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On April 12, 1861, at Charleston, South Carolina, General P. G. T. Beauregard, Confederate States of America, West Point graduate and one-time superintendent of the Academy, ordered his gunners to open fire on Fort Sumter. One of those to pull a lanyard was Wade Hampton Gibbes, who had graduated less than a year before. The Union commander at Fort Sumter was Major Robert Anderson, an Academy graduate who had been Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point.

The United States Military Academy, like every other institution in America, was torn apart by civil war. It was the last to divide. After the Democratic Convention of 1860, the Academy remained as the only truly national institution left in the United States. It was not surprising that this was so, for as the ‘National Academy’ it had consistently tried to eliminate sectional prejudice and foster national sentiments. As early as 1824 the Board of Visitors had reported that ‘cadets coming from every section of the country contribute much … to the extirpation of local prejudices and sectional antipathies.’ Five years later Secretary of War John H. Eaton advised President Jackson that the Academy ‘may be looked to as one of the strong bonds of our union.’ The cadets felt a sense of obligation to the Federal Government for their education; as first classman Joseph Ritner put it in a Fourth of July address in 1829, ‘We are the children of the Union … and should ever faction raise the fire-brand of sedition, and spread conflagration, turmoil, and confusion through our devoted land, then let it also be recorded, that from her army, at least, our country received a firm, devoted support.’

At the Academy the common experience of all cadets, regardless of social or sectional background, combined with a feeling of solidarity they shared as future members of a neglected and even despised profession to strengthen the ordinary bonds of college classmates. West Point was small enough to allow everyone else and to know the name and reputation of those who had preceded them in the Academy. In the Army, and even more so at West Point, the cadet or graduate was isolated from the rest of the world, and his friends and acquaintances were men who had shared the same experiences. The result was a feeling of comradeship, stronger than that in most college fraternities, and it overcame nearly all social, religious, and political differences. Even during the Civil War friendships born at West Point remained; one thinks of Grant sending congratulations across Petersburg’s trenches to George Pickett on the birth of his child. And one remembers also the time when during a truce after Fredericksburg, Custer wrote his classmate, Pelham, ‘I rejoice, dear Pelham, in your success.’ It was, of course, at Fredericksburg that Pelham’s guns did such good work that Lee called him the ‘gallant Pelham.’

The authorities did all they could to prevent politics from dividing the Corps. In the forties, Superintendent Richard Delafield dissolved the Dialectic Society for a year because it was debating subjects such as ‘Has a State under any circumstances the right to nullify an act of Congress?’ When he allowed it to reorganize, he limited it to noncontroversial topics. The Corps of Cadets, however, represented all sections of the country, and in the fifties, as political passions rose, divisions did begin to appear. Fights, especially during election periods, became more frequent. In the aftermath of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 there were many heated arguments and at least one duel. A Georgia Cadet, Pierce M.B. Young, hanged Brown’s body in effigy from one of the windows at the barracks. In a Fourth of July address the next year first classman William W. McCreery condemned the outbreaks, maintained that the ‘noble Union’ would not dissolve, and concluded, ‘Let us put from us the seeds of sectional strife and draw closer and closer the bonds of this glorious union.’ Two years later Lieutenant McCreery resigned from the army and joined the forces of his native Virginia. He died in action at the Battle of Gettysburg.

In September 1860 an unknown group of cadets held a mock election in the Corps for President. Some 214 of the 278 cadets voted, 99 of them for the Southern Democrat candidate John C. Breckinridge, 47 for the Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, 44 for the Constitutional Union candidate John Bell, and 24 for Republican Abraham Lincoln. Southerners were jubilant, but Yankee cadets were furious. Second classmen Emory Upton of New York claimed that Southerners had prevented Northerners form voting, there was talk that all the tellers were Southerners, and the Yankees dismissed the whole thing as a Southern project.

The final break began just two months later, when the first Southern cadet resigned to join the forces of his native state. Henry S. Farley, a political fire-eater with appropriate red hair, left the Academy on November 19, a month and a day before his state, South Carolina, seceded. Four days after Farley’s departure, another South Carolina cadet, James Hamilton, resigned. In December the remainder of the South Carolina contingent, along with three Mississippians and two Alabamians, also left. One of the Alabama cadets was second classman Charles P. Ball, first sergeant of Company A and heir to the captaincy of the Corps. Ball was one of the most popular cadets. When he was about to leave he revived an old custom, calling the cadets to attention in the mess hall and saying some parting words. A classmate remembered that his voice was clear and strong as he called out, ‘Battalion, attention! Good-bye, boys! God Bless you all!’ Thereupon the members of his class hoisted him onto their shoulders and carried him to the wharf.

Resignation came hard to most Southern cadets, even those who had no qualms about secession. Pierce Young, first classman from Georgia, after his state seceded told his parents ‘you and others down there don’t realize the sacrifice resigning means.’ He reminded them that ‘it is a hard thing to throw up a diploma from the greatest institution in the world when that diploma is in my very grasp and you know that diploma would give me preeminence over the other men in any profession.’ He was hurt because Georgia had offered him only a second lieutenancy in her state forces. ‘The idea of giving me a second lieutenant when in a year I would have been offered the same position in the most aristocratic and highly educated army in the world is indeed hard.’ His father advised him to stay on at West Point and graduate, then resign his commission and join the Confederate forces. Young was going to do so, but when the war began decided he could not wait no longer and resigned.

For a brief period during the secession crisis the superintendent was a Southerner, Captain P.G.T. Beauregard. He relieved Delafield on January 23, 1861. A day or so later a cadet from his state of Louisiana called on Beauregard and asked him whether or not he should resign. The Superintendent replied, ‘Watch me: and when I jump, you jump. What’s the use of jumping too soon?’ As soon as the Secretary of War, Joseph Holt, heard rumors that Beauregard intended to resign when Louisiana left the Union, he relieved him and on January 28 Delafield once again assumed the duties of superintendent, this being his third term. He served for six weeks until a replacement, Alexander H. Bowman, could relieve him.

Until the second week in April, most of the attention at West Point centered on Southern officers and cadets, as everyone speculated on which ones would resign and which would not. Perhaps to hide their own doubts and misgivings, the Southerners tended to proclaim their views often loudly, and they assumed that most if not all the officers and cadets agreed with them. The idea that the Army and West Point were pro-slavery was popular throughout much of the South. In February 1861 Lieutenant Oliver O. Howard, an instructor at the Academy, received an offer of a professorship in North Carolina, with the final 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.’ And when Lieutenant Alexander McCook accepted the colonelcy of an Ohio regiment, a Kentucky officer at the Academy said in McCook’s hearing, ‘A West Point man who goes into the volunteers to fight against the South forgets every sentiment of honor!’

The firing on Fort Sumter changed everything. Northern cadets who had been indifferent to or even sympathized with secession suddenly realized what was at stake. A meeting was arranged by word of mouth, and that night all the Northern cadets met in the room of William Harris, where they sang ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ so that it could be heard across the river. It was, Morris Schaff remembered, ‘the first time I ever saw the Southern contingent cowed. All of their Northern allies had deserted them and they were stunned.’ The next day all the professors, including Virginia-born Dennis H. Mahan, made patriotic speeches, and Dr. John French offered all the money he had to strengthen the government exchequer. A few days later, when an officer who had been at Fort Sumter visited West Point, he was joyously serenaded.

By this time Southerners were leaving nearly every day, including two instructors, Lieutenants Fitzhugh Lee and Charles W. Field. But the old ties were still there: one cadet remembered later that ‘between the men of the several sections of the country there was no bitterness manifest, nothing but expressions of sorrow and disappointment.’ This was especially true in the case of Lee who, like his famous uncle, left only after his native Virginia had seceded and then with great regret. A big, cheerful, smiling man who had almost been dismissed on several occasions during his cadet career because of his pranks, Fitz Lee was probably the most popular officer at the Academy. On the night of his departure the officers of the post serenaded him and the entire corps of cadets stood, hats in hand, in front of the barracks as he went past.

By May 1861, most of the Southern cadets were gone. Out of a total Corps of 278, there were 86 Southerners, of whom 65 resigned. The new superintendent, Major Bowman, noted that the remaining 21 were discontented, restless, and neglecting their studies-but, for that matter, so were the Yankees, the excitement being what it was. Bowman was convinced most of the 21 were merely waiting for permission from their parents to resign, and to force them out before they could ’cause a commotion’ he ordered all cadets to sign an oath of allegiance. Some of the Southerners from border states hesitated, causing New Yorker Upton to remark, ‘The Government will know who are loyal and who are traitors.’ Eventually all signed and fought for the Union. In August Bowman held another oath-signing ceremony, this time with the words, ‘I will maintain and defend the sovereignty of the United States, paramount to any and all allegiance, sovereignty, or fealty I may owe to any State, county, or country whatsoever.’ Two Kentuckians refused to sign, including plebe John C. Singleton, who was thereupon dismissed. Singleton went home, joined the Union Army, and was killed in action.

In the first weeks of the war the cadets felt an acute sense of isolation. ‘I suppose there is a great deal of stir and preparation for war going on in the country,’ Cullen Bryant wrote his father, ‘though I have as yet seen but very few evidences of it. We are almost completely secluded and shut out from the rest of the world.’ The war news from all over the country was tremendously exciting, but at West Point, now that the Southerners had left, all was quiet and normal-maddeningly so. All over the North Volunteer companies and regiments were being formed, men were marching off to war to stirring martial tunes, with pretty girls’ kisses on their cheeks, and the great crusade was underway. But at West Point, nothing. The young heroes, eager to save their nation, were ignored. In retaliation they ridiculed the more fortunate. Cadet Bryant sneeringly told his father he did not expect the Volunteer companies at home were much to look at, and he supposed the officers were ‘rather poor specimens.’ Bryant, who had been at the Academy for ten months, pontificated, ‘experience only can make an efficient officer. I am afraid our volunteer companies would make a rather poor show in a fight with disciplined troops.’

The Cadets often announced their contempt for civilians-turned-soldiers, so they were dismayed when they saw high rank in the Volunteer regiments going to untrained men when the best they had to look forward to was a second lieutenancy in a Regular regiment, and that would probably be a brevet rank. They watched with envious eyes as their Southern classmates became captains or more in the state forces, ranks a Regular Army officer could hardly hope to reach before he was forty. And they were absolutely furious when they discovered that the Secretary of War, in expanding the Regular Army, was giving commissions in it to mere civilians. Those who received the appointments would permanently rank ahead of the first classmen, who would not graduate and receive their commissions until June, for in the Army a man’s position and thus his promotions, depended upon the date of appointment. The system of cadet rankings had taught the students they were expected to fight for higher rank, and they learned the lesson well. Many, including William Harris, whose father was a United States Senator, wrote complaining letters on the subject to their Congressmen, but it did no good.

Some cadets listened closely to the enticing offers of the state governors, politicians who realized that their Volunteer forces needed at least a smattering of professionalism. The governors offered a captaincy or a majority or in a few cases even a colonelcy to home-state cadets. For the young men the temptation was great, but so were the drawbacks. They would be commanding citizen soldiers, and they had an ingrained prejudice against such warriors. They would have to resign from the Academy which first and second classmen found difficult, especially since General in Chief Scott had made it clear he did not want any Regular officers joining the Volunteer forces. Scott argued that this would so weaken the Regular Army that it would never recover, and he forced officers to resign their commissions before they could join the Volunteers. Later in the war, after Henry Halleck replaced Scott, he encouraged Regulars to join the Volunteers, hoping thereby to improve the citizen-soldiers’ efficiency, and many did so. Under the Halleck system they retained their grade and position in the Regular Army, while rising as far as their abilities could take them in the Volunteers. For example, Emory Upton, an 1861 graduate of the Academy who in late 1862 joined the New York volunteers, was still a lieutenant in the Regulars when he was a brevet major general in the Volunteers. Others who rose to gain their stars included George Custer and James H. Wilson, while those who remained in the Regular Army, including Morris Schaff and Henry du Pont, remained junior officers.

In early 1861 all the possibilities presented endless topics for discussion, as the cadets marveled over the colonelcy one had received, what another had been offered, and what a third intended to do. A number sent in their resignations after accepting Volunteer commissions, but to their disgust the superintendent refused to accept them. Major Bowman argued that they were not ready to represent the Academy in the field, although he admitted that they would probably do better than most of those already serving as Volunteer officers, and he feared that if he accepted any resignations for the purpose of serving as Volunteers, the entire Corps would resign.

Like most Americans, the cadets assumed the war would consist of one gigantic battle, with the winner marching on and capturing the loser’s capital. The inactivity and isolation at West Point, the continuation of regular classes, and the seeming blindness of the authorities who refused to call them immediately into active service, all made the cadets frantic. They were certain the great battle would be fought without them. Cadet Bryant complained about being ‘completely secluded,’ and commented bitterly that ‘we might as well be at some frontier post a thousand miles from any settlement.’ When they heard in March that the midshipmen at Annapolis were going to graduate early and go to war, the first classmen held a series of informal meetings and decided upon a course of action. The cadets each wrote their Congressmen, asking that they urge the Secretary of War to graduate the first class early. As a group, they sent a petition to the Secretary of War himself, pointing out that the Secretary of the Navy had ordered the first class at Annapolis into the active service and arguing that they were just as ready and willing to assume their responsibilities. The Secretary, Simon Cameron, responded favorably, and on May 6, 1861, without benefit of either graduation ceremonies or the traditional furlough, the first class went off to war-or, in actual fact, to Washington, where they spent the next months drilling Volunteers.

Encouraged by their predecessors’ success, the new first class also petitioned Cameron, once again with success, and on June 24, a year early, the cadets were examined, graduated, and ordered to Washington. They received their commissions in General Scott’s office with President Abraham Lincoln present for the ceremony, then went out in the field to serve as drill masters. By July both classes had done so well in their tasks that Cameron ordered the new first class, the third of that year, to begin recitations and prepare for graduation. Three days later, just as it began to appear that West Point would soon have no cadets at all, Cameron rescinded his hasty decision and postponed the graduation until the next year. For the rest of the war classes graduated at the regular intervals.

During the next four years there was not much change in the routine at West Point, but the Academy did have to face a vicious attack launched against it by the Radical Republicans. The politicians charged that West Point was disloyal-the leading generals and the President of the Confederate States of America were graduates-and that its products were inferior soldiers. The attack reached a frenzy during the dark days of 1863, but died out after the Union victories of that summer. Grant, Sherman, and the others who had made West Point’s name famous throughout the world effectively answered the charges of incompetence, and the fact that it was Academy graduates who led the armies to final victory answered the charge of treason.

The last institution in America to divide, the Academy was one of the first to reunite. Grant and Lee at Appomattox set the pattern, and all over the South, as the Confederate armies surrendered, senior and junior officers who had been classmates at West Point held individual reunions. In 1869 a formal alumni association was formed, composed of members from both Blue and Gray armies, and whatever bitterness that had existed was soon forgotten.

The United States Military Academy emerged from the war one of America’s most hallowed institutions. Grant, a tanner’s son, Sherman, an orphan, and many others made the old charges of its aristocratic nature absurd. Not a single graduate had made any attempt to take over the civilian government, either in the North or South-although General George McClellan did make a couple of frightening but empty statements along those lines-and the ancient fear of military domination was lessened. Most important, Americans North and South were immensely proud of their armies, and they made the men who led them heroes, superior soldiers, so it was said, to any others in the world. And the leaders were West Pointers.


This article was written by Stephen E. Ambrose and originally published in Civil War Times Illustrated Magazine in August 1965.

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