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Chapter 64: superintendent of the United States military Academy; commanding Department of the Platte, Omaha, Neb.

A serious trouble had occurred at the Military Academy on account of a colored cadet, Whittaker, who had been injured, so he asserted, by young men hazing him. He had been previously so badly treated that it was not unnatural to suppose that it had finally culminated in doing him a physical injury. Whittaker claimed that this was the case and that he had been bound and maltreated. Those who were opposed to him said that he had injured himself and then tied himself up afterwards, and made complaint with a view to revenging himself upon his enemies. This was the contention. A court of inquiry had been held at West Point the result of which had not been at all satisfactory. The incident had caused a great deal of public comment in the newspapers, and sharp excitement for and against the colored cadet.

President Hayes had an idea that I was the proper man to settle such a case. For other reasons also the President wished to assign me to command the Military Academy. I knew nothing of these reasons when suddenly I received orders, near the close of 1880, to proceed to West Point, and as superintendent of the Military Academy take command there.

When we reached Chicago the cold was intense. The thermometer registered thirty degrees below zero. [486] A colored man unknown to me, who was driving the carriage from the station to the hotel, seized a buffalo coat and put it over my shoulders, but my son John, who was then a lad of fourteen, was not sufficiently covered and took a severe cold which in the end resulted in an attack of pneumonia that nearly cost him his life.

Cold like that seemed to be a positive quantity and not simply the absence of heat, and when it does take hold even of a healthy child, it is apt to make its mark upon him for life.

I went to Washington before I entered upon my duties at West Point. The President laid the case of Whittaker, the colored cadet, before me, and asked me what I would advise. I said at once that I should advise taking the case away from West Point, where the social prejudice was strong against a negro cadet. I suggested the yielding to his desire to have a regular court-martial and to locate the court in New York.

Whittaker had an able lawyer, a young colored man by the name of Greener, who was defending him and who was very strongly of the opinion that Whittaker was innocent of any attempt at fraud or deceit. The case was tried in New York as I recommended, and the young man was pronounced guilty of doing himself the injuries in view of putting his cadet comrades in a bad light. He was convicted and sentenced to be discharged the service. On review the President, permitting the young man to tender his resignation, remitted the sentence. After a few weeks the ugly excitement that grew out of this event disappeared altogether.

I went to the Military Academy and assumed command, [487] and was the superintendent for the two years 1881-82.

I found it the hardest office to fill that I had ever had. There is a beautiful outside to the Military Academy: everything goes on with regularity and order, and every professor and assistant professor and officer does his duty as fully as any officer in the service, but I found at that time a social undercurrent that was not so pleasant, and that the superintendent had something to do besides the ordinary work of commanding a department. A majority of the officers were strongly opposed to its remaining a department. They in general wanted to get it back to where it was, under the charge of the engineers of the army with an engineer officer as superintendent. Indeed, there was extraordinary fretting when the first general officer was assigned. I was the fourth. The opposition had gathered strength with time. It was not open, but secret, and consisted in correspondence with the War Department, with the head of the army, and with all officers who had in Washington anything to do with the Military Academy.

There had always been opposition to the change, and perhaps it was well that, ending with my administration, the Military Academy, which consisted of the corps of cadets and other organizations, with all the population of the reservation, should again be put under charge of an officer of lower rank than myself, and cease forever to be a military department. In fact, it requires less machinery and perhaps more direct responsibility on the part of the superintendent, who could have no other help than the academic staff proper.

One change I had made that gave me a good deal [488] of satisfaction. It was with the chaplain, that he might come into more immediate contact with the cadets, and that they should have the privilege of going directly to him at all times. To this end he was given rooms in the cadet barracks, and there he invited the confidence of the cadets.

The meetings for social religious exercises had been retained ever since I had established them before the war.

Another change which caused me a good deal of heartache was to do away with the system that had been in vogue so long at the mess hall, of treating the cadets to very indifferent fare and reasoning that they ought to be kept to the rations of the enlisted men. In fact, the rations of the men at the different posts in the army in the time of peace had been improved by their company gardens, by their sale of bread, and by other means until they were far ahead of the cadet mess. True, the cadets had a garden, but in some way everything touching their food was unsatisfactory to them. I recommended that the veteran purveyor of the mess be retired, and properly paid, and that an officer, William F. Spurgin, be detailed in his place, and have the whole charge of the cadets' commissary, garden, and mess hall. I had had a long experience with Spurgin in the West and knew what he could do. He came and took hold of the work as nobody had ever done before. His efforts were so productive of good results that the cadets very soon called him “General Spurgin.” His theory was to give them the best possible of everything, and while he improved their table extraordinarily, he managed to diminish and not increase the expenses.

I found again that the windows of what we used to [489] call “The New Barracks,” having small diamond panes of glass, brought so little light into the cadets' rooms, that it was positively injurious to their eyes. It was not long before I had those properly replaced by good windows with large panes.

When I first reached the Military Academy, owing to a few things in the previous administration in which the general officer had striven to give the cadets more and more privileges with a view of relieving as much as possible the great severity of what had been called “the West Point system” of merit and demerit, the cadets had not realized what was being done for them, and were not appreciative of the favorable changes enjoyed; these they could not comprehend as well as the officers who had been there before. Boylike, on several occasions they showed themselves careless of their privileges, and taking advantage of the relaxation of discipline did several mischievous things.

On one holiday, for example, they brought in the night a cannon and a cow into a tower of one of the buildings; and the next morning a cow's head was seen out of the window of an upper story.

Immediately, of course, there was an investigation, but the cadets would not betray each other, so that the mischief makers were unknown to the authorities. At once there was a resumption of the old severe discipline, and, in fact, it was increased so that after going into barracks cadets were required, contrary to usage, to walk post as sentries all night in the barrack halls; commissioned instructors were ordered to live in the barracks so that every division should have at least one army officer constantly on the watch to supervise and report delinquencies.

What resulted from this sudden severity, indicated [490] by the cases I have given, affected the character of the corps. I found young men who happened to be seen off limits running to cover, skulking, and hiding behind logs. It seemed to be just the thing to do to avoid an officer and deceive him, and break the regulations without scruple.

On February 22d, after I took command, I gave an address to the corps of cadets upon the character of Washington, and showed them plainly what I thought of the conduct described, and I told them how much ashamed their friends were of this evident want of manliness.

I said further, that I proposed to relieve them of the stringency that had been put upon them. The guards would be as they formerly were, and-taken off at ten o'clock at night; the instructors should take up their quarters elsewhere, and no officer be allowed to report them from behind windows and sheltered places. I wished them to respond to this leniency by their courage and manliness, and I was going to trust them, as cadets had always been trusted. The response was immediate, and I never had cause to regret this method of effecting the change.

I studied very hard while superintendent to relieve the overpressure of “the West Point system,” particularly of the demerit part, but was never able myself to bring about any considerable change. There is no relief from its severity except in the kindness of the officers who are in charge.

I cannot help thinking that better results would be obtained at West Point and Annapolis by any system that leans strongly to trusting the young men. This is found to be the case in colleges and universities [491] where there is no demerit roll kept and no daily public cation of delinquencies.

Those who favor the West Point system, however, claim that there are no nobler men produced than there. That may be true, yet the production of manliness may be due to something else than the terror that is constantly experienced when a young man is listening for his name at every evening roll call.

I did, indeed, save quite a number of young men to the Military Academy who would have been dismissed for having exceeded the allowed demerits, by having them write excuses and so reduce the number within the appointed limit. Some of these young men are today the noblest and ablest we have in public service.

In the fall of 1882 I was ordered to take command of the Department of the Platte, with headquarters at Omaha, Neb. That department consisted of Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and a part of Idaho. The Platte River, formed by a great many smaller streams, which is very broad near its mouth, has a long run from the Rocky Mountains to the Missouri, and the greater portion of it is within the limits of that military department denominated “The Platte.”

This department has to do with various Indian tribes and reservations, and the military posts were located with a view to looking after them. There was already danger of an outbreak from the Sioux at the Rosebud Agency, situated just north of Nebraska, and at the Pine Ridge Agency farther to the west in the territory of Dakota.

In the latter part of my stay in the Department of the Platte there were mining operations quite a distance beyond Fort Steele at Rock Springs and Evanston, Wyo. A large camp of Chinamen was located at [492] Rock Springs by the owner of the mines; they were working quietly and faithfully when they were attacked by a body of men who purported to be American miners-really foreigners themselves. These Chinamen were driven out of their homes and large numbers of them were maltreated; several of them were killed. The riot was so serious that I sent troops to the spot who built themselves small huts, and, to keep the peace and assert the authority of the Government, remained there several months. On apprehension of trouble at Evanston, I sent a detachment of soldiers there also.

This was about the beginning of the outrages against the Chinese laborers which were also going on along the Pacific coast from the British line to the southern part of California. The effort was so continuous and systematic and carried out with such persistency that it could not have been merely accidental. I have recently understood that a secret association hostile to Chinese laborers was mainly responsible for these apparent riots, for the driving out of. the Chinese, and for the subsequent enthusiasm for what is known as the Chinese Exclusion Law.

The National Park was within the limits of my department and at one time I had to send troops there to preserve order and to help the engineers as far as practicable in their surveys and in the carrying out of the contracts that resulted from them. I visited the National Park when in command of the Department of the Platte three times; once passing across the country from the Union Pacific Railroad to Washakie and thence to the Park, going most of the way with a pack train and saddle horses.

I had the opportunity of being present at the Rosebud [493] Agency and seeing the peculiar dances of the Sioux Indians gathered there, and later to attend the exercise of the sun dance. After that experience I took measures to prevent excesses in the Indians' warlike dances, and particularly in the sun dance, which is regarded by them as a peaceful, though cruel, settlement of difficulties. I use the word cruel, though the severe injuries received by the Indians were selfinflicted.

This department, like that of the Columbia, covered much territory, with as many posts to visit; restless Indians here also had to be watched; so that my time was principally consumed by public duty.

On February 14, 1884, my son Guy married Jeanie, daughter of Hon. James M. Woolworth, of Omaha. They have had two children, Helen, and Otis Woolworth Howard.

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