by the maneuvers. He closed with a feeling allusion to his own mental and physical strength and vigor, which had been so fully displayed in the last few days, and which were still at the service of his beloved France. But the gallant old soldier was retired, all the same, at the end of the year. Republics seem to have much the same way of doing things on both sides of the ocean!

A pleasing incident occurred at one time during the maneuvers. At the hour of halt for the midday rest a delicious repast was served at the beautiful home of the prefect of the department, between the two opposing lines. The tables were spread in lovely arbors loaded with grapes. When the dejeuner was ended, speeches were made by the distinguished prefect and the gallant general-in-chief, to which, as senior of the visiting officers from foreign countries, I was called upon to respond. Thus suddenly summoned to an unwonted task, I was much too prudent to address the guests in a language which they all understood. But by a free use of those words and phrases which are so common in the military language of France and of this country, linked together by as little Anglo-Saxon as possible, I made a [453] speech which was warmly received, and which, after careful revision with the aid of a highly accomplished French officer who had been educated in England as well as in France, was made to appear pretty well when printed in both languages.

The charming hospitality of the general-in-chief of the Twelfth Army Corps and of the prefect of Limoges, with all the other incidents of the autumn maneuvers of 1881, are an ever fresh and pleasant memory, with the many other recollections of beautiful France under the empire and under the republic.

According to the understanding expressed in my correspondence with General Sherman of May 3, 1881, I returned from Europe at the end of a year, and reported for duty. But in the meantime President Garfield had been assassinated, and the bill then pending in Congress providing for the retirement of all officers at a fixed age was amended so as to make that age sixty-four years instead of sixty-two. Hence I continued to wait without protest until the retirement of my junior in rank, the next autumn, for the fulfilment of General Sherman's assurance conveyed in his despatch of May 25, 1876: ‘If any hitch occurs at any future time, you can resume your present or some command due your rank.’ Although this long suspension from command was very annoying, I had the satisfaction of knowing that none of my brother officers had been disturbed on my account.

In the fall of 1882, I was again assigned to the command of the Division of the Pacific, awaiting the time of General Sherman's retirement under the law and the succession of General Sheridan to the command of the army. Nothing of special interest occurred in that interval. In 1883 I succeeded to the command of the Division of the Missouri, with headquarters at Chicago. One of the first and most important subjects which impressed themselves upon my attention after the generous [454] reception and banquet given by the citizens of that hospitable city, was the necessity for a military post near that place. The location of Chicago makes it the most important strategical center of the entire northern frontier. It is also the most important center of interstate commerce and transportation anywhere in the country. Yet in 1883 there were no troops nearer than St. Paul, Omaha, and Leavenworth. At the time of the railroad strikes in 1877, troops had been brought there in time to render the necessary service, but no thought appears to have been given to the necessity of better provision for the future.

There had been in early times a military reservation at the mouth of the Chicago River, on which old Fort Dearborn was located. But that had become far too valuable to be retained for military use, and no longer suitable for a military post, being in the heart of a great city. Hence it had passed out of the hands of the government. Upon consultation with Senator Logan and a few others, it was not thought possible to obtain from Congress the large sum of money necessary to buy ground for a post near Chicago; but that if the United States owned the ground, the appropriations to build a post could readily be obtained. Hence the subject was mentioned to a few prominent citizens, with the suggestion that a site be purchased by subscription and presented to the United States. I was soon invited to meet the Commercial Club at one of their monthly dinners, where the matter was fully discussed. At another meeting, some time later, it was made the special subject for consideration, and this resulted in the organization of the plan to raise the money and purchase the ground. All the eligible sites were examined, the prices obtained, and the purchase-money pledged. Then the proposition was submitted to the War Department and approved. General Sheridan was sent out to select the best of the [455] sites offered, and his choice fell on that which all, I believe, had esteemed the best, though the most expensive—a beautiful tract of land of about six hundred acres, situated on the shore of Lake Michigan twenty-five miles north of Chicago. The cost was nothing to the broadminded and far-sighted men of that city. The munificent gift was accepted by Congress, and appropriations were made for the finest military post in the country. It was appropriately named Fort Sheridan, not only in recognition of the great services the general had rendered to the country, but as a special and graceful recognition of the services he had rendered Chicago in the time of her sorest need.

During my brief service—two years and some months—in the Division of the Missouri, I traveled many thousands of miles, and visited nearly all parts of that vast territory, from the Canadian line to the Gulf of Mexico, some of which was then new to me, attending to the ordinary routine duties of a time of comparative peace. Nothing else occurred at all comparable in importance, in my judgment, to the establishment of the post of Fort Sheridan.

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