Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point
by James S. Robbins, Encounter Books, 2006, 503 pages, $26.95
Tradition is at the heart of the military. The concept of participating in something larger than oneself is the spirit that drives men to perform feats of valor in unbelievably stressful circumstances. As Napoleon Bonaparte said, “All that needs be said is, ‘I was at Austerlitz’ to receive the reply, ‘There is a brave man.’”
Elite forces are particularly driven by pride in the traditions of the unit. From the “Immortals” of the Medes-Persian empire to American Civil War units like the Stonewall Brigade and the Iron Brigade to their modern counterparts, like the Green Berets of Vietnam and the Delta Team of today’s war on terrorism, the history and reputation of a unit are forged in its traditions. This is particularly true at American universities that send officers to our armed forces in large numbers.
Every member of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets is familiar with President Ronald Reagan’s famous speech at Normandy about the “men who took the cliffs” and the fact that those cliffs (Pointe du Hoc) were captured by a unit commanded by one of their own. At the Virginia Military Institute the graves of several of the dead cadets who charged through the “Field of Lost Shoes” at New Market are prominently located near the center of the campus. Nicknames abound at these institutions, such as “Fish” and “Rat,” to remind the new cadets of their place in the pecking order and that they too are just beginning a long, sometimes painful journey that will hopefully end with their admission to a rare and storied elite.
Nowhere is tradition more pronounced than at the three service academies, where gravestones, statues and tales of days gone by remind the new cadets of the magnitude of what they are doing. One of the most storied of these traditions at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point also involves a nickname, which is the subject of James S. Robbins’ latest book, Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point. Robbins, who teaches international relations at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., brings us the story of the West Point “goat,” the cadet who graduates last in his class. It is a story that takes the reader through over 100 years of West Point history and features some of the most colorful and memorable characters to pass through the halls of the academy. But Robbins also covers many other traditions of the school—from the infamous bartender Benny Haven to Flirtation Walk.
The nickname was strictly an unofficial title until 1886, but it has been a tradition at West Point almost from its beginnings. Robbins relays the surprising information that ranking last in one’s class was not always viewed as something negative. It was seen by most cadets as a badge of honor, and it was a position many cadets competed for. Cadets believed the goat symbolized a survivor, something any combat veteran could appreciate, and they noticed that he always received the loudest cheers from his classmates at graduation. The goat was chosen from a group known as “The Immortals,” who represented the cadets in danger of washing out. The ranks of The Immortals included some of the most celebrated cadets in the history of the academy, including such legendary generals as James Longstreet, Ulysses S. Grant, Winfield Scott Hancock and Philip Sheridan.
The famous friendship between Hancock and Lewis Armistead, so movingly portrayed in the novel The Killer Angels, probably began while they were members of this infamous group. Armistead was not quite the survivor Hancock was, however, and was eventually expelled from West Point. Other famous washouts include author Edgar Allen Poe as well as artist James Whistler.
The most reknowned of the West Point goats were George Armstrong Custer and George Pickett, both of whom became famous in two of America’s most celebrated military engagements. Custer, who rose from class goat in 1861 to become a successful cavalry commander in the Civil War, met his end in the most famous Indian battle in American history. His death at the Little Bighorn might have prevented him from becoming the only goat to be elected president of the United States. Pickett, of course, has his name attached to one of the world’s most famous charges.
But the stories do not end there. Second Lieutenant Charles Warner, goat of the class of 1862, won accolades for his valor in command of an artillery battery at the Battle of Antietam less than six months after his graduation. Powhatan Clarke, last in the class of 1884 and the son of a Confederate officer, ironically became the only goat to receive the Medal of Honor after he rescued a wounded soldier during the Geronimo campaign. He was an officer in the 10th U.S. Cavalry, known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.”
The goat designation was discontinued in the 1960s, along with many other West Point traditions. But the cadets at the Military Academy still honor the title unofficially when they let out a wild cheer for no apparent reason for a graduate whose grades are anything but outstanding.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.