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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.