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Chapter 2: the cadet.

In 1841, the Hon. Samuel Hays was elected delegate, from the district to which Lewis County belonged, to the Congress of the United States. During his term, the place of cadet in the military academy at West Point became vacant. This famous school was founded and sustained by the Federal Government, and contained as many pupils as there were Congressional districts. These were treated as soldiers in garrison from the time they entered, and not only instructed and drilled, but fed, clothed, and paid by the public. The appointments were made by the Secretary of War, upon the nomination of the member of Congress, representing the district from which the application came. It may be easily comprehended that his recommendation was usually potential. As the scientific education given was thorough, and nearly the whole expense was borne by the Government, the place was much sought by the sons of the most prominent citizens. Mr. Hays, upon consultation with judicious friends, had given the nomination to a fatherless youth, of sprightly mind and good habits, whom his neighbors desired to help upward in the world. He had been appointed, had gone to West Point, and upon observing the condition of the cadets from without, had concluded that the restraints and military discipline of the place would be too irksome for his tastes. He therefore left the village with. [30] out reporting to the authorities of the school, and returned home to resign his appointment. This occurred in the summer of 1842. The self-indulgence of this youth, and the contrasted energy and hardihood of Jackson, bore fruits which may well be pondered by every young man. The former was consigned, by the rejection of the providential occasion for self-improvement, to a decent mediocrity, from which his name has never been sounded by the voice of fame. The latter, by his manly decision, made of the same opportunity “a tide, which, taken at the flood, led on to fortune.” There was then living in the village of Weston a German smith, one of those neighborly, ingenious, gossiping men, who are as busy in discussing their neighbors' affairs as in repairing their implements of labor. Just at the time when the young man who has been mentioned returned to the country, relinquishing his West Point nomination, it so chanced that Cummins Jackson had occasion to go to this smith, for the repair of some of the machinery of his mill. The good man said to him, informing him of the indiscretion of his young neighbor, “Here now is a chance for Tom Jackson, as he is so anxious for an education.” The uncle replied that, on his return home that evening, he would mention it to Thomas, and recommend him to seek the appointment. When he did so, the young man caught eagerly at it; and the result was that the next morning he went to Weston, and applied to his influential friends for their support in an application to the Honorable Mr. Hays, then in Washington. All had known his industry, his integrity, and his honorable aspirations. All sympathized warmly with him in the latter. Nearly every prominent person connected with the courts of the place concurred in his testimonial. To one gentleman, a lawyer of influence, and a connection of his family, he resorted for a more confidential letter. This person asked [31] him if he did not fear that his present education was too scanty to enable him to enter the military academy, or to sustain himself there. His countenance sank with mortification for a moment, then raising his head, he said, with a look of determination, “I know that I shall have the application necessary to succeed; I hope that I have the capacity; at least I am determined to try, and I wish you to help me to do this.” The letter was written, with a hearty commendation of his claims to Mr. Hays, and a full description of his courageous spirit. These letters were despatched to Washington; and, meantime, Thomas applied himself diligently to reviewing his studies for entrance into the academy, under the gratuitous teaching of a lawyer of Weston, Mr. (afterwards Judge) Edmiston. In due time a reply came from Mr. Hays, promising to use his influence in his favor. Some one then suggested, that as the session at West Point had commenced, and as it was always safest to give personal attention to one's own interests, it might be best for him to go immediately to Washington, instead of waiting for the result of the application, and be ready to proceed at once, if successful, to his destination. Thomas declared his preference for this course, and departed without a day's delay. Borrowing a pair of saddle-horses and a servant from a friend, he hastened to Clarksburg, to meet the stage-coach which plied thence to Winchester and Washington. His garments were homespun, and his whole wardrobe was contained in a pair of leathern saddlebags. When he reached Clarksburg the stage had passed by, but he pursued it, and at its next stopping-place overtook it, and proceeded to Washington city. Presenting himself thus before the Honorable Mr. Hays, he was kindly received; and his patron proposed that he, should go at once, with the stains of his travel upon him, to the office of the War Minister to procure his appointment. He presented him to that minister [32] as a mountain youth, who, with a limited education, had an honorable desire of improvement. The Secretary was so much pleased with the directness and manliness of his replies, that he ordered his warrant to be made out on the spot. When Mr. Hays proposed to take him to his lodgings, for a few days, that he might see the sights of the metropolis, he declined, saying that as the studies of the academy were in progress, it was best for him to be in his place there, and that he should be content with a general view from the top of the dome of the Capitol. Having looked upon this panorama for a while he descended, and declared himself ready for West Point. Mr. Hays wrote to the authorities there, asking them, at the suggestion of some friend, to make the utmost allowance practicable in the preliminary examination for his defective scholarship, and in favor of his good character. And Jackson stated to his friends that this indulgence was very kindly extended to him, and that without it, he would scarcely have been able to stand the test. He entered West Point, July, 1842, being then eighteen years old. He had not attained his full stature, but was muscular ia his frame, and of a fresh, ruddy countenance. His demeanor was somewhat constrained, but, by reason of its native dignity, always pleasing. The fourth-class men at this school were called by their comrades plebes, were subjected in many respects to restraints peculiar to their rank, were made to perform the menial duties of sweeping the barrack-grounds, and such-like, under the inspection of their more advanced fellow-students, and were severely drilled in their military exercises. It was thus the authorities proposed to form a soldierly subordination and hardihood. The infliction of practical jokes upon new-comers has always been carried to extremity in this school. The professors themselves seemed to connive at it as a useful discipline of the temper; and, by a [33] fixed usage of the cadets, he who grew restive under the torment only subjected himself to tenfold sufferings. Resistance was vain. The third-class man, lately among the plebes, sought his revenge from the body of new-comers below him, and from victim became tormentor, with all the zest and ingenuity of a practitioner just graduated in the art of teasing. When they saw the country youth arrive, with his saddle-bags, in his homespun garments, they promised themselves rich sport with him; but they speedily learned their mistake. Such was his courage, his good temper, and the shrewdness and savoir-faire, acquired during his diversified life in the country, that they were quickly glad to leave him for more easy subjects.

It would be obviously unfair to judge his capacity by his earlier acquisitions at West Point. His literary preparation was defective. Although his rural occupations had given a valuable cultivation of his powers, he lacked the facility of taking in knowledge, which arises from practice; nor was his apprehension naturally quick. He once stated to a friend that he “studied very hard for what he got at West Point.” The acquisition of knowledge with him was slow, but what he once comprehended he never lost. Entering, with such preparation, a large and distinguished class, he held at first a low grade. Generals McClellan, Foster, Reno, Stoneman, Couch, and Gibbon, of the Federal army; and Generals A. P. Hill, Pickett Maury, D. R. Jones, W. D. Smith, and Wilcox, of the Confederate army, were among his class-mates. From the first, he labored hard. The same thoroughness and honesty which had appeared in the schoolboy, were now more clearly manifested. If he could not master the portion of the text-book assigned for the day, he would not pass over it to the next lesson, but continued to work upon it until it was understood. Thus it happened that, not seldom, when called to the black-board, he [34] would reply that he had not yet reached the lesson of the day, but was employed upon the previous one. There was then no alternative but to mark him as unprepared. A distinguished student of the class next above him, now Major-General Whiting, rendered him valuable private aid, while all applauded his sturdy effort. But at the examinations which closed his first half-year's novitiate, the line which separated the incompetents, and condemned them to an immediate discharge, was drawn a very little below him. Nowise disheartened by this, but thankful that he had saved his distance, he redoubled his exertions. At the end of his first year, in a class of seventy-two, he stood 45th in mathematics, 70th in French, had 15 demerit marks for misconduct, and was fifty-first in general merit. In the next class, the studies were more extended and abstruse; but the examination at the end of his second year showed him 18th in mathematics, 52d in French, 68th in drawing, and 55th in engineering studies; while he had incurred 26 demerits, and ranked 30th in general merit.

In the second class, he proceeded from pure mathematics to chemistry and natural philosophy. His course was still more decidedly improved, and placed him at the end of the year in natural philosophy, 11th; in chemistry, 25th; in drawing. 59th; with no demerit for the year, and in general merit, 20th. In the studies of the final year, he was 12th in engineering, 5th in ethics, 11th in artillery, 21st in infantry-tactics, and 11th in mineralogy and geology. His demerit marks were seven, but, as he assured his friends, he might have wholly escaped these by laying the delinquencies charged to him upon comrades to whom they rightly belonged. He preferred to bear the undeserved blame, rather than break silence against them. His general standing as a graduate was 17th, notwithstanding the less successful years at the beginning, which were taken into [35] the account. An examination of these records will show a steady progress; and, if the deficient preparation of his beginning be considered, there is evidence of a scholastic ability and acquirement very little below the highest. But scholastic ability is not the real test of a great mind. It also appears that he was usually least successful in a study when it was novel. In the science of military engineering, for instance, his first year's study placed him only 55th, but his last year 12th. He seems never to have become an adept in drawing; indeed nature had not gifted him with much of that manual dexterity, which is here more essential than even taste and correctness of eye. His greatest success was in ethics, where his grade was 5th-a correct prognostic of that transcendent ability in statesmanship and moral reasoning, which every great commander must possess. His teachers and comrades judged his mind sound and strong, but not quick. It was a frequent remark among the latter, that if the course were two years longer than it was, Jackson would assuredly graduate at the head of his class.

His manners, when he appeared at West Point, have been already described. When He returned upon furlough to his friends, they noted a great and progressive change in his person. The second year he grew, as it were by a leap, to the height of six feet. His bearing, though still deficient in ease, was punctiliously courteous and dignified. He was scrupulously neat in all his appointments, and, in his handsome cadet uniform, made a most soldierly appearance. At the military academy he was not morose, but reserved almost to shyness; fond of animated conversation and of the collision of intellect, when alone with one or two of his few intimates, but in a larger circle, a silent interested listener. The society there was usually stratified very distinctly, [36] according to the classes. The fourth-class men, under the humble title of plebes, were the fags of all above them. At each stage of his advancement the cadet gained new privileges, which made him look down, like a superior mortal, on the younger. Hence the intimacies of the students were confined to their own classes, save where some more aspiring youth, by reason of distinguished scholarship or social advantages, sought the society of those above him. But Jackson, in selecting his few friends, disregarded all these bonds of caste, and most frequently chose them from the classes below him. His favorite recreation was walking; and almost every afternoon he might be seen, with a single companion, striding rapidly over the picturesque hills, or sitting upon one of the headlands which overhang the waters of the Hudson. In these confidential walks, his favorite topics were the graver subjects of moral reasoning, mental science, ethics, politics. He had enjoyed no collegiate training in these studies, the instruction in them at the military academy was limited, and his favorite associate in these discussions was a graduate of one of the Colleges which made this branch of science prominent. Yet, although his knowledge of the speculations of metaphysicians was limited, his friend found his notions always original, and usually correct, and his reasonings so ingenious and forcible, that he was never an easy antagonist to overcome. One of the most pleasing and noteworthy traits of his nature was his tenderness to the distressed. A case of sickness or bereavement, among the younger cadets especially, awakened all his sympathies; and he would devote himself to their help with a zeal so womanly, as to evoke the gibes of coarser natures. Perhaps, his profound impressions of the infirmity of his own frame quickened these sensibilities. He seemed to be under a habitual fear of some chronic and fatal disease, and began even then that rigid observance of such [37] laws of health as he apprehended to be suitable to him. One of these rules was, never to bend his body in studying, lest the compression of some of the important organs within should increase their tendency to disease. Hence he sat always bolt upright; his chair might as well have been without a back.

It does not appear that Jackson was under the influence of vital Christianity at West Point. Speculatively, he was a believer; outwardly, he was observant of the decencies of religion, and his morals were pure; but the sacred impression of his mother's piety and teachings was as yet dormant. The most authentic disclosure of his moral nature at that time is a code of behavior which he compiled for himself, and carefully engrossed in a blank book (in a large, correct, formal handwriting, that surprisingly contrasts with the indistinct, cursive style of later years) under the title of “Maxims.” These seem to have been in part selected from books of that character, and in part adopted from his own experience. They relate to morals, manners, dress, the choice of friends, and the aims of life. The standard of principle is simply that of a high secular virtue, with such reference to religious responsibilities as every thoughtful and reverent nature prompts. But they show already that devotion to the sentiment of duty which his after-life manifested so grandly; and they reveal the loftiest aims. It is plain that he habitually nourished the honorable ambition to make himself the very greatest of which his nature was capable; and that the limits which he assigned to this possibility were far removed. Beneath his modest reserve and silence, so contrasted with all the tricks of egotism, there burned the steady but intense purpose, to place his character and his name high upon the scale of true merit. Perhaps the most characteristic of [38] these maxims is the following, written in a conspicuous place:--

You may be whatever you resolve to be.

We shall see that this was, to him, a most practical dogma.

His temper was recognized at West Point to be inflexible, without being petulant or aggressive. The only personal difficulty which he ever had with a fellow-student illustrates this trait; and the contrasted destiny of the two antagonists may well impress on every young man, the dreadfulness of base and relaxed principles, and the value of integrity. The cadet who was Jackson's sole enemy, resembled him in capacity and the conditions of his career. He was an orphan, from the far West, of rural training, of sound mind, and energetic and forcible character, capable of strenuous exertion, poor, and eager to advance himself. His early education had been neglected. Like Jackson he incurred the sportive malice of the students, on his arrival at the Academy, by his appearance of rusticity and inexperience, and he defended himself with so much courage and good sense, and made such progress in his studies that all were at first inclined in his favor. There appeared no reason why he and Jackson might not run parallel courses of honor and usefulness. But, in his second year, he disclosed a laxity of principle, told less than the truth in order to evade “demerits,” and contracted degrading associations in the neighboring village. Jackson was one of the first to perceive his lack of principle. One day his musket, which was always scrupulously clean, was replaced by one in most slovenly order. He called the attention of his captain (himself a senior cadet) to this loss, and described to him his private mark by which he identified his gun. That evening at the inspection of arms, it was found in the hands of the student who has been described, and when taxed with purloining it, the latter endeavored to [39] shield himself by falsehood. Jackson had been indignant that he should commit such an act from mere indolence, but now his anger was unbounded. He declared that such a nuisance should not continue a member of the Academy, and demanded that he should be tried by a court-martial, upon his information, and expelled. It was only by means of the most persevering remonstrances of his comrades, and of the professors, that he could be induced to waive his right of pursuing the charge. The event proved that his estimate was more correct than that of his seniors. It was not long before his opponent was under arrest for disgraceful conduct, violated his parole, and was expelled on that account, a short time before he would have graduated. He resorted to the new State of Texas, and professed for a time to engage in the study of law. Not prospering in this, he embarked for California, endeavored to swindle the master of the ship out of his fare, and was summarily thrust ashore at Mazatlan, on the western coast of Mexico, without money or friends. There he wandered into the mountains, and attached himself to a roving tribe of the Tuscon Indians, among whom his skill in savage warfare, robbery, and murder, raised him to a sort of chieftainship, and the possession of half-a-dozen tawny wives. The last intelligence which reached the civilized world concerning him was, that he and his subjects had quarrelled concerning the murder of a poor pedlar, whom he had slain for his wares; and his miserable band, less savage than himself, had expelled him from their society. Jackson, meantime, has filled two hemispheres with his fame for every quality which is great and good.

The latter graduated at West Point, June 30th, 1846, being then twenty-two years old; and, according to custom, received the brevet rank of second lieutenant of artillery. The Mexican War was then in progress, and General Winfield Scott was [40] proceeding to take supreme command. The young lieutenant was ordered to report immediately for duty with the 1st Regiment of Artillery; and proceeded through Pennsylvania, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, which was the rendezvous of the forces designed to reinforce the army in Mexico.

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