The Young Lions: Confederate Cadets at War, by James Lee Conrad, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, (800) 732-3669, 208 pages, $24.95.
Young gentlemen,” Confederate Major General John C. Breckinridge told the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute before the Battle of New Market, Virginia, in 1864, “I hope there will be no occasion to use you, but if there is, I trust you will do your duty.”
They were used at New Market, and they did do their duty, creating martyrs and a military legend. Throughout the Civil War the cadets of V.M.I. and the three other surviving military colleges in the Confederate South were often used in battle–always reluctantly–and they always did their duty.
This fine, well-researched book by James Lee Conrad tells their story. It is the first thorough treatment of the four main Southern military academies as a group during the Civil War. Collectively these four schools–V.M.I., the South Carolina Military Academy (the Citadel and the Arsenal), the Georgia Military Academy, and the University of Alabama Corps of Cadets–operated as a de facto West Point of the South.
The nineteenth century was the heyday of military schools in the United States. And by 1860, eleven of the country’s twelve private or state-supported military colleges were in the South. When the war came, most of them closed their doors. But these four survived, and against heavy odds, they persevered, sending many cadets into the officer ranks of the Confederate army.
At times these institutions individually sent their entire cadet corps into battle. V.M.I.’s cadets were called to the battlefield fourteen times. Cadets from the South Carolina academy fired the first shots of the war–at the Union merchant vessel Star of the West as it was attempting to resupply Fort Sumter in January 1861. Cadets also fired some of the final shots of the war–at a band of Federal raiders in South Carolina as the Confederacy was dying.
In his opening chapter, Conrad describes each of the four institutions and traces their founding. He describes their routines, education to the beat of the fife and drum; their cadet corps; their classroom procedures; their goals; their funding; their facilities; and their faculties.
V.M.I. was the first of the great Southern military schools founded on the West Point system. Opening in 1839, it become the model on which all the others were based. While their stories are necessarily painted with a broad brush, Conrad provides much satisfying anecdotal detail. We learn that William Hume, the professor of chemistry and physics at the Citadel, was the best academician in his school and probably the worst soldier. When drilling cadets, he would order, “Will you be kind enough, gentlemen, to shoulder arms?” He was once run over by his own platoon during drill. We learn that V.M.I.’s greatest soldier, Major Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, professor of natural history and artillery tactics, was also its poorest teacher, teaching by rote–stiff, dry, and tactless.
The heart of Conrad’s book are the five separate chapters that tell the story of these military schools during the five years of the Civil War, 1861 to 1865. A V.M.I. graduate himself, Conrad deftly and succinctly tells of institute’s struggles to remain open in the face of a tightening economy and shortages of everything, and despite a Confederate conscription policy that was stripping the school of its cadets and teachers. It was nearly impossible after Fort Sumter fell to keep impassioned upperclassmen from prematurely resigning, even deserting, to go to the battlefield to fight and often die.
The first wartime duty for the cadets in all of these schools was to act as drillmasters of green volunteers, virtually all of whom were older than them. They did this job so well that many of them went on to war with the regiments they had drilled, becoming “boy colonels” before they were out of their teens.
They first began to die, “those little soldiers, with buttons all over their coats,” at Manassas in July 1861. Three from V.M.I. died on the field where their old professor “Tom Fool” Jackson earned the immortal nickname “Stonewall,” thanks to his ability to be as stiff and unmoving in the heat of battle as he was in the classroom.
Cadets from all four of the military schools fought in the war at one time or another. Though not all managed to see the elephant, many did. The most celebrated case was the V.M.I. corps at New Market. “This little band of fledglings,” as one of their own described them, was called out in May 1864 by Major General John C. Breckinridge to help defend the Shenandoah Valley against a Union force commanded by Major General Franz Sigel. Breckinridge tried not to use them, but when the center of his line was collapsing, he was forced to choose between victory or defeat. “Put the boys in,” he said with tears in his eyes, “and may God forgive me for the order.”
They went in with their white corps flag flying. One Federal officer who watched them advance wrote, “As a military spectacle it was most beautiful, and as a deed of war it was most grand.” One of Sigel’s German soldiers who felt the wrath of their charge first hand, cursed them as “Dem lettle tevils mit der vite vlag.” Afterward, when the Confederates had carried the day, Breckinridge told them, “Young gentlemen, I have you to thank for the results of today’s operations.”
It may have been beautiful as a military spectacle and grand as a deed of war, but it had also been ghastly. They had seen the elephant, but twenty-four percent of them were casualties. “We were still young in the ghastly game,” one of them said, “but we proved apt scholars.” So, according to Conrad, did the cadets from all the other schools.
The academies often did not have the kind of support they deserved from the Confederate government, which failed to coordinate and use them properly. But Conrad tells us there was no recorded case of a cadet ever shirking his duty. “Their real glory,” Conrad writes, “comes from the simple fact that as boys–as students not expected to fight and die–they did not hesitate to do a man’s and soldier’s job.” Their ?lan, he writes, “ranked them with the most disciplined and spirited of Rebel formations.”
Similarly, Conrad’s book ranks with the best of the books about Confederate cadets in the war. It breaks new ground in considering the four institutions as a group and is a worthy companion work to The Best School in the World: West Point, the Pre-Civil War Years, 1833-1866, Colonel James L. Morrison, Jr.’s splendid study of antebellum West Point.
Conrad writes that one of his goals was “to scrape away some of the romantic varnish that has accumulated over the past 130 years, and to put these young soldiers into a more realistic context.” He also sought to paint “a clear and comprehensive picture of a Confederate cadet’s wartime world” and to write “a meaningful, yet manageable, history of the military colleges themselves.” He has admirably succeeded on all three counts.
John C. Waugh