War List: First in Their Class at West Point

Detail from the yearbook page for Dwight Eisenhower, West Point class of 1915. (Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas)
Detail from the yearbook page for Dwight Eisenhower, West Point class of 1915. (Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas)

MHQ contributing editor Thomas Fleming, author of West Point: The Men and Times of the U.S. Military Academy, picks the academy’s most notable graduating classes.

 

1846
Classmates Square Off

These 59 cadets graduated just weeks after the Mexican-American War began, and most headed south to get a taste of the country’s first large-scale combat. Twenty went on to become Civil War generals, including George McClellan, who finished second in the class. At Antietam in 1862, McClellan’s already tottering reputation was nearly demolished by the ferocious attacks of his former roommate and best friend, Ambrose Powell Hill (who entered with the ’46ers but graduated a year later).

Others in the class: Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, whom most classmates found too cold and surly to call a friend; and George Pickett, the class “goat” (he had the lowest grades) who became infamous for leading the disastrous Confederate charge up Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg.

 

1861
The Goat, the Cavalryman, and the Genius

These men graduated in two batches: one in May 1861 and a second in June 1861 to accommodate cadets who clamored to finish early and join the Civil War. Together, they sent 71 officers into the Union army and 9 into Confederate regiments. The most famous was George Armstrong Custer, who was goat of the June class but vaulted through the ranks to become a major general—at 25—by war’s end. Opposing him in more than one battle was his close friend Tom Rosser, who became a Confederate cavalry general, famous for his daring raids.

Nine others became generals, including Judson Kilpatrick, who led Major General William T. Sherman’s cavalry during his march through Georgia; Emory Upton, who became an influential military strategist with “a real genius for war,” as a fellow general put it; and Adelbert Ames, a Medal of Honor recipient who fought in many of the war’s major battles and later in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

 

1915
Starstruck

This became known as “the class the stars fell on.” More than a third of the 164 cadets became generals—a staggering figure never matched. Two (Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley) became five-star generals; two others became four-star generals, and seven more became lieutenant generals.

History has a lot to do with this exceptional record. These graduates were on hand to fight as lieutenants and captains in World War I, and they were in their mid-50s when World War II exploded—a good age to handle high command. When Eisenhower and Bradley rose to the stratosphere, they promoted men they trusted—including many former classmates.

Nonetheless, this cadet class earned its glory through hard work. When I interviewed Bradley in the mid-1960s, he said Eisenhower underperformed as president because of the war’s toll. “No one understands that Ike was a very tired man,” he said. “During those years in Europe, he worked 28-hour days, seven days a week. We all did.”

 

1952
Straddling Two Wars

These cadets graduated into the Korean War and 10 years later rose to high command in Vietnam. The result was 4 lieutenant generals, 15 major generals, 12 brigadiers—and 52 Purple Hearts. Among the notables in the class: Michael Collins, who commanded the pilot module on Apollo 11 and received a presidential Medal of Freedom; and Edward White, the first American to walk in space.

 

1976
Restoring Pride to the Army

No less than 33 generals have emerged from this class, among them Stanley McChrystal, famed special-ops commander, and Ray Odierno, the army’s chief of staff today. In 2009, McChrystal was in command in Afghanistan and Odierno ran things in post-surge Iraq—the first time that classmates performed such dual duty. What makes the ’76ers’ performance especially noteworthy is the sad state of the U.S. Army they inherited from the debacle of Vietnam. Although they have not produced such glittering triumphs as we saw in World War II, these men have helped revive the army’s pride and self-respect.

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8 Responses

  1. James M. Thompson

    I would suggest you look more carefully at the class of 1950. Many new graduates found themselves in combat in Korea instead of enjoying graduation leave. The class suffered many casualties but acquitted themselves well. Uniquely, two Graduates at the same time were chiefs of their respective services: John Wickham, US Army C/S and Charles A. Gabriel, C/S USAF. This couldn’t happen again. There were a handful of 4-star generals, numerous 3-star and a host of others. Surely, this was an outstanding class!

    Reply
  2. Mark Baker

    My personal bias goes with the class of 1974. Roughly in the same time frame durng the war on terror, 3 of the 4-stars from the class served as the head of the CIA after having responsibility for the middle east, the NSA and commanded the Korean theater. The other was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. They certainly were not the only leaders from the class in the mix. And don’t forget their contribution of to the business world.

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  3. Mike Belter

    I agree with Mark Baker that I would give more credit to the accomplishments of the Class of 1974 over 1976, and not because they were firsties when I was a plebe.

    I know the Class of 1976 has got some press for having 33 general officers, but with the large size classes since 70’s, that is not that big a deal. My class (’78) has 32 general officers and that does not count two permanent USMA heads of departments who retired as BGs.

    Reply
  4. Ashby Foote

    Ditto to Mark Baker and Mike Belter, The high achieving class of ’76’ benefited greatly in their character development from the up close and personal ‘squad leadership’ provided by the class of ’74’.

    Reply
  5. Mike Tatu

    The class of 76 benefited greatly from the Class of ’66 – a great class as well – they were our Tactical Officers and Instructors – and the class of ’73 our first squad leaders – not the class of ’74.

    “All I am and all I ever will be I owe to my first Detail Squad leader _____________!” (Mine was Mike Debow) – I guarantee we all remember who they are and I have long forgotten who my “74 Squad leaders.

    Rick Atkinson’s book “The Long Gray Line” chronicles the class of ’66.

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  6. Larry Renfro

    It seems there is some jealousy here. I, as a ’76 grad, do believe our class came through and did the transformation of the Army. Counting Generals? Please.

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  7. Edward Burr II

    June 1943 (514) has a combat award record of 1861 awards:: 5 DSC’s,52 Silver Stars,148 DFC’s,187 Purple Hearts,272 Bronze Stars,1197 Air Medals and lost 74 of its members either killed in combat or in training for it. No class in the history of the academy before or after can match this record. E.Burr II, Class President

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  8. Jack W. Martin

    As Cadets, there was some thought of us being “Black 51.” However, the record shows 35 general officers including Shy Meyer, Chief of Staff of the Army and Buzz Aldrin the second man on the moon. We also had a Chief of Chapains and Comptroller of the Army. Looks high ranking now.

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