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Chapter 4: cadet at the United States Military Academy

It was after the middle of August, 1850, when I left my home for West Point. I had my trunk packed with those things that were required in the way of underclothing, but as the uniform, whatever that might mean, and everything pertaining to the furnishing of a cadet's room were to be had from the public store after my arrival, I did not overburden myself with articles which would be of no use to me if I succeeded in passing the entrance examinations. On the way from Boston to New York I was fortunate enough to meet on the train Lieutenant Alley, who had been my predecessor. A predecessor is the cadet from my same district whose graduation caused the vacancy which I filled. He gave me some very wholesome suggestions and I saw at once that it would not do to appear there with a silk hat or a cane. I found that they called a freshman a “plebe” and that I should not escape the hazing process whatever might be my character, my age, or previous experience.

New York City, now visited for the first time, was much enjoyed. I had relatives in Brooklyn and remained a few days with them. The old omnibuses were running on Broadway, and at times every day the street was blocked with them, so that nothing could pass one way or the other till a gradual clearing was [45] had under the direction of the police. The St. Nicholas Iotel, said to be much needed, was just open for guests. The Hudson River Railroad had its depot in Clhambers Street and the cars were taken in and out of the city from that point by horses. There was substantially no city above Forty-second Street.

The first time I stayed overnight in New York proper, I had a room in the old Washington Hotel near Bowling Green. The Astor House was at that time in best repute as a family hotel.

On August 26th I took the Hudson River Railway and after a two hours run was left at Cold Spring, a small New York village just above West Point. Here again I counted myself very fortunate in meeting an officer of the army, Captain E. Kirby Smith. He was dressed in citizen's clothes and was on his way to the Military Academy. Two flat-bottomed rowboats were found at the wharf just at the foot of the main street. Captain Smith being my guide, I got my trunk on board one of them. He and I seated ourselves in the stern and a single oarsman began to row us, a distance of a mile and a half, to the West Point landing.

The captain explained to me very kindly what I must do, and some things that I must not do, when I reached the post — the whole military station was called a post. He advised me not to report at once to the superintendent, but to go to Roe's Hotel and stay at least one night, visit the cadet encampment close by and take observations. The orders which I had in my pocket were for me to report to the adjutant of the academy on or before September 1, 1850.

Indeed, I think that Captain Smith's kind warnings saved me from a good deal of annoyance and from [46] some laughable mistakes that a candidate is almost sure to make unless he is thus befriended.

It was not long before I reported to Captain Seth Williams, then adjutant of the Military Academy. He, too, was very pleasant and thoughtful for me. He was always a genial gentleman and took pleasure in doing something for the comfort of anybody who came in contact with him.

The superintendent, Captain Brewerton, was a tall military man dressed in the uniform of the corps of engineers. Every officer at West Point was in uniform, and every cadet also. The cadet's dress consisted of the well-known gray coat, with the tail so short you might call it a coatee. It was doublebreasted, with three rows of bell buttons and a stiff collar. During the encampment, and for some time after, the trousers were of white duck. When off duty the cadet, outside of his quarters, wore a small cap of blue cloth, diminishing toward the top, which was flat and round, and having a chin strap with a brass button at each extremity. The cap was essentially like the ordinary undress cap of officers. When on duty, at that time, the cadet wore a singular stiff felt hat shaped like a section of stovepipe with a leather band around it at the bottom, and a band at the top. It was finished with a stiff visor, and pompon at the crest. Each hat was ornamented in front with a handsome bronze castle. The cadet officers, instead of a pompon, wore a plume of dark feathers which floated in the breeze and covered the top of the hat. The waist belt was of white canvas with a brass breastplate, and the shoulder belt, which sustained the cartridge box, was also of the same material.

As I looked upon the battalion for the first time [47] when in line of battle in two ranks, I thought I had never seen anything handsomer. There did not appear to be a motion throughout the line, and later, the movement in column presented an appearance even more beautiful. Every cadet held his musket in his left hand, and the drill in the manual of arms was nearly perfect. Though the motions were angular and stiff enough, the effect upon the beholder was that of a complete machine which could make no failure as long as it was in order.

When the cadets were at drill or on parade there was, not far off, a squad of young men dressed in old clothes of different descriptions. They all had caps, but caps differing from each other. This squad afforded interest and amusement to a number of visitors who clustered about the encampment to observe the drills and parades. I was very soon attached to that squad. At drill we were divided into two such squads and each was under the command of a cadet corporal of the class above us.

They called us “Septs” because we came in September. The officers said we were September cadets. The main portion of my class, 102 in number, had reported for duty before June 1st, and so had had the benefit of the summer encampment. It really meant a constant drill and discipline, covering the whole new life of a young man, every day and every hour, from which he was never for a moment relieved, even at night; because with only blankets and a single pillow he was obliged to lie upon the hard floor of his tent and be subject to annoyance, he knew not when — to be plagued by the other cadets — some of whom would pull him out of his bed or otherwise attempt to haze him. I escaped this severe trial because I slept in the encampment [48] only four nights; then the battalion was sent to the barracks. Still our squad drill continued once a day while the uniforms of the September cadets were in making. The corporal of one of our squads was Cadet Boggs, of Georgia. Ite was a capital drill master, severe enough, but always dignified and respectful to the boys under his charge; but the other corporal, Cadet Walker, never let an opportunity slip for an irritating speech to the squad and to individuals in it.

It was hard enough for a young man to put himself into what was called the military attitude, the little fingers on the seams of the trousers, palms to the front, head drawn back, and shoulders squared. I held myself in this position of apparent awkwardness till it became natural to be thus set up. I think the most difficult thing for each of us was to so walk as to strike the ball of the foot first. To point the toe and do this were required, and it gave a cadet a peculiar gait.

As soon as I received my uniform, my coat neatly fitting and keeping me in shape, with a clean white linen collar turned over the stiff binding, and trousers like my comrades, it was easier than before to escape expressions of amusement, and when we were divided into sections and sent to the class rooms I became daily more and more reconciled to the new life. In the recitation room I was more ready to compete with my companions.

At first the young men of my class when getting acquainted with each other were reasonably harmonious in their social life, but I very soon found that unpleasant feuds existed in the corps of cadets, and, as a rule, the subject of slavery was at the bottom of the controversy. I would not have owned at that time that I [49] was an abolitionist, but in sentiment I indorsed the speeches of William H. Seward, which were against slavery and demonstrated the desirability of its nonextension. However, I said but little about politics, yet once in a while in conversation with a companion I did let my sentiments be known.

When we first went into quarters the room to which I was assigned was in what was called the Old South Barracks, a very large room without alcoves. There were four separate iron bedsteads and four iron tables, with other meager furniture for four cadets. My mates were Thomas J. Treadwell, from New Hampshire, a student of Dartmouth; Levi R. Brown, from Maine, my own State; and Henry M. Lazell, of Massachusetts. No young men were ever more studious or more desirous to get a fair standing in the institution than we.

The only single room on the same floor had been at one time used as a “light prison,” and this room was occupied by a cadet of the third class by the name of Elmer S. Otis. He had done some foolish thing while in the camp which the majority of his class condemned. There was no criminality in it, but his comrades declared that no gentleman would do such a thing. A few of them started the cry to ostracize him, or, as the cadets say, “cut him.” The idea went from man to man till there was scarcely a cadet who would speak to him. I remember two of his classmates who were exceptions. One was McPherson, who was a man of independence and noble instincts, and another was William Sooy Smith, who was a professing Christian. They occasionally visited him. As he had my mother's maiden name, my attention was early called to him and his situation. Frequently I stepped in to see him, and [50] sometimes during leisure hours played checkers with him to relieve his loneliness.

The next day after my arrival at the post I went to the engineer's barracks situated near the northwest corner of the reservation to look up Warren Lothrop from my home town. He was the first sergeant of the Engineer Company then called the “Sappers and Miners.” This company had achieved success in the Mexican War and was considered the first of all the companies of enlisted men in the service. Warren himself had gained quite a distinction for his bravery and work during the campaign. He was now a magnificentlooking man, straight, tall, and of fine figure, and his officers were proud of him and trusted him fully in the management of the company. He was earnestly seeking a commission, and his friends thought he had a good prospect of receiving one. As he was a worthy man and the son of my guardian, and as our families at home were intimate, I felt it a duty and a privilege to visit him. For a time he came to see me during release from quarters, always making short calls. One Saturday afternoon, when the limits of cadets were extended to embrace the public lands generally, I went to the engineer barracks to make a call. Two army officers saw me and the next night my name was published before the battalion, “Cadet Ioward off limits Saturday afternoon.” The next Saturday I took to the acting commandant, Lieutenant John M. Jones, of Virginia, a written request to go and see that friend. In my presence, with a show of anger, Mr. Jones tore up my request and threw the fragments on the floor. Feeling outraged I wrote another and carried it to the superintendent, Captain Brewerton. This request was disapproved and I was reported for forwarding a [51] permit to the superintendent over the head of the commandant. A day or two afterwards Captain B. R. Alden, the commandant, sent for me and gave me a lecture, a very kind and fatherly one, for which I was grateful. He had been temporarily absent. The purport of what he said was, “There has been nothing wrong in your conduct; on the contrary, it is to your credit to recognize your friend as you have done, but it is contrary to the regulations and spirit of this institution. The sergeant is an enlisted man and it will not do for you to recognize him in any social way.”

Captain Seth Williams, the adjutant, also sent for me and advised me kindly in the matter: “You must remember that it will be for your own advantage to separate yourself from your friend while he is in the unfortunate position of an enlisted man.” I wasn't yet wise enough to be silent on the subject of what I regarded as wrong.

About the year 1854 Lothrop became a second lieutenant and was assigned to the Fourth Artillery. He was promoted, step by step, till he became, during the Civil War, the colonel of a regiment, and he would probably have had higher promotion still had not typhoid fever seized him in camp and terminated his life. I have never regretted my show of friendship to him in our younger days and the incident always affected me, when considering the subject of discipline in the army, inclining me strongly against martinetism in whatever form it presented itself.

For a time I was very intimate with one of my classmates from the East, and finding him a man of high culture, I constantly sought his companionship, as he did mine. A few months had passed when I began to feel that there was something in the social atmosphere [52] of my class unfavorable to me. I need not go into details, but simply state that a few individuals with a view to promoting the interest of a rival in academic standing, formed a cabal. They were all of them Southern men. It was the beginning of a feud such as I had observed in other classes. Against me certain things were alleged: First, that I was an abolitionist; second, that I associated with “cut men” ; third, that I visited and made companions of enlisted men; and fourth, that I had joined the Bible class and curried favor with the professor of ethics. We were accustomed to salute each other as we passed, or give some sign of pleasant recognition. I now saw that individuals who belonged to the small conspiracy passed me without recognition or took some other method of showing that my society was not desirable. I became suspicious and turned a cold shoulder upon any classmate who might pass me by without notice, even when done by accident. My friend and associate, of whom I have spoken, changed his place in ranks to remove from me, and completely withdrew his fellowship. For this I called him to account with indignation. On the Sabbath the professor of ethics, who was also the chaplain, preached a sermon against slander and ostracism. The case fitted so well that my late friend asked of me an interview. We had a walk and talked over the whole matter, when he told me frankly that he wanted to stand high in the academy, not only in his studies but socially, and as he saw that I was becoming unpopular for the reasons I have alleged, he thought it would be better for him completely to forego my companionship. In a proud spirit I agreed to this. He said, however, something that comforted me a little, that he believed there was nothing against me as a gentieman. [53] He and I from that time did not speak to each other for over three years.

This feud, for it became one, entered into the following summer encampment and for a time I confess that my life at West Point was wretched. Several of those who were opposed to me became cadet officers and they gave me reports with demerit on every possible occasion. Seeing how matters went, Captain Alden at last sent for me and said that he had noticed how I was being treated and how unjustly demerit was being given me and he said, “Now, Mr. Howard, I want to give you some advice. Mind you, I do not give you this advice as Commandant of Cadets, for I shall punish you for any infraction of regulations. Yes, sir, I shall punish you severely, but I give it to you as a father to his son. If I were in your place I would knock some man down.”

I understood Captain Alden thoroughly, and from that time on my friends had nothing to complain of from my want of spirit. I had some conflicts, some wounds, and was reasonably punished for breaking the regulations, and my demerits increased.

My friends might be curious to know if I had any following in my own class. Indeed I did, and it wasn't long before I had nine-tenths of the class in sympathy with me and my defenders. I never can forget the manliness of J. E. B. Stuart, of Virginia, who became, in the Civil War, the leader of the Southern cavalry. He spoke to me, he visited me, and we became warm friends, often, on Saturday afternoons, visiting the young ladies of the post together. While I was made to feel keenly the hatred which accompanies ostracism, yet by a straightforward course I first robbed it of its sting; and finally the majority of those who opposed [54] me were ashamed of the course they had pursued and before graduation there were few indeed with whom I was not on good terms. I did not go to the offenders and ask any favors, but one by one they came to me.

At one time during my first winter the horizontal bar turned with me and I fell in the gymnasium. The injury to my head was very severe and ended in a serious attack of erysipelas and for a time my life was despaired of. The gentle care and nursing of Dr. Cuyler, the surgeon, saved my life.

While I was in the hospital the superintendent, then Colonel Robert E. Lee, paid me a visit, sat down by my bedside and spoke to me very kindly. After I was restored to health, with Cadet Stuart I visited Colonel Lee's family and was well received by every member of it.

Notwithstanding this accident and my detention for some weeks from the recitation rooms, I kept up my studies and did not lose my standing. At the end of the first year I was at the head of my class, already reduced in numbers from resignations to sixty-three, and I had the privilege and honor of marching the class whenever it went en masse to any exercise.

The difficulties which had assailed me prevented me for a year from receiving military advancement, and in fact I entered my second class year without promotion. One day our new commandant, Captain Robert S. Garnet, who relieved Captain Alden, came into our recitation room and heard several cadets recite, myself among the number. He was a Southern man and a just and impartial commandant. He inquired why Cadet Howard was without chevrons. A few days after this inquiry I had the pleasure of hearing my name published as promoted to a sergeancy, and a littie [55] later, after some cadet officer was reduced for a military offense, I was made quartermaster sergeant of the cadet corps and held that office till the end of the year.

The last year at the Military Academy I was promoted to a cadet lieutenancy and a little later was made cadet quartermaster of the corps. In this I followed in the footsteps of Cadet J. B. McPherson, who had had the same office during his second and his first class years.

My unpopularity had, at the beginning of my last year, so far passed away that I was elected to the presidency of our only literary association, the Dialectic Society. In this also I followed McPherson.

It has often been said to me, “You had the advantage over your companions in a college training, did you not?” I did have the advantage of some of them, but it should be remembered that we had in our class fifteen young men who also had had a college education, and as many as twenty more who had received an equivalent training, many of them in those studies that had special reference to the West Point course. We were all on a par in tactical exercises, both in the theoretical and the practical. Much time was then given to right line and topographical drawings, and as much more to sketching and painting. In this branch I was without any experience whatever. At the end of the first year of drawing I was ranked thirty-seven, but by perseverance and great care I kept rising till I graduated ninth in that division of work.

The most difficult of our course was the second class year, and the most trying study of that year was Bartlett's “Mechanics,” usually denominated “The application of algebra to Geometry.” Professor Bartlett [56] was a man of great research and very able in the preparation of text-books, but he was of a nervous temperament and not a very successful instructor on that account. His digestion was so bad at one time that he ate scarcely any meat. It was said that they selected for him the tenderest birds in order to tempt his appetite and keep up his strength.

One day I remember that he had me at the blackboard and was very impatient and indignant that I did not follow him as he made his lightning demonstration. I remained after the class had gone so as to have a talk with him, and I said to him: “Professor Bartlett, I have a good mathematical mind, but I move slowly through a demonstration. If you hurry me or disconcert me I lose my chance. You are so familiar with this complicated work that it is very plain to your mind, but not to ours” (referring to myself and fellow cadets).

Professor Bartlett instantly changed. He was kindness itself, and said that I was right and that he would try to remember what I said in the interest of the class.

As a rule no professors conducted our recitations, but had their several instructors, who were detailed from the army, do this work under their supervision. During the recitations the professors would go from one section to another, sometimes taking part in the recitation and sometimes simply looking on and listening to the questions and answers. Professor Bartlett usually deviated from this custom.

I did not succeed so well in “English studies,” as they were called, such as Blair's “Rhetoric,” logic, and international law. Some of my mates would recite several pages word for word. How they could so [57] memorize in the limited time given to preparation for the next day's recitation was a mystery to me. However, I could give the meaning in my own terms and obtained fairly good marks. I enjoyed the study of international law and never forgot the principles which were then learned. Even without books, when in the field, I could have decided most questions that arose involving our relations with other nations, as at Atlanta and Savannah; but I do not think that any of us could have equaled Sherman in his thorough mastery of that study. He never forgot what he once learned.

Those of our class who were able to systematize and seize upon the principles of any study were in the end able to retain the knowledge. The recitations at first of those who memorized were seemingly the best, but on the final examinations, after a month or more had elapsed, those who memorized were not so proficient. Many officers fail with large commands, and the reason is traceable to their encumbering their minds with the detail.

There were many things about my last year as a cadet which were very pleasant. Being the cadet quartermaster I was relieved from the irksome part of military duty and had more time for study during “call to quarters,” and was more at leisure to extend my acquaintanceship to the families of the garrison. I think now that I had become quite a favorite in the social circle made up of the professors' and officers' families.

Henry W. Closson, a classmate from Vermont, who was retired as a colonel of artillery, became my favorite companion. lie was a poet and very quick-witted. He and I exchanged confidences, read books together, and made visits in each other's company. Closson was [58] small of stature, with light hair, of pale complexion, and had as finely formed a head as if it had been chiseled from marble by the best of sculptors. One lady with her two little children always took my friend's attention. She was beautiful and especially so in her little family, so that no visits were pleasanter than those that he and I made at her house. These and other visits gave us glimpses of home life that we very much needed while cadets.

I also became quite intimate with two of my classmates. One was Cadet Charles G. Sawtelle, the other fis roommate, John T. Greble. Sawtelle was from Maine, and we were naturally thrown together, and through him I became associated with Greble. The latter belonged to a large Philadelphia family. Father, mother, and sisters often paid him visits. They invited me to see them at the hotel whenever they came, and I was treated by them with much attention and reciprocated the kindness as well as I could by attending them in their walks about the post and to the parades.

After graduation Mr. Edwin Greble always insisted that I make his house in Philadelphia my home whenever I came to that city.

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