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Chapter 4: enters West Point.

Mr. Davis continued his autobiography by saying:

I passed my examination for admission to the senior class, and as it was so long ago I may say that I had taken an honor, when I received intelligence of the death of my father. He died on July 4, 1824, at the age of sixty-eight.

No son could have loved a father more tenderly. When Mr. Davis was thirty-nine, he came accidentally upon a letter of his father's which he tried to read aloud, but handed it over unread and left the room unable to speak. Below is a quaint, pitiful letter from the bereaved boy to his sister-in-law, after hearing of his father's death. The formal manner of the letter he retained as long as he lived.

Lexington, August 2, 1824.
Dear Sister:
It is gratifying to hear from a friend, especially one from whom I had not heard from so long as yourself, but the intelligence contained in yours was more than [33] sufficient to mar the satisfaction of hearing from anyone. You must imagine, I cannot describe, the shock my feelings sustained at the sad intelligence. In my father I lost a parent ever dear to me, but rendered more so (if possible) by the disasters that attended his declining years.

When I saw him last he told me we would probably never see each other again. Yet I still hoped to meet him once more, but Heaven has refused my wish. This is the second time I have been doomed to receive the heart-rending intelligence of the Death/ of a Friend. God only knows whether or not it will be the last. If all the dear friends of my childhood are to be torn from me, I care not how soon I may follow.

I leave in a short time for West Point, State of New York, where it will always give me pleasure to hear from you.

Kiss the children for Uncle Jeff. Present me affectionately to Brother Isaac; tell him I would be happy to hear from him; and to yourself the sincere regard of

My oldest brother, who then occupied to me much the relation of a parent, notified [34] me that he had received the news of my appointment as a cadet in the United States Military Academy; and, fearing the consequences of being graduated at the early age of seventeen, he insisted that I should proceed at once to West Point. Of course I disliked to go down from the head class of one institution to the lowest in another; but I yielded and went to West Point, to find that I was too late; that all the candidates had been admitted in June or the first of September; that the classes were engaged in their studies; and that the rule was absolute as to the time of admission. But Captain (afterward General) Hitchcock, then on duty in the Academy, had known my family when he was on recruiting duty in Natchez, and asked a special examination for me. Chance favored me. There was just then a Mr. Washington, who had been permitted, on account of his health, to leave the Academy for a year or two. He had gone to France, and, because of his name, had received the advantage of the Polytechnique. He had returned to find that his class had been graduated, and asked to be examined on the full course. The staff were in session examining Mr. Washington. This chance caused me also to be examined, and to be admitted out of rule.

As soon as permission was given to appear [35] before the staff, Captain Hitchcock came and told me that I would be examined, particularly in arithmetic. He asked, ‘ I suppose you have learned arithmetic?’ To which I had to answer in the negative. But I added that I had learned some algebra and some geometry, and also some application of algebra. He was quite alarmed, and went off and got me an arithmetic, telling me to study as much as I could of fractions and proportion. I had hardly commenced when an order came to bring me before the staff. The professor of mathematics asked me one or two questions in regard to vulgar fractions and the difference between vulgar and decimal fractions, which I knew enough algebra to answer, and then asked how, the three terms of a direct proportion being given, I would put the fourth. I answered that the proportion was that the fourth should bear to the third the relation that the second did to the first. ‘Certainly, certainly,’ he said, probably thinking that I knew a great deal more than I did. Then they requested me to read and to write; and as I did so legibly, the French professor was authorized to determine what section of French I was to be put in, and to examine me upon languages. To his gratification he learned that I read Greek, and launched into a discussion of some [36] questions as to the construction of Greek, with which he was so delighted that he kept on till the superintendent stopped him, and that broke up my examination.

Since that time I have never believed that an examination formed a very conclusive rule of decision upon the qualification of a person subjected to its test.

I had consented to go to the Academy for one year, and then to the University of Virginia, which was just beginning to attract attention in quarters remote from it.

But at the end of the year, for various reasons, I preferred to remain, and thus continued for four years, the time allotted to the course.

When graduated, as is the custom at West Point, we were made brevet second lieutenants, and I was assigned to the infantry, and, with others of the same class, ordered to report to the School of Practice at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, Mo.

When I entered the United States Military Academy at West Point that truly great and good man, Albert Sidney Johnston, had preceded me from Transylvania, Ky.; an incident which formed a link between us, and inaugurated a friendship which grew as years rolled by, strengthened by after associations in the army, and which remains to me yet, [37] a memory of one of the greatest and best characters I have ever known. His particular friend was Leonidas Polk, and when Johnston was adjutant of the corps Polk was the sergeant-major. They were my seniors in the Academy; but we belonged to the same ‘set,’ a name well understood by those who have been ground in the Academy mill.

Polk joined the Church from convictions produced, as I understood, from reading “Gregory's letters”--a noted religious work of that day — aided by the preaching of our eloquent and pious chaplain, who had subsequently a wide reputation as Bishop McIlvaine.

A word as to chaplain McIlvaine. In appearance and manner he seemed to belong to the pulpit, and he had a peculiar. power of voice rarely found elsewhere than on the stage. From its highest tones it would sink to a whisper, and yet be audible throughout the whole chapel. His sermons, according to the usage of his Church — the Episcopalian — were written beforehand; but, occasionally, he would burst forth in a grand tide of oratory, clearly unpremeditated, and more irresistible than it probably would have been had it been carefully written. For example: He was once preaching, and, just behind him, was visible the mountain pass through which the [38] Hudson flows, when a gathering storm was seen approaching West Point. That coming storm he wove into his sermon, so that the crash of one fitted into a great outburst of the other. They seemed to belong to one another — the sermon and the storm.

Among the cadets then and subsequently distinguished was Alexander D. Bache, the head of the first or graduating class, when I entered the Academy. He was a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, and, to the extraordinary genius of his grandfather, was added an elementary education in physical science. He had a power of demonstration beyond that of any man I ever heard; so much so that, by way of illustration, I have often stated that I believe he could explain the highest astronomical problems to any one of good understanding, if he would acknowledge at the beginning his entire ignorance and admit when he did not understand any point in the progress of the demonstration. He graduated at the head of his class in 1828. He resigned after a few years' service in the Engineer Corps of the army, became President of Girard College, and went abroad to study the European system of instruction.

After his return from Europe we met, and he told me that the thing which surprised him most was the system of the West Point [39] Academy, where any boy, regardless of his endowments or previous preparation, was required to learn the same things in the allotted time; and implied that, what astonished him most was that he should have gone through the Academy without even realizing that. In defence of the institution I reminded him that it was not intended for popular education, but to prepare as many as were required from year to year for appointments in the army; that, therefore, it might well be that one might have a genius for something not specially required of a soldier, and be unable to learn a thing that was needful. The consequence would be that he would have to carry his talents into some calling for which he was especially endowed.

To take this extraordinary genius for illustration, though he readily mastered every branch of the curriculum of the Military Academy, and would doubtless have been useful as an engineer in the army, his career as a civilian proved that another field was more peculiarly his, and that he could there render greater service to his country. In the year 1842, on the decease of Mr. Hasler, Professor Bache was appointed Superintendent of the Coast Survey, and introduced methods and established rules in regard to triangulation and deep-sea soundings which have given to [40] the American coast and sea border the best charts, I think, in existence, and which will remain for Bache an enduring monument. A great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin and grandson of Alexander Dallas, Secretary of State under Mr. Jefferson's administration, he seemed to have inherited the common-sense and the power to apply science to the utilities of life of the one, and the grace and knowledge of men possessed by the other.

In the succeeding class, the cadet who held the first place was William H. C. Bartlett, of Missouri. He is a man of such solid merit and exemption from pretensions that I am sure he will pardon me for stating in regard to him what may be a useful incentive to others under like embarrassments. The C in his name stands for Chambers, the Colonel of the First Infantry, who was interested in the boy and secured for him an appointment as cadet, when Chambers was gratefully added to his Christian name as a token of his obligation. His own preparation had been so small that, in addition to learning his lessons at night, he told me that he had to use a dictionary to find out the meaning of the words in the text, and an English grammar to teach him how to construct his sentences in demonstrations. Yet, despite these drawbacks, he led his class from first to last. [41]

After graduation he was assigned to the Corps of Engineers, and afterward was employed as Assistant Professor of Engineering in the Academy. After serving in the construction of several military works, he became Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy in the Military Academy, where he was growing old with insufficient compensation, and which post he resigned to accept the better pay of actuary in the Mutual Life Insurance Company.

In his conduct there was a total want of self-assertion, and a modesty which rendered him prone to believe that others possessed the same capacity as himself. For example, he offered me the last book he wrote on natural philosophy. With thanks I told him “it had more mathematics, no doubt, than I could master.” “ No,” he answered, “ you might say there are no mathematics in it.” And to him there seemed to be very little, because in a page he would have a little equation, easily decipherable to him, but involving a world of trouble to one of less knowledge and mathematical genius.

Here ended the dictation that, had my husband's life been spared, he intended to continue, giving a full and familiar history of his public and private life. While on his sick-bed he told me, “I have not told what I wish to [42] say of my classmates Sidney Johnston and Polk. I have much more to say of them. I shall tell a great deal of West Point, and I seem to remember more every day.”

Full of loving memories of the friends of his youth, intent, rather on doing justice to them than telling of his own exploits, he went to join them. Now their united labors have met their reward. The glory they so well earned will never fade.

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