Thursday, August 30, 2012

West Point United States Military Academy Before the Civil War

By General S. W. Ferguson (C. S. A).

Mortars at West Point
The reminiscences which follow are among the most valuable that have been written of a period in many ways the most romantic in our country's history, in spite of the gathering cloud of civil war. General Ferguson was a cadet at West Point during the years when Gen. Robert E. Lee was superintendent of the academy, and was the room­mate of Fitzhugh Lee, General Lee's nephew. Afterward he was William Henry Fitzhugh Lee's groomsman at his wedding to Miss Carter, and had opportunity to observe Robert E. Lee in his home. These reminiscences are doubly valuable, then, as they describe intimately the life and customs at West Point before the war, and at the same time bring us close to that remarkable man who led the Confederate army, the personal side of whom has so strangely slipped our historians.—EDITOR.

Of my class which en­tered the Military Academy at West Point in 1852, about one hun­dred and fifteen strong, some thirty odd were graduated; of these only a few are still alive. Should any of them see these lines, I trust that they will awaken in them pleasant memories of those times and of the writer.

I chanced to be the first of the class to report for duty, and this soon made me acquainted with one of the traditions of the Point. "Plebe, you were the first man in your class to report?"


"My God, plebe! I am sorry for you; you will be found deficient sure!"

There was another tradition certain to be imparted to anyone it happened to fit, viz., that it was very difficult for any white-headed boy to be graduated. If in addition to having a white head he chanced to play the fiddle then impossible. Many tricks, some of them very funny, were played on the plebes. This was called "running it on the plebes," for the word "hazing" and the practices designated by it were then un­known. Anything approaching brutality was discountenanced and prevented by the old cadets of the first class. I will illustrate by an incident. Among the very common tricks was this: A plebe fast asleep in his tent would be jerked out by the heels and left on his back on the camp ground. By the time he could get his eyes well opened his assailants were out of sight or vanishing; the plebe gathered himself up and went back to bed. It was provoking, no doubt, but not so bad. I speak from personal ex­perience. In the case in question, however, the plebe, after being dragged out, was hit a severe blow on the head with a tent-pin. This reached the ears of some of us who were first-class men and made us so indignant that we went to the plebe and told him that he must give the fellow who had hit him a thrashing, or try to do so. This he was eager to do, but feared that he would be dismissed for fighting. We satisfied him on this point and the challenge was sent and the fight arranged to come off at Kos­ciusko's Garden — a regular rough - and ­tumble fight, what they call in Georgia "fist and skull." I was the plebe's second, and I had some misgivings as to the success of my man, who though much the larger of the two, was young and raw, while the other, an old cadet, was hard and compact and had learned something of the noble art in the school of the Bowery. For a while he had a decided advantage, but they clinched and soon the cry "enough" was heard and the combatants at once separated, my man the victor. The fight was in as hard a rain as could fall and we were all soaked to the skin, but I returned to camp well pleased. The plebe was Rosser, from Texas, afterward a distin­guished major-general of cavalry in the Confederate army, and during the Span­ish War a brigadier-general in the United States army. I did not wonder at the fel­low calling out "enough" when I found that Rosser had the latter's thumb between his teeth.

Early portrait of Robert E. Lee
After getting my dry clothes, I went to the hotel to see my parents, who had come to visit me, and slipped up-stairs to my brother's room for a good drink of whisky after my ducking. This was going off limits, an offense against the regulations liable to be severely punished. While still off limits, giving an animated account of the fight to a group of ladies, a small boy, son of the hotel-keeper, chanced to appear. Some of the ladies, fearing he might men­tion that a cadet was there, cautioned him not to say anything about it. I felt sure this was the very thing to make him do so and following him to the head of the stairs, I saw him go up to Captain Cadmus Wilcox, the army officer in charge of one of the cadet companies, say something to him and point upstairs. I acted promptly. When Cadmus, who was promenading with a lady on each arm and evidently did not hear, stooped to catch what he was saying, I got down the flight of stairs in one slide with my arm over the rail; when Cadmus looked up I was standing near him quite unconcerned. Months afterward one of the ladies to whom I had been talking, the wife of the Marquis of Montholon, spent the day at the Point. We were chatting, sitting by a fountain on Flirtation Walk, when I saw this small boy approaching. When he got close to me I jumped up, caught him, turned him up­side down and dipped his head into the fountain so that the water could run into his nose, then I put him on his legs again without saying a word. He took one long breath, then started full speed up the path and did not waste breath in crying, until some distance off. The Madame had looked on in surprise, but when I had explained the cause of my action she laughed most heartily. That was one debt paid in full.

During my plebe days the tents of the cadets were furnished with plank floors raised a few inches from the ground, and the cadets slept on the floors with no bedding but a pair of blankets, so it was an easy matter to jerk one out by the heels. Toward the end of the encampment, after I had been repeatedly on guard and felt that I had passed the stage for most of the tricks, I waked suddenly one bright moonlight night, flat on my back in the company ground, and got a glimpse of a cadet running off as fast as he could. I jumped up and put out after him; he made for the guard tents, and to get there he had to cross the post of a sentinel, who allowed him to cross it without challenge. I knew then that a member of the guard had played the trick and determined to have my fun too, so I kept up the chase, in my single garment, a long night-gown trailing in the moon­light; as I approached the sentinel's post he challenged loudly, and frantically ordered me to halt; to all of which I paid no atten­tion, and I got over his post before he dreamed that I would venture to so violate its sanctity, and pursued the fugitive, who raised the back of one of the guard tents and dodged in; after him I went, amid the maledictions of the relief, then off duty and try­ing to get some sleep; out of that tent and into another we went, with the same result. By this time the guard was all aroused. The officer of the guard, who realized that it would not do to let the af­fair be known, instead of arresting, spoke kindly to me, persuading me to return quietly to my tent. All the time I was almost overcome by the desire to laugh aloud, picturing to myself what a ridiculous figure I presented, and of the more ridicu­lous plight of the old guardsman chased into the very guard tent by a plebe. I returned to my tent muttering threats, but enjoying the joke. I never heard anything more of it, nor the name of the cadet I chased.

On our return to barracks I roomed with Cadet Owen, of Ohio, a good fellow of whom I became very fond. At the January examination, the section in mathematics to which I belonged was examined on the first day. That night, after supper, I went to my room, and there found Owen and a cadet from Maine, named Frank, very busy studying something, and withdrew at once.

After "call to quarters" I returned, and Owen told me that Frank, who stood very low in mathematics, had come to him in great distress, saying that he feared he would not be able to pass the examination and would be sent away, and that his father had told him in such event never to return home. Owen did what he could to cheer him, and at haphazard said: "There is Ferguson in the third section. To-day he was called on to deduce the rule for the division of polynomials. Who knows but you may have the same thing tomorrow? Sit down and let us go over it together." This they were doing when I opened the door. By chance, certainly most wonder­ful, on the next day Frank had the same problem assigned him, and, thanks to Owen's coaching, did so well that he passed. At the following June examina­tion, I was peeping in one of the windows of the library where the examination was being held, and saw Frank, who had placed many figures on the blackboard, suddenly take up the sponge and rub them all out, then take up the pointer, and face the Academic board, a sign that he was ready. When called on, he went through the usual formula, "I am required to do so and so, and ----" He was going on to say "I can't do it," but before he could artic­ulate the sentence the pointer dropped from his hand and he fell unconscious. I ran around to the door and met those who were bringing him out, and helped take 'him to the hospital. He lingered for several days, without ever regaining consciousness, and died of brain fever. We buried him in the Cadet Cemetery. He was a large strong man and used to say that he had never been sick, and had never taken a dose of medicine in his life. His brother was appointed in his place and came to the Point while I was away on furlough. So alike were they in size and appearance that at first sight I knew him and shook hands with him. Their difference in mental qualities was so great however, that the younger brother was graduated high enough to be assigned to the corps of engineers. He attained the grade of major-general during the Civil War and as Gen. Royal T. Frank distinguished him­self in Cuba.

General Robert E Lee at close of Civil War
The next year Fitz Lee and I wished to room together, but there were obstacles in the way. The battalion of cadets was divided into four companies, the tall men in the flank and the short men in the center companies. Transfers were allowed only between flank and flank or center and center companies, and room-mates had to be in the same company. Now Fitz was short of stature and I was tall. There was no chance of my stooping, so he had to rise to the required height, This he did by putting on a pair of trousers too long for him and a pair of my heavy boots much too large for him, while into these were stuffed socks and other things until he really stood on his toes. The battalion was formed in single file facing to the left, the tall men ordered to the left, the short to the right. Fitz took his place among the tallest, and was indignantly ordered by the first officer who noticed him to go far down. He went but a few files and slipped in again. The next officer that came by gave the same order and Fitz repeated the maneuver time after time. He had started among those much taller than myself; I saw him hustled by me, then lost sight of him, until the sorting was over. He was cut off in the half of the battalion composed of the tall men, however, and the rest was plain sailing. We got together and had a great deal of fun, but we would no doubt have gone through the academic course with more credit to ourselves and more satisfaction to our respective families had we been separated. Fitz was always most popular, full of fun and ready for any devilment. Once during the encampment we were both under arrest for some caper and (as was customary) we had to march to the mess hall with the guard, instead of with the battalion. At that time Scott's tactics were used, and we were always formed in two ranks. The squad, under command of Corporal Montague, was marching to the mess hall and had almost reached the chapel when General Scott himself appeared and crossed our path in front of us. The corporal, on seeing the great general, straightened himself like a ramrod, called out in his most martial tones, "Close up there," and stepped out, toes pointed and eyes rigidly to the front. Fitz and I were in the rear of the column. To my amazement and consternation Fitz jumped one side, picked up a round stone and sent it bowling along the flag-stones close by the general and was back in his place, as rigid as anyone, in a second. The old general stopped, looked up, then around; there was nothing in sight but the squad of the guard. He could not imagine that the stone came from such a source and resumed his walk. We had not gone more than a few steps when Fitz repeated the performance, saying on each occasion as he got back in his place, "Ha! old big general, you can't catch me." By this time we had passed the front of the chapel and the general was out of sight. The last glimpse I had of him he was looking around for the source whence came the rocks. I have often wondered what would have been the thoughts of the corporal had he known what was going on, and I have wondered, too, what report he would have made. I was bad­ly scared, I must confess, but it was nevertheless very funny. One must have known the pompous old general to be able to realize how indignant he looked at the carelessness of anyone allowing a rock to be thrown so near him, the commander - in - chief of the army. A short time after, at the grand ball always given before striking camp for bar­racks, Fitz walked up to the general, introduced himself and had quite an animated conver­sation with him.

On July 1st of my plebe year I was surprised to see the om­nibus driven close to the edge of the camp ground and four men in citizen's clothes alight. Immediately there was a rush of ca­dets to them and a most surprising amount of hugging, hand-shaking and even kissing ensued. It was a mystery to me, but I learned that the four were cadets Sheridan, Edson, Davidson and Bowen, returning from a sen­tence of suspension; the first-named, for a fight with a corporal, consequent on offense taken against him while in the "legal and military discharge of his duty." Little did I imagine that the same fate awaited me! Or that the same little Phil Sheridan would play such a part in the destinies of his country and become the commander-in­-chief of the United States army. Bowen became a major-general in the Confederate army, and commanded the forces that opposed Grant when he crossed the Missis­sippi below Vicksburg, and distinguished himself greatly. His brilliant career was soon afterward brought to a close by illness and death. Davidson became a brigadier-general of cavalry in the Confederate army.

At this time Colonel Brewerton of the engineers was superintendent and Captain Alden of the infantry commandant of cadets. They were -succeeded in these offices by Col. Robert E. Lee and Major Robert Garnett, both strict disciplinarians and model soldiers in appearance and de­meanor. Colonel Lee had a perfect figure, a quick, active walk, and he was a most graceful rider. He rode a beautiful thoroughbred and his appearance on horse­back, typical both as to horse and rider of the perfect cavalier, invariably attracted admiration.

Fitz Lee was below medium height, well-formed and very thin. It would be difficult for those who knew him only in after-life to realize this; he was an excellent horse­man and very proud of his wrestling skill, acquired, he always said, from "rastling with the nigger boys on the plantation in old Virginia." We were room-mates for a long time, and never had the slightest difference or falling out. On one occasion we had a little scuffle, however, which came about in this way. He could always throw me. One day, Cadet McMillan, who occupied the opposite room, showed me a trick in wres­tling much in vogue in western New York.

I was pretty sure that Fitz had not learned it in his Virginia school, so I practiced it and when a good opportunity offered, got scuffling with him and tried it with perfect success. Then I jumped on the bed, where I lay kicking up my heels and laughing. He said I could not do it again and dared me to try; I told him it was too easy and kept on laughing. He got so provoked at last that he jerked me by the heels to the floor. I picked up the bucket of water and let him have the contents over his brand new dress coat. How far we might have gone I do not know had not some cadets, hearing the noise, run in to see what was up. I never let him draw me into another match, for I knew he would throw me. I reserved my one victory to brag about.

Lieutenant Fitzhugh Lee
I got into serious difficulty for attacking a corporal, who I thought had done me an injustice; I was arrested in the act, tried by general court-martial and sentenced to be suspended and to join the next lower class. In consequence of this, I was not graduated until 1857 instead of 1856. I have always entertained the kindliest feelings for Simon Bolivar Buckner, who was a member of that court, and who on several occasions when the court would not allow my ques­tions to be put very quietly brought out what I wanted by questions of his own, and so, though I was found guilty, as was in­evitable, all the offensive specifications were stricken out.

The favorite song of the cadets, often sung with gusto even after being graduated and when stationed in some frontier outpost, was "Benny Havens, Oh!" In my day old Benny lived on the bank of the Hudson, kept a bar and furnished excellent meals, which were served by two charming daughters. When the river was frozen over it was easy for the cadets to skate there and get a feast of buckwheat cakes and roast turkey, dainties not on the mess-hall bill of fare. There was a similar place, though not so famous, back of the village of Buttermilk Falls, kept by one Spellman. On a memorable Saturday afternoon, Fitz and I slipped down there on pleasure bent. I was in citizen's clothes, itself a serious infraction of the regulations. Mrs. Spell­man was out visiting when we arrived, but came in soon afterward, divested herself of her fine visiting gown and got to work pre­paring the dinner we had ordered. Fitz chanced to see her gown and bonnet lying on the bed, and immediately got into them, without saying "by your leave." The four-seated buggy, with the driver, was in front of the house; we jumped in and ordered the driver to take us to Benny's. We had to pass through the village, where all the in­habitants knew the rig and, no doubt, the gown and hat, but in trying to make out the passengers, which they were unable to do, certainly proved themselves rubber­necks; while Fitz and I indulged in some rather amorous demonstrations. Arrived at Benny's, we went first to the bar and ordered a hot punch apiece; the crew of a schooner lying at the wharf were in the room, and seemed surprised at our en­trance. While we were taking our toddy one of them stepped up and attempted to embrace Fitz, who rewarded him with a ringing slap on the jaw, at which he showed fight. It was ludicrous to see Fitz in frock and bonnet stand in boxing attitude. Some of the sailors started to aid their comrade, others said it served him right. Benny, who had not recognized us and had no idea who we were, also interfered and quiet was restored. We then went up-stairs to the dining-room, where quite a party of cadets were at table. They all, with one exception, recognized us at once. This one had drunk too much, and at first sight fell desperately in love and overwhelmed the supposed lady with attentions. The lady proved very coy, but the more we remonstrated and pro­tested, the more marked became his atten­tions. At last he was made to understand his mistake and there was much merriment at his expense. We drove back, not only through the village, but to the very edge of the post, passing several officers on the way, and got back without being dis­covered. The affair was soon the topic of gossip, started, I suppose, by some love-sick cadet telling his sweetheart in strictest con­fidence what he knew. I heard some ver­sions of it that I failed to recognize.

Our next and last visit to Spellman's was not a howling success. After taps one night, we placed in our beds dummies so skillfully constructed that they should at a glance have satisfied the curiosity of any reasonable inspecting officer who might by chance make the rounds that night, and, in company with a classmate, Dick Lord, went to Spellman's, where we rolled ten-pins, had a supper and a good time generally. On returning to the post just before daylight, we were challenged and heard the guard whisper: "You fellows have been inspected every half-hour since twelve o'clock." We knew then that we were in a bad fix, for the penalty for absence from quarters after taps, for half an hour, was dismissal. We were promptly placed un­der arrest, and a general court-martial was convened "for trial of Cadet Ferguson, of South Carolina, and such other prisoners as might properly be brought before it." We were found guilty, of course, and sen­tenced to be dismissed, but the punishment was changed to confinement within certain limits for some months, and to walk back­ward and forward, in front of the barracks, for ever so many Saturdays, equipped with essentials, while the other cadets were out enjoying themselves. For this leniency we were indebted to the active exertions of friends in Washington, especially to Senator Mason, of Virginia, and Senator Butler, of South Carolina. The two kept house to­gether and the former was a relative of Fitz, while the latter was a friend of my father. After the sentence of the court had been promulgated, Colonel Lee sent for me and gave me a fatherly talk. I never shall forget how very kind he was. He told me of meeting my old father in Washington, who had made the journey there in my behalf, for he too was an old soldier, having served through the War of 1812 as aid-de-camp to Gen. Thomas Pinckney.

Soon afterward, Colonel Lee was relieved from duty at the Military Academy, and took command of a regiment of cavalry of which he was made colonel. We were truly sorry when he left, for his almost per­fect character could not fail to impress all who came in contact with him. I saw him but once after he left West Point. I will digress a little to tell of it. I was at home in Charleston on furlough during the winter of 1859, when I received from his son, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, an invitation to be one of his groomsmen at his marriage to Miss Carter, at Shirley, on the James River. Most of the wedding party went together by steamer from Richmond two or three days before the ceremony and were all entertained in true Virginia style at the plantation mansion. The young men were lodged in several outbuildings. I had a rare opportunity of seeing the great soldier in his home life among relatives and friends. One thing which I noted particularly was his extreme modesty — I might almost say bashfulness. His older brother, Mr. Carter Lee, told a capital story, sang a good song and was the life of any party of which he happened to be a member. After dinner, when the cloth had been removed and the old Madeira brought on, the ladies did not retire, as the custom was, but remained to hear Mr. Carter Lee's songs and stories.

He would invariably toast the army and call upon Colonel Lee, the senior officer present, to respond, and everyone would repeat the call. The colonel would raise his glass of Madeira, bow to the company and take a sip of the wine, but never a toast would he give. I watched him closely, and upon my word, he blushed like a girl, yet there was no one present but relatives, except a few young officers, who had been under him at West Point.

In consequence of my having been sus­pended, Fitz was graduated from the Academy one year before me. My heart was sad when he left, for we had been as close friends as men could be. He wrote me often from Carlisle barracks, where he was first stationed. One of his letters gave a description of a bulldog which in my honor he had named "Wragg" (my middle name, at once adopted by the cadets as a nickname, and by which I was always known in the army). It seemed that one of the officers had a bulldog which whipped everything, so Fitz got a buggy and searched the country for miles to find a dog that could master the champion. Wragg was found and accomplished the feat.

Robert E Lee towards the end of his life
Fitz was afterward in Texas, fighting Indians, under Van Dorn. I regret the loss of a letter from him giving a description of what he called his prize-fight. It was written soon after the occurrence and had the spirit of the action. I will give it as well as I can from memory after a lapse of nearly fifty years. The Indians, after a stubborn fight, had been defeated and scattered in the chaparral; Fitz was in pursuit and chanced to go alone up the dry bed of a water-course. When he came to a precipice a few feet in depth he jumped down, and as he landed, an Indian who had been standing close against the wall on one side, with arrow in bow drawn to its full extent, attempted to shoot him. The space was too narrow and he failed. Fitz, too, had not room to use his revolver, so each dropped his weapon and closed in a death struggle. Here Fitz's skill in wrestling came well into play, for after a hard tussle he threw his man. Then came another struggle for weapons —Fitz trying to drag his foe so that he could reach his pistol, the Indian trying to drag Fitz so that he could reach his spear; it was nip and tuck, when, fortunately for Fitz, a bugler boy happened on the scene. Fitz made him hand him his coveted pistol, and with it he blew out the Indian's brains. In another fight, when he was shot through the lung with an arrow, it was thought that he must surely die. Kimmel, one of my class­mates who was in the fight, told me that he went to see Fitz after his wound had been dressed and asked how he felt. The answer, given in a cheerful tone, was: "Wilting, as it were."

Of all the exercises at West Point, the cavalry drill delighted me most. I would gladly have drilled every day. When the riding lessons were commenced in the second year, to be compelled to sit up with a rein in each hand and go round the riding hall at a walk, or at the best, at a slow trot, was irksome work. At this time those who had never before mounted a horse were receiv­ing their first lessons in the school of the mounted trooper. All cadets had to go through the same course in all departments with the exception of the mathematical course, and the first section of the class pursued the study of algebra somewhat further than did the others. This annoy­ance was compensated for when we got to shooting with pistols and cutting with sabers the stuffed heads in the riding hall, and to jumping and charging on the plain. Among the horses brought to the Academy for the use of the cadets was a lot of young ones from Canada; these were ridden first by the dragoons of a detachment stationed at the post. Among the horses was a hand­some dark bay named Quaker. None of the dragoons could ride him, and Davant, a cadet from South Carolina, was called upon to break him, which he did, and Quaker became a celebrated horse. After Davant was graduated, several cadets in turn got him during their last year at the Academy, when the cadets were allowed to select their steeds for the year; among these were Charley Lamed and Fitz Lee, then came my turn. He was the most delightful sad­dle horse I ever rode, but a perfect devil when he got mad, which would happen on the slightest provocation. I parted with Quaker with regret when I was graduated, and always inquired about him when I met any officer just from the Point. I rode him at the exhibition drill before the Board of Visitors and was much complimented by one of the board, the celebrated Texas Ranger, Ben McCollough. Among the batteries cap­tured by the Confederates at the first battle of Manassas was one drawn by horses from West Point, and we recognized several of them. I looked for Quaker, but did not find him. Davant, above mentioned, was an ex­tremely powerful man, and by long odds the best swimmer of the white race I have ever seen, yet by a strange fatality he met a tragic death soon after he was graduated, while fording the Rio Grande on horseback.

After Fitz was graduated I roomed first with John S. Marmaduke and afterward with S. Sprig Carroll, of Washington, D. C., both fine fellows whose friendship I enjoyed to the end of their lives. Marmaduke became a major-general in the Confederate army and Carroll rose to the same rank in the Federal army. Both Fitz and Mar­maduke became governors of their respect­ive States. After being graduated, the class went in a body to New York, where we had the customary frolic. In a day or two all had separated for their respective homes, many of us never to meet again, and some to meet as enemies on the battlefield. One thing of which all West Pointers felt proud was the brotherly love and kindness shown by both sides to fellow graduates when taken prisoners, or when otherwise in dis­tress. I have heard the story told of Fitz Lee, that on one occasion when scouting with a squadron of cavalry in the debatable country between Fairfax Court-House and Alexandria he captured a picket of a simi­lar command under Tom Height, and learned that the latter was taking break­fast in a farmhouse. Fitz went in alone, found Tom at table with his back to the door, so he was able to get up to him and slap him on the back before saying: "I think Tom, you might have put out one picket." They took breakfast together and then Fitz sent an escort to conduct him to the Federal lines and bring back his horse, having, of course, first paroled him. This was to save him from the horrors of the Libby Prison. I served with Tom in the Sec­ond Dragoons and made with him a long and trying march over the Rocky Mountains in the depth of winter. I learned to love him for his cheerfulness and never-failing good spirits under all kinds of depressing circumstances. He was graduated from the Military Academy a handsome man; later he was disfigured by marks of smallpox. At one time when he was in St. Louis and walking quietly along the street a police­man arrested him, supposing him to be someone for whom a large reward was offered. In spite of protest and a request to be taken to the hotel or some other place to be identified, he was hustled to the com­mon jail and put into a cell that had been occupied by a negro with smallpox and there contracted the disease.

Col. Ben McCollough, of whom I have spoken, was so delighted with all that he saw at the Military Academy and with the cadets that he accompanied the grad­uating class to New York, and later jour­neyed as far as Washington with those of us who went South. Here he took us in charge and presented us to the President, James Buchanan, to the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, and to each member of the Cabinet, with all of whom he seemed a great favorite. I next saw him in Salt Lake City, where I was under command of Col. Albert Sidney Johnston in his ex­pedition against the Mormons. McCol­lough was sent by the Government as a peace commissioner to arrange terms of peace, and bloodshed was avoided.

From The Metropolitan Magazine, April 1908.


  1. Excellent website! I adore how it is easy on my eyes it is. I am questioning how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. Looking for more new updates. Have a great day!