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Chapter 7: at West Point as instructor, 1857-61; the outbreak of the Civil War

With my little family I left New York for West Point, September 23, 1857. We ascended the Hudson on the steamer Thomas Powell, and immediately after landing went to Roe's Hotel, the only public house upon the military reservation. Here we took a suite of rooms and were rather crowded. for about a month. At first, there being no quarters vacant, I could get none assigned to me on account of my low rank.

According to the orders from Washington I joined the corps of instructors; and Lieutenant J. B. Fry, of the First Artillery, the adjutant, issued the following necessary orders: “First Lieutenant Oliver O. Howard, Ordnance Corps, having reported to the superintendent . . . is assigned to duty in the Department of Mathematics and will report to Professor Church for instructions.”

Immediately I entered upon my duties, and for a time had under my charge the first and second sections of the fourth class. At first I was very careful to prepare myself daily by reviewing the studies in mathematics, with which, however, I was already familiar; later less study was required.

The fourth class was composed of new cadets, and, before many days, had been so sifted that the best prepared [91] students were in the two sections, called first and second, committed to my charge. Beginning at eight in the morning my recitations were an hour and a half for each section. I think I never in my life had a pleasanter duty than this school work.

The professor in a West Point department of instruction habitually visited the rooms of his teachers from day to day. Professor Church was very attentive to this inspection and remained with me, from time to time, till I was thoroughly conversant with his methods of teaching and recording the daily progress of the cadets. If I had occasion to be absent any day for a good reason, the professor would hear my section for me.

On October 22d my family moved into the smallest officer's house at West Point. It was a little cottage just beyond the north gate and near the house and studio of Prof. Robert Weir. Our dwelling was called “The Elm cottage.” It was a story and a half house with tiny rooms, in which we made ourselves very comfortable, having escaped from the closer confinement of the hotel. The front hall of this cottage was just one yard square.

At the time I came to West Point I was exceedingly desirous to help the chaplain, Professor French, in any way I could, and to open up more general religious privileges to the cadets, to the soldiers, and to the families in the neighborhood. I had it in mind then that I should soon leave the army and enter the Christian ministry. This caused me to use all my leisure time in systematic study of a religious nature, in fact, my reading took that direction.

Very early, with the permission of the commandant and the chaplain, I opened with a few cadets a social [92] meeting for prayer and conference. The first meeting was in a room in what was called the “Angle” of the new barracks. Lieutenant Henry M. Robert of the Engineers and myself carried in a table, two or three chairs, and some benches. Only five cadets came to the first meeting, though the invitation had been quite extensively circulated. All the meetings were held during recreation hours, just after the cadets' supper.

The attendance kept increasing, while the meetings were held at first twice a week, till our room was filled. Many of the young men who attended this gained later a national distinction. Among them was Cadet Emory Upton, who, after he had attained the rank of brigadier general, was for a few years the superintendent. He then made a change, allowing the young men to have their meetings on Sunday evenings in the dialectic hall of the academy. Instead of being confined to a half-hour's service, they were permitted to remain together until tattoo. This was a great privilege. Later the Young Men's Christian Association was formed and took charge of the meetings. Nearly the whole corps of cadets are now members of this association, and the meetings have been continued without interruption for fifty years.

Our commandant in 1857, Lieutenant Colonel William J. Hardee, had a family of two daughters and one son. One day Colonel Hardee and myself had a long walk together beyond the limits of our reservation. He had previously expressed a desire that I should teach his children and allow him to compensate me privately for it. At that time the officers had no private school for their families. I consented to do this, and so began an intimacy with the family that was [93] only interrupted by Hardee's relief from duty before the end of my term. He declared that he was fond of the Union, but he had made up his mind that there would be two governments, and as he was from the extreme South, he told me that he could not bear the thought of belonging to a Northern confederacy.

I took up the Hebrew language and recited with some regularity to an Episcopal clergyman near Highland Falls. He was a scholarly man and interested himself greatly in my progress. Lectures, in connection with Bible study, I delivered habitually once a week in what we called “the little church under the hill.” This church where the soldiers' families attended was so arranged that a partition separated the altar and all that belonged to it from the main room. This enabled the Catholics to have their services in the morning, when the partition doors were opened, and the other people in the afternoon and evening, when the doors were closed. Here we had, every Sabbath for nearly four years, a thriving Sunday school, of which I was the superintendent. In this active Christian work, cadets, the chaplain's daughters, and other ladies of the post assisted regularly with the music and as teachers. Usually in the evening we had a Methodist clergyman to preach and conduct the services. Sometimes our chaplain, who was an Episcopalian, would give an address, and sometimes the clergy of other denominations.

I always endeavored to do something in addition to what my military duties proper and the preparation for them required. It may be said that this was not a fair preparation for what might be required of me sooner or later in the army proper; but I do not think so. This training to which I subjected myself enlarged [94] my sympathies and acquaintanceship and was, indeed, a stepping-stone to all that followed.

One thing that troubled me was a class distinction, which seemed too intense for our republican ideas, and, indeed, made the army itself disliked by the people at large. I gave much reflection to the subject of discipline and came to fully believe that it was possible to have a higher grade for our enlisted men and a better system of government by officers, especially by those of high rank. While considering this subject in 1858 I wrote an article entitled “Discipline in the army.” There I advocated with as much force as I could a paternal system over against the martinet system in vogue. I endeavored to show that the general who cared for his men as a father cares for his children, providing for all their wants and doing everything he could for their comfort consistent with their strict performance of duty, would be the most successful; that his men would love him; would follow him readily and be willing even to sacrifice their lives while enabling him to accomplish a great patriotic purpose.

Indeed, I am now glad that my mind took that turn, for I never met a soldier who served with me in the great war who does not now come to me with an expression of appreciation and fellowship. Others, doubtless, have had similar experiences, but I know that during the Civil War the general who loved and cared for his men and diligently showed this disposition to all under his command, won good will and affection above all other commanders.

My article, published in a New York monthly, caused quite a commotion at West Point, at the time, among the thirty or forty officers stationed there. Even the superintendent was annoyed because he [95] thought that I reflected upon his management of affairs. Some agreed with my sentiments, but the majority said that they were contrary to a proper military spirit.

In March, 1858, the War Department sent our Sapper and Miner Company, about one hundred strong, to Utah Territory, where some difficulty between the Mormons, the Indians, and the emigrants had already begun. Lieutenant E. P. Alexander was at that time in command of that company. He became an officer in the Confederate Army and was Chief of Artillery under Longstreet, planting his numerous batteries along our front at Gettysburg. One day at West Point he overtook me on the sidewalk and we conversed together for some time, continuing our discussion till after we reached my home. He gave me two books of a religious character and $5 to be expended in Christian work. One remark that he made I well remember. “I wish to be thought by my men to be a Christian and have their sympathy and interest during the expedition to Utah.”

I have met Alexander since the Civil War and found him the same kind-hearted, good man that he was when on duty at West Point.

Two days after that conversation with Alexander I addressed the Sapper and Miner Company. The little soldiers' church was filled, and the men, some of whom had families to leave, appeared deeply interested in my lecture. I presented to them the idea that a Christian soldier was the highest type. In him the sense of duty and contentment were combined.

On April 21st an incident occurred in our family that made quite a sensation. Mrs. Howard and I had taken a walk toward the mountain Crow-Nest. We [96] had been away about half an hour when the nurse, completely out of breath from running, overtook us and said that the baby (Grace) was sick, very sick. We were near the cadets' garden. Mrs. Howard and I ran as fast as possible; I reached the house first, and found Mrs. Robert Weir holding the child; she stretched her hands toward me, holding the baby, and said, “Your dear little lamb!” Grace was as white as a sheet, with a little blood around her mouth. I instantly caught the child and turned her head downward, put my finger into her mouth and removed from her throat one of Guy's marbles that had remained there choking her for more than half an hour. The nurse had first run in the other direction to the cadets' hospital for the doctor, whom she did not find, before going for us.

On December 20th a court of inquiry brought together Colonel Robert E. Lee, Major Robert Anderson, Captain R. B. Marcy (McClellan's father-in-law), and Captain Samuel Jones. Colonel Lee had been very kind to me when a cadet.

I had known Major Anderson before — noticing then how tenderly he was caring for his invalid wife. Captain Samuel Jones had been my instructor when a cadet, and Captain Marcy and myself were on duty at the same posts in Florida. To pay my respects to them at the hotel was a real pleasure.

A little later came the funeral of Colonel John Lind Smith of the Engineers. The whole corps of cadets acted as an escort. Lieutenant Fitz John Porter commanded the corps during the exercises, and I was exceedingly pleased with his military bearing that day.

During the summer vacation of 1859, extending from the middle of June to August 28th, I made quite [97] a tour northward for recreation. First, with my family, I visited my friend, Lieutenant C. C. Lee, at Watervliet Arsenal, and there I met the venerable Major Alfred Mordecai and his family. Mordecai loved the Union, but, being from North Carolina, he concluded that he would not fight in a civil war, and so early in 1861 tendered his resignation. His son Alfred is now a brigadier general on the retired list. He has had an honorable and useful life in the army, always on active duty in the Ordnance Department, and very successful in his profession.

From Watervliet we passed on to Niagara Falls. On this journey I was attacked with rheumatism, which bowed me down, gave much pain, and made all who saw me think I was hopelessly disabled, yet for the sake of those with me I would not interrupt the journey.

We went forward by way of Lake Ontario and down the St. Lawrence, stopping at Montreal to take in that beautiful city and its surroundings. We had a few days at Quebec, a city which impressed me more than any other in Canada, reviving the old accounts of the Revolutionary struggle and all that preceded it.

We passed on to the Glen House in New Hampshire near Mount Washington, ascended that mountain and enjoyed the magnificent scenery.

At last we reached my mother's home in Leeds about June 30th. Before this, though my suffering diminished the pleasure of my trip, I recovered from my rheumatism. The remainder of the vacation we passed in visiting friends.

It was during this vacation that I began to be invited to give addresses and lectures in Maine: one at Farmington on July 4th; one at the city schoolhouse [98] in Leeds; another at North Leeds on a Sabbath, and at a church in Auburn the following Sunday, July 24th. A little later I undertook to give an extempore lecture, the first time I had tried one of any length, at an old schoolhouse in Livermore. My classmate in college, P. S. Perley, was present; which caused me some embarrassment. He, however, encouraged me to keep on trying.

After the outing we returned slowly by the way of Boston and New York to the Military Academy. The work of the ensuing years, 1859 and 1860, was much like that of the preceding.

It was after we had returned from another vacation, in 1860, that Prince Edward of England with his suite visited the Military Academy. It was quite an event to us and absorbed the attention of both officers and cadets. The prince came up October 15th, arriving at 2 P. M. on the steamer Harriet Lane. His suite consisted of eight or ten gentlemen. There rushed in from far and near a large crowd of people, but they were very orderly except a few overcurious mortals who crowded into places where they were not invited.

The prince was a good-looking young man of nineteen, rather small of stature, modest and gentle in his bearing. He took much interest in everything he saw at West Point. He visited our buildings and received military honors extended to him by the corps of cadets on the plain. lie partook of a collation at Colonel Delafield's quarters, in which a few invited guests, ladies and gentlemen, participated. He then went to Fort Putnam on horseback, having a small escort with him, and passed down to Cozzen's Hotel, where he spent the night. The next morning he returned and visited the section-rooms. He stayed in mine long [99] enough to hear one recitation from Cadet A. H. Burnham, of Vermont. He was pleased with this. His suite of gentlemen continued with him as he went from room to room.

This was the Prince of Wales as I saw him at West Point, kind, courteous, genial, without any attempt whatever at display, and showing no egotism. I do not wonder that he proves to be a good sovereign.

During my fourth year of teaching I had been promoted to “assistant professor,” which was equivalent to being a captain in the army.

Here at our national school there was naturally a commingling of the divers elements which then constituted the personnel of our nation, and the lines of attempted separation near the outbreak of 1861, running as they did between comrade and comrade, neighbor and neighbor, and even through the heart of families and households, were as a rule less marked here than elsewhere.

Probably no other place existed where men grappled more quickly, more sensitively, and yet more philosophically with the troublesome problems of secession. Prior to any overt act, however, a few members of our community were much disturbed, and by almost morbid anticipations experienced all the fever of the subsequent conflict.

All the preceding winter, for example, our worthy professor of ethics, J. W. French, D. D., who had been a lifelong friend of Jefferson Davis, worked day and night in anxious thought and correspondence with him with ever-decreasing hope that he might somehow stay the hands which threatened a fratricidal strife. This excellent professor seemed to be beside himself in his conjectures and in the extreme fears which he manitested. [100] But his soul was truly prophetic and thus early did he feel the blasts of a terrible war which even the radical men of the country as yet deemed improbable.

A Southern man, a true patriot, Dr. French, when the storm broke, offered all the money he had to strengthen the government exchequer. There were cooler minds who believed that these first symptoms of rebellion were merely dark days of passion-the sheer embodiments of windy fury which time under the sun rays of good sense would dissipate.

My immediate official chief was Prof. A. E. Church. From the first his heart and speech were bubbling over with patriotic fervor. Our superintendent, ex-officio commander of the post, was Colonel Richard Delafield. Twice had he served at West Point, twelve years in all, so that more than a thousand graduates felt the direct influence of his inflexible example and the impress of his rugged nature.

Delafield was the embodiment of able administration; very exacting in his requirements, and, like the just judge, precise and severe in his awards of punishment-so much so that he appeared to us subordinates at times to have eliminated all feeling from his action; but this was his view of discipline. How much, in the retrospect, we admire a just ruler! And how completely, after the teachings of experience, we forgive the apparent severities I On March 1, 1861, Colonel Delafield gave place to Colonel A. H. Bowman, who held the superintendency from that time till near the close of the war. Bowman was from Pennsylvania. He was a dignified officer and had been put in charge of the original construction of Fort Sumter as early as 1838. With a high character and long, complete record [101] of service, he was a good man to succeed Delafield and to manage the academy during the war period.

Colonel Hardee's academy service as commandant of cadets expired September 8, 1860. A close friend of his family, I never ceased to be interested in his career. By his uniform courtesy he won the regard of all associates; junior officers and cadets appreciated this feature of his administration. By 1861 he had grown gray in service; he had given to the army his light infantry tactics; he had also won enviable distinction in the Mexican War, and probably no name was more familiar to the people at large than his.

January 31, 1861, the resignation of his army commission was tendered and accepted. Hardee's course in this matter produced quite a sensation at West Point. Lieutenant Colonel John F. Reynolds, of Pennsylvania, almost the first to fall at Gettysburg, succeeding Hardee at the academy, commanded the cadets till after my departure. His eminent loyalty to the Union, clearly in contrast with the sentiments expressed by Hardee, and his ardor in hastening forward from the academy the higher classes for junior officers, then in great demand at Washington, were ever remembered in his favor. Lieutenant S. B. Holabird, of the First Infantry, relieved Lieutenant Fry, the adjutant, and remained till May 1, 1861, when on promotion as captain and assistant quartermaster in the staff of the army, he left us to bear his part in coming events. Before his retirement Holabird reached the head of his corps.

Lieutenants John Gibbon and S. S. Carroll, both names now high on the roll of fame, filled one after the other the office of quartermaster at West Point. For a time Carroll and I, with our two families, lived under [102] one roof, dividing a pleasant cottage between us. For the last two months, however, of my stay I had, by a small accession of rank, attained a separate domicile. Just before that, Carroll had a visit from Lieutenant Fitzhugh Lee, the nephew of Robert E. Lee. How sprightly, energetic, and full of fun he was Secession to him was fun — it would open up glorious possibilitiesl He gave Carroll and myself lively accounts of events in the South. Once, after speaking jocosely, as was his habit, of the perturbed condition of the cotton States, he stopped suddenly for a moment, and then half seriously said: “Sprigg, those people of the South are alive and in earnest, and Virginia (his State) will soon follow their lead. The Union folks are apathetic and half-hearted. A living dog is better than a dead lion. You had better be up and doing or you will lose your chances down South! You'll get no rank.” His talk, so characteristic, was more real than we dreamed. He watched Virginia and followed her into the Confederacy. There were thirty-six officers of junior rank at West Point in 1860 and 1861; twenty-four from Northern and twelve from Southern States. Their names have since become familiar to all who know our war history. Three of our eight professors were Southern born. None of them left their post of duty, or veered the least in loyalty to the Union. This is certainly a good exhibit for our national school.

After the beginning of the year 1861 the causes of excitement were on the increase. The simple fact of Abraham Lincoln's election had been enough to inaugurate plenty of military operations in the South, such as the capturing, by States, of forts poorly manned, and of arsenals which had no guards to defend them. Every new item of this sort had great interest for us, [103] for the evidences of an approaching collision on a large scale were multiplying. The story of Twiggs's surrender of United States troops to Texas, followed by details of imprisonment and paroling, reached us in the latter part of February. Twiggs's promises to allow the troops to go North were mostly broken. Six companies of the United States Infantry, including a few officers and men of other regiments, Lieutenant Colonel Reeve commanding, were obliged to give up to a Confederate commander, Earl Van Dorn, by May 9th.

The organizers of the secession movement soon succeeded “in firing the Southern heart.” As we men from the North and South, at our post on the Hudson, looked anxiously into each other's faces, such indeed was the situation that we knew that civil war with its unknown horrors was at hand.

One morning, as officers and professors gathered near the lofty pillars under the stone archway of the old academy, there was rehearsed, one after another adding his own paper's version, the exaggerated accounts of the terrible handling that the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteers had had from a Baltimore mob. “Much blood shed I Some killed and many wounded, resulting in a complete break — up of the route to Washington and the shutting off of the capital from the North!” That was a brief of our gloomy news. Another morning the cloud lifted. There were better tidings. “Baltimore recaptured by General B. F. Butler 1” Butler, even without General Scott's sanction, had appeared there in the night with enough men to seize and hold Federal Hill. From that fine position he commanded the city.

Another occasion (May 24th) brought us the wildest tales of our troops entering Virginia, and of the [104] resistance at Alexandria. The new President's protegaeacute and friend, young Colonel Ellsworth, had hauled down a hostile flag flying from the belfry of the Marshall House. The proprietor, Jackson, waylaying his descent, had shot him to death.

I recall, as if it were yesterday, a visit of an officer's wife to our house, about the time General Scott had ordered the first movement from Washington. She was from a cotton State and was outspoken for the Southern cause. She greatly deprecated this “forward” movement. Just before leaving our house, she said: “If it were not for those wretched Republicans and horrid abolitionists, we might have peace!”

I replied: “The Republicans who have now elected their president are not abolitionists, certainly not in your sense of that word. They only want to stop the extension of slavery.”

“ Ah, I tell you,” she rejoined, “it is all the same thing! Why stop the extension of slavery? It shows that they are against us. It is all very plain.”

I said: “Surely, it is wise to keep slavery outside the free States and the territories!”

The lady showed intense feeling, and shaking her finger at me, said excitedly: “If Mr. Lincoln has such sentiments as you express, sitting there in that chair, there'll be blood, sir, blood”

Certainly, it was a great trial to Southern officers when the mails teemed with urgent epistles, calling upon them to resign their commissions, and no longer serve a Yankee government. “Come home” said the appeals, “and join your fathers, your brothers, and your friends. Do not hesitate. No man of Southern blood can fight against his State I If you remain North you shall never darken our doors again.” [105]

At first our assistant surgeon, Dr. Hammond, of South Carolina, was much staggered. He would vehemently argue for the right of secession. Once he became quite incensed at me, who had long been his personal friend, because I spoke disparaging words of his “sovereign” State. When he was relieved and sent to another post, I was confident that he would resign and join his brother, an ex-governor in South Carolina, but he did not. That brother wrote him that being a medical man, and having only benevolent functions, he thought he could with honor remain in the federal army.

For a time in our social life there was a prevalent opposition to regular officers accepting commissions in the volunteers. Not only the Southern born but the Northern manifested the feeling. A letter, written by a Northern officer, of February 23, 1861, urging me to accept a professorship in North Carolina, uses these words: “As an officer of the army, I presume, of course, that you entertain no views on the peculiar institution which would be objectionable to a Southern community.”

There arose quite an ebullition to disturb the ordinary sentiment, when Lieutenant A. McD. McCook accepted the colonelcy of an Ohio regiment of volunteers. A Kentucky officer, tall, dark, and strong, visiting our post at the time the report of McCook's action arrived, said loudly: “A West Point man who goes into the volunteers to fight against the South forgets every sentiment of honor!” When I confronted him and told him on the spot that I should probably become a volunteer officer, he became angry and denounced me, daring me ever to touch the soil of Kentucky. When we met again, I had passed, commanding volunteers, [106] across that retaliatory soil, and my threatening friend had changed his manner to a submissive acquiescence.

Next after McCook, Gouverneur K. Warren, my coinstructor in mathematics, accepted the lieutenant colonelcy of the New York Duryea Zouaves. There was social criticism enough, but the promotion of McCook and Warren seemed to the other lieutenants a wonderful advance. We had never met field officers who were not old and gray; yet, somehow, though the new rank was attractive, it did not look to us quite so much so when we had to give up our places in the regular army in order to join the volunteers. Our adjutant general at Washington, Lorenzo Thomas, for a time worked strenuously to prevent it. “They are needed in the army proper,” he averred, “more than ever; we cannot spare them!” That idea was natural. Most regulars of advanced age so believed. As waters of different temperature put into a vessel soon reach a medium degree, so did people of various feelings and sentiments in the old army arrive at a moderate conservatism. “We belong to the whole nation, we do not want it divided; we propose to stand by it forever, but we do hate this civil strife; we will not be eager to enter the lists in such a conflict; certainly not merely for the sake of promotion. We do hope and pray that the differences will be settled without bloodshed.”

Quite early in the spring I wrote to Governor Washburn, of Maine, and offered my services. His reply was unfavorable. Commissioned officers of regiments were all to be elected by the men. He, himself, had no power to choose. But the fact of the offer became known at Augusta. Not long afterwards, about the middle of May, a dispatch came to me from the Hon. James G. Blaine, then the youthful Speaker of [107] the Maine House of Representatives. It read: “Will you, if elected, accept the colonelcy of the Kennebec Regiment

Over this dispatch Mrs. Howard and I had a conference. We thought it would be wiser to begin with a major's commission, so that I might be better prepared for a colonelcy when I came to it by promotion. Still, my heart began to swell with a growing ambition; for were not civilians without military knowledge taking regiments or even brigades? Surely, I was as well prepared as they I I hastened to Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds, the commandant of cadets, who was many years my senior and had seen service in various capacities, and asked him to tell me about a regimental command. Reynolds smiled at my ardor.

“Why,” he asked, “what is the matter”

“ Oh, I've had the tender, or what amounts to it, of a Maine regiment. What answer would you give, colonel”

“ You'll accept, of course, Howard.”

He then took up the army regulations and turned to the duties of regimental officers, folding down the leaves, and kindly explained a few things that a colonel should know.

“ Surely, Howard, you know the drill and parades, and it will not take you long to get well into the harness.”

Thus encouraged I telegraphed an affirmative answer. The news of my probable election and the rapid call for troops from Washington, as published in the press, decided me to anticipate official notification and so, having obtained a seven days leave, I proposed to set out for Augusta. As soon, however, as it was plain to me that our grand old Government would need my [108] services, I gave up every other plan except as to the best way for me to contribute to the saving of her life. This decision I believed, as God has His plan in each human life, to be according to His will. In this faith I prepared to leave West Point.

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