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ANNUAL REUNION, JUNE 12, 1879
FRANCIS H. SMITH, LL.D.
SUPERINTENDENT OF THE VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTEb
p1 Fellow Graduates:—
The U. S. Military Academy has borne so prominent a part in the history of our country, since its organization in 1802, that efforts have been made, from time to time, to give form to the work it has accomplished. I do not propose, on this occasion of festive reunion, to enter upon the broad topic. I could say much that would tend to show the great value of this institution — directly, as an important element in the National defence, and indirectly, in the large influence it has exerted upon the educational and other great civil interests of the country.
My purpose now is simply to give a sketch of West Point as it appeared to me fifty years ago. It is a long period to look back upon. Most of the prominent actors of that scene have passed away. Still, there are memories of those early days which may now be recalled, and should be preserved, for they will serve to present Alma Mater in a form which cannot fail to be of interest to the generation coming after us.
Before I enter upon these reminiscences of the past, I would pause, for a moment, for a moment, to pay a tribute to the memory of a dear friend, recently gone to his rest at the advanced age of eighty-four years, who was a member of the Board of Visitors when I entered the Academy, and to whose kind offices I was indebted for my appointment as a cadet. I refer To Dr. Robert Archer, of Richmond, Va.
Dr. Archer was for many years an assistant surgeon in the U. S. Army and, while on duty at old Point, was appointed a member of the Board of Visitors. He was a physician of undoubted skill. He was a musician, artist and poet. He was a man of great inventive genius; and this was made available, when, in connection with his son-in‑law, Gen. Joseph R. Anderson, of the class of 1836, he aided in the development of the Tredegar Iron Works at p2Richmond, Va. His genial manners, his cordial hospitality, and his great conversational powers, made him friends everywhere.
But the quality which most impressed those who knew him best, was the fact that he was always the friend indeed to those who were in need. Prof. Dennis H. Mahan recognized in Dr. Archer, his earliest and best friend. Thrown into most intimate relations with him through fifty years of my life, having the charge of his son, his grandsons and his greatgrandson, in the Virginia Military Institute, it was a beautiful sight to witness this dear old man, as age advanced, mellowing under the gentle influence of the religion he embraced, and passing into the tomb in all the comfort and peace of a child of God. For fifty years he had watched my career with the interest of a father, and when death closed his eventful life, I mourned, as a son, one who had been to me, through this long period, the best and most steadfast of friends.
Let me now recall some memories which remain to me of West Point fifty years ago.
Fifty years ago I took passage on the old steamer "Constitution" from the foot of Cortlandt Street, New York, at 5 P. M. Steam had accomplished wonders since the days of Fulton, but it was half-past eleven o'clock before we reached West Point. The steamer did not stop. Her speed was slackened, and the passengers with their "West Point baggage" were put ashore by a small boat, guided by a connecting line from the steamer, and by which the boat was drawn back after landing her passengers.
I can never forget the impression of my first day at West Point, fifty years ago. I had just reached my sixteenth year. I was a stranger in a strange land, for scarce a familiar face appeared amidst the crowd of life swelling before me. The scene is vividly present to me at this moment. The orderly of the superintendent has me in charge, and I am wending my way to his office to sign my articles of enlistment. It was a momentous period with me. With trembling hand and a quivering heart I wrote my name, and recorded my age and nativity. My name was not an unfamiliar one. There had been some Smiths there before, and there have been many, very many since. My native State — Virginia! A feeling of pride thrilled through me, as I wrote that name, for Virginians early learn to love their honored mother. I honored her then, I honor her now, and I was proud to know she was p3honored there. But the feeling was only momentary. The absorbing thought with me was the new life upon which I was entering. Here I was, a tall and awkwardº "plebe," and the more awkward because I was a September plebe, and the object of universal observation and comment even with my own class. And yet, with all the awkwardness of my position, there was a lesson impressed upon me, in that first day of cadet life, which I have never forgotten, but which every subsequent year has only served to strengthen and confirm, and that lesson was the consciousness of personal responsibility, in all its weight, and which found no relief from any adventitious circumstances of birth, State or association. Whatever had to be done, had to be done by myself and for myself. Whatever had to be endured, had to be endured by myself and for myself. There was no discharge in that war of life, but in personal, individual self meeting each new responsibility.
Happily for me, and for those who entered with me fifty years ago, the Government of the United States was in the hands of that stern old patriot and hero, President Andrew Jackson, whose eventful administration made an impress upon the country, which was felt by every cadet serving under him. General Lewis Cass was Secretary of War at the time of our graduation, and by his office was specially connected with the Military Academy.
My class, entering in 1829 and graduating in 1833,c have always prided themselves in the opinion that this was the golden era of West Point. It is an excusable pride in these old men of this class, at tend of half a century, to speak thus. We exalt not ourselves in giving utterance to this opinion; but we honor those who, by their genius and labors, brought the reputation of this great National School up to the high standard which it enjoyed at the close of the administration of General Thayer. My class was the last of his eventful superintendency of sixteen years.
As an old graduate visits the library of the Academy he involuntarily stops before those speaking portraits of its former superintendents and professors. Recollections are awakened in the personnel of the Academy, which time is rapidly obliterating.
Come along with me, my comrades, and let us pass in review before those representatives of fifty years ago. Stop with me for a moment while we contemplate that majestic figure in the full dress uniform of a lieutenant-colonel of engineers. It is from the p4pencil of our own Weir, who has caught the inspiration from his subject, and presents him to‑day as he appeared to us fifty years ago. That is Lieutenant-Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, the Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy from July, 1817 to July 1, 1833. He appears, as he was wont, even when the frosts of the fall were killing everything around, in his summer dress of white drilling trousers. The artist has well transmitted this historic fact. See how he holds the "permit" in his hand, almost pitching it at the cadet who appears before him in person, seeking some privilege.
Well do I remember one of those morning office hour scenes, between 7½ and 8 A.M. One of my classmates presents his pass-book for an order for four shirts. The superintendent glances at the treasurer's balance-sheet, always on his table, closes the pass-book and hands it back to the cadet. The poor fellow was in great need, and he ventured to expostulate. "Colonel, I am much in need of shirts. "I take it for granted you are, or you would not present this order; but you are in debt;" and again the book is pitched towards the cadet. "But, Colonel, I am almost destitute; I have only one shirt to my back, and that is a fatigue jacket." "Well, Mr. Dewey, I would advise you to wear that fatigue jacket until you get out of debt."
This anecdote is a type of this great superintendent. It illustrates his general course in dealing with cadets. It was useless to attempt to awaken tender emotions in him. He was not without feeling, but he never displayed it in his office. That office, in the basement room of the present quarters of the superintendent, comes up to me to‑day as a judgment hall, which no cadet entered without a sentiment of awe, or left without a feeling of relief.
The last years of Colonel Thayer's administration were years of trial to him; and the difficulty existing between him and the President finally resulted in his leaving the Academy. It was said he was not sustained, as he should have been, at the War Department. His discipline was counted too stern; and reinstatements of cadets followed so rapidly upon their dismissal, he was driven to the necessity of asking no courts-martial, but sent each case that required extreme discipline to the War Department for its decision and action.
The first case of this kind was that of one of my class. He p5had been to Benny Haven's, and was found under the influence of what Benny so liberally supplied to cadets. A month passed, and nothing was heard of the report. At last an order came from the Secretary of War, dismissing him, and requiring him to leave the academy in thirty minutes. He was my intimate friend and room-mate, as well as townsman, and I immediately went to the superintendent and pleaded in his behalf. He was as much surprised as I was. I asked the privilege of a meeting of the class. This was refused. Then for an appeal for clemency from the class. This was also refused. Some twelve or fifteen of the class met in my room. A letter was prepared to the president, signed by Fred Smith, Harry DuPont, and myself, and this, after being sealed, was handed to our comrade, Willoughby Anderson. Bob McLane, now member of the U. S. House of Representatives, from Baltimore, gave him also a letter to his father, who was Secretary of State. An interview was obtained, through the influence of Secretary McLane, with President Jackson. Anderson delivered the letter. It was an earnest appeal to the old hero in behalf of a son of a gallant soldier of the war of 1812, and was adroitly framed to touch the tender feelings of this great man. After reading the letter attentively, he turned quickly to Anderson, and asked, "Who wrote this letter?" "I don't know, sir." "Have you read it?" "No sir." "Go back to West Point and report for duty, and tell the young man who wrote this letter, if he don't look out, I will have his ears cut off."
I am happy to make known that my ears were still spared to me.
Anderson reported for duty — graduated with our class, and fell mortally wounded at the battle of Churubusco, Mexico.
Col. Thayer had to provide a series of text-books for the Academy, a difficult thing at that early day. We subscribed for a large number of copies of O'Conner's translation of DeVernon's Treatise on the Science of War, which had been prepared in 1805, by the order of the French Government, and was the text-book in the Polytechnic School. It was a miserable translation, but it was the best that could be had, and each member of the First Class was required to take a copy costing some $20. I had a copy which had been given me by a friend who graduated in 1826. Still, I was charged with a copy, and I appealed in vain to Col. Thayer for a remission of this charge. His view p6was that no graduate had a right to dispose of his military text-books. He needed them in the military service. I thought otherwise, and prepared an appeal to the Secretary of War. He declined to send the appeal forward, but he allowed me the credit for the book. Col. Thayer held the reins with a firm hand during his entire administration, and if, at times, he transcended the limits of legitimate authority, no private pique or personal interest swayed his judgment. He was animated by the single desire to give efficiency to his discipline, and to train every graduate upon the highest model of the true soldier.
The Hon. Joel R. Poinsett was president of the board of visitors when my class graduated. We had separate examinations in civil and military engineering, and the class passed splendid examinations on both subjects. At dinner that day, Mr. Poinsett casually remarked that they were the best examinations he had ever heard, and that it was difficult for him to conceive how the class could have done so well without knowing beforehand the subjects upon which they would be examined. An officer of the Academy heard the remark, and immediately reported it to Col. Thayer. An order was at once sent to the Professor in charge of the department, to prepare, by the afternoon session of board, a full synopsis of the subjects in his whole course, that it might be submitted to the board. At the appointed hour the class was again turned out. It was a surprise. We did not know what it meant. When we appeared in the Examination Hall, Col. Thayer made known to Mr. Poinsett why he had recalled the class; that the remark which had been reported to him was a reflection upon the Institution, and he had ordered the class back to be re-examined from the synopsis of the entire course, which he laid on the table of the Board of Visitors. Mr. Poinsett made the fullest apology. He said he designed no reflection upon the class but a compliment to them, and expressed the hope that they would not be re-examined. Col. Thayer was inflexible. The injury done to the Academy and to the class by the circulation of the casual remark of Mr. Poinsett could not be repaired except by a thorough re-examination, and he insisted that this must go on. The examination was resumed, and continued with the deepest interest, each member of the class feeling that an appeal was made to his honor as well as his pride; and when it closed, the highest compliments p7were extended to it by the president of the Board, and other members of the Board, which fully compensated for the severe ordeal through which we had passed.
I met Col. Thayer in Newport, R. I., the fall after graduation. We were stopping at the same hotel. I involuntarily drew back as he entered the room. He was smoking a cigar (no cadet ever saw Col. Thayer smoke a cigar). He came forward with a smile (no cadet ever saw Col. Thayer smile). He grasped my hand cordially and made me sit down by his side. (I had never sat by his side before). With affectionateness and tenderness, which showed what a warm heart beat beneath the cold austerity of the superintendent, he spoke of my class and of my classmates in terms which brought the color to my cheeks. He said: "Yours was the best class to graduate under my superintendency, and I regard it as the best." He was a noble specimen of West Point character, and I trust the scheme will not be abandoned of putting, in enduring marble or bronze, a colossal statue of Brvt. Brig. Gen. Sylvanus Thayer, the father of the U. S. Military Academy.
But come along my comrades, we must not tarry. Look at that portrait with its massive forehead — its open countenance — its benignant smile — that is Charles Davies,d Professor of Mathematics for nearly a quarter of a century — old Tush, as we familiarly called him. Don't you remember, when muttering out an imperfect answer to one of his questions, how he would lean forward with one of his significant smiles, and say, "How's that, Mr. Bliss? But I will not now dwell upon his long and faithful career in the Department of Mathematics. The results of his labors are to be seen in the distinguished career of his pupils, and in his series of Mathematical text books, which are as household words every where in the United States.
In my relations to him as a pupil I had learned to respect him for his talents and for his fidelity in the discharge of his duties as Professor. But he had to reach the ripeness of old age before I knew him in his true character, and then learned not only to admire, but to love him.
The war had separated many who were once friends, and years had elapsed without my knowing or hearing anything of my old professor. In 1875 I received an affectionate letter from him, inviting me to attend the next re-union of West Point graduates, in which he stated he was endeavoring to get together a strong p8delegation of Southern graduates. I told him, in reply, that I could not go. I was an "unpardoned rebel," with the "rope" around my neck, and unless I could sit down with my old comrades as an equal, I had better not go at all."
He promptly replied to this letter — said I must not write in this tone — he would assure me a cordial welcome — and he added — "Come direct to my house at Fishkill, on the Hudson, and be my guest," and, as indicating the spirit which animated the association of graduates (of which I was not then a member), he sent me a manuscript copy of an address he had prepared, and which he would deliver at the next re-union, closing the address in the following expressive language:—
"My Pupils and my Friends —
"When my eyes shall behold for the last time the fading light on the mountain tops of the Highlands of the Hudson, next to the hope of a better life, would be the consciousness, that union, fraternity, peace and mutual regard, had reached the heart and would regulate the life of every graduate of this institution."
I could not hesitate after such words as these. I joined him at the appointed time at his hospitable mansion — his friends and his neighbors were assembled to meet me — and, with the courtesy of one whose happiness consisted in making others happy, he made this visit the bright hour in my existence. The next day he took me to West Point. My comrades, I need not recall to you the emotion which that festive re-union awakened — the warmth of the reception extended to me — all the loving work of this dear old friend.
But it was agreed between us, that he should return with me to Virginia. He was an old — a very old man then, bordering upon 80 years of age. He felt that the trip would be a severe journey to him, yet, assured that his friend, Prof. D. H. Cochran, of Brooklyn, would be his companion and with him be my guest, and that he would be joined by my class-mate, Gen. Ben Alvord, ("Old Tangent"), he agreed to be with me on the 20th June. He spent two weeks with me — attended the annual examinations of the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute — the foster child of the U. S. Military Academy. Every heart was opened to receive him in that Southern land, and when that memorable visit was over, he said to me with moistened eyes: "I count these two weeks the two happiest weeks of my life."
p9 The day before he left me the weather was intensely hot, the thermometer ranging as high as 90° Fah. all night. I arose early in the morning and made him a Mint Julep, thinking it would refresh him after the restlessness of the hot night. I tapped very gently at his door. He was awake, and, as I entered his room, he was panting from the excessive heat. Holding up the cooling beverage, I said to him: "Well, Professor, I have been entertaining you for two weeks on our simple Confederate fare; I could do no better, but I should have been glad had it been in my power to have treated you in old Virginia style. Still, I cannot let you leave Virginia without taking a taste of the old lady, as she was known in ante-bellum days." He took the glass — gave one of his sweet smiles, and, refreshed by it, he slept until a late breakfast. On the next day he left for the Rockbridge Alum Springs, Gov. John Letcher, who was President of the Board of Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute, accompanying us on this trip. We spent a day very pleasantly together, and, as he was leaving, he said to Gov. Letcher: "Well, Governor, the Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute gave me, yesterday, the best mint julep I ever drank; I want you to make me one to‑day, so that when I go back to New York, I may say that I drank a Virginia mint julep made for me by the War Governor of Virginia." It was done. We parted that day — and we parted to meet no more in this world. Dear old friend, never to be forgotten — no, never.
"For, tho' his earthly sun has set,
Its light shall linger round as yet,
Bright, radiant, blest."
There was associated with Professor Davies, fifty years ago, as his chief assistant in mathematics, having charge of the 4th class, Lt. Edward C. Ross, of the class of 1821. He was the best teacher of mathematics I ever knew, and it is singular too, that he had no faculty of demonstration. He gave to our class my extra discussions in the difficult points in algebra, particularly on what he called the "final equations," for he was not pleased with Farrar's translation of La Croix, our text-book in algebra, and he was preparing his translation of Bourdon. In putting upon the blackboards these extra demonstrations, every line appeared as if it had been printed, so neat was he in the use of his chalk pencil. But when he commenced to explain, he would twist and p10wriggle about from one side of the board to the other, pulling his long whiskers, and spitting out, in inordinate volumes, his tobacco juice. The class was as ignorant when he closed as when he began. We copied, word for word, what was written, well knowing that on the next day the first five would be called upon to make the discussion. We read to him what we had placed on the board. Then commenced his power as a teacher. In a series of orderly questions he would bring out the points of the discussion, step by step, sometimes occupying half an hour with each cadet, and when the three hours of recitation were over, we knew the subject thoroughly. He was an expert in his power of questioning a class. He did this without note or book, and gave such earnestness and vividness to his examinations, that he kept his class up to the highest pitch of interest all the time.
He had some peculiar ways, too, of making his class think. The superintendent, on one occasion, visited the senate room during one of the regular recitations in algebra. He brought with him some distinguished foreigners, who were visiting the academy on a tour of inspection. The lesson was in the Calculus of Radicals, and Lt. Ross had written upon the blackboards five complicated radical expressions, mingled with his peculiar, but most graceful flourishes, and he sent five of the section to the board to reduce them to the simplest terms. We worked earnestly, but with trembling hands, for we were still plebes, and had not yet passed our first January examination. I was the first called upon, and explained my work, step by step, and exhibited my result. His only remark was: "It's all wrong, sir." My confusion may be imagined. I trembled like an aspen leaf. But I rubbed out my work, and began again. In the meantime, my comrades, seeing my discomfiture, hugged closer to their boards, and seemed unwilling to try an ordeal after my failure. Carefully I went through my work a second time, rigidly examining each step in my process, and finally reached the same result as before. I became desperate, and in this state I said to him in a firm but nervous tone: "My result is right, sir." "It is right, and was right before, why didn't you stick to it?" This was not altogether a legitimate way of making the young algebraist self-reliant, but it was Ross' way, and as such I record it.
After his resignation from the army in 1839, Professor Ross had a hard time. He was poor, and the income given him at p11Kenyon College gave him a bare support. It was while there my correspondence with him commenced. I received a long letter from him, written with the affection of a father to a son, and begging me to give him a position as assistant to me in Mathematics in the Virginia Military Institute. My reply expressed repugnance as having one as my assistant, from whom I had learned all the Algebra I ever knew, and turned his attention to other positions. He replied, that he had no pride in regard to position. He wanted to be where there was military discipline. I tried to secure for him the Chair of Mathematics in the University of Virginia, made vacant by the death of Professor Bonnycastle, but Professor Courtenay was elected. My correspondence with him at this period was very touching. Let me read an extract from a letter written in April, 1842: "I received your letter yesterday. Please accept my thanks for the information contained in it, and the interest you take in your old instructor. The good feeling of my scholars towards me I have ever found to be the richest reward for services rendered to them. The pay, the mere dollars — they have vanished long ago, but the kind feelings of my pupils, God bless them, they remain as fresh as ever." He was finally appointed Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, in the Free Academy, New York City, in 1848, which Chair he held until his death.
If possible, let a portrait of this great Algebraist and teacher of Algebra, be added to our Library Collection.
Edward H. Courtenay, who graduated at the head of Ross's Class, was our Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, fifty years ago. There never was a clearer minded — a more faithful teacher — or a more modest one, than Professor Courtenay. Well do I remember the hesitating manner with which he would correct the grossest error on the part of a member of his section — "I hardly think so." He resigned his professorship in 1834, and after holding many offices of high dignity, as Professor and Civil Engineer, he was elected Professor of Mathematics in the University of Virginia in 1832. He died at the University of Virginia.
By his vicinity to me, I was often brought into communication with him. No one ever filled a chair in any Institution who was more beloved while he lived, or more lamented when he died.
The Chair of Military and Civil Engineering, made vacant by the resignation of Professor Douglass,e was filled by the appointment p12of Lt. Dennis H. Mahan, of the Corps of Engineers. Lt. Mahan had been sent to France, and was three years a pupil in the School of Engineers at Metz, as a preparation for his responsible chair. When he took charge of our class, he was well up in his course, in which heº supplemented with extensive notes the meagre volumes of O'Conner. These notes developed into his well-known treatises on Civil Engineering and Field Fortification.
Thomas Gimbredef was our Professor of Drawing fifty years ago. He was an amiable old gentleman — a good draughtsman — and not without some vein of humor. He usually gave his classes an Introductory Lecture, when they commenced their work. It was brief, and to the point. His fundamental proposition was in these words: Every one can learn to draw." His proof: "There are only two lines in drawing, the straight line and the curve line. Every one can draw a straight line — and every one can draw a curve line — therefore every one can draw."
My standing in pencil drawing was very low, and yet he had a compliment even for me when he saw with what rapidity copies of the models he gave me were executed. "Well," Mr. Smith, you make up in quantity what you lack in quality." He died December 25, 1832.
Claudius Berard was first teacher of French fifty years ago. Mr. Berard was a fine scholar — of good taste — a thorough master of the English tongue, and most diligent in his duties as a teacher. He had some dry humor, too. A class-mate of mine made a most egregious blunder translating the word poisson (fish) as poison, and in a solemn voice read that he had made a "hearty dinner on bread and poison." "Ah, Mr. Plunkett, that would not be a very palatable meal even to a cadet."
Prof. Albert E. Church was an Assistant Professor of Mathematics when my class entered in 1829. He occasionally heard my section in the third class course, and exhibited then the clearness and perspicuity which marked his long career as a professor of mathematics. I was honored by a visit fromº him and Prof. Bartlett, as I had been by one from Prof. Mahan, as member of our Board of Examiners at the Virginia Military Institute. His kind heart, flow of spirits, and cordial manner, won friends every where, and when the sod fell upon his grave, one of the old and cherished landmarks of the Academy was taken away. He bore no malice in his heart to any one, and when I saw him, p13in 1875, after the alienations which the war had occasioned, he referred with much feeling to the fact that he had photographs of all the surviving members of his class, including that of Jefferson Davis.
Capt. Ethan Allen Hitchcock, First Infantry, was the Commander of Cadets in 1829. He succeeded Major W. I. Worth (Old "Hant"), whose motto in the Mexican War was "a grade or a grave." Capt. Hitchcock was a chivalrous officer, a good tactician, a high-toned gentleman, and enjoyed the respect and confidence of our class.
A little personal incident will illustrate his character. Wesselsº was our first captain: Tom Johns was first orderly sergeant, but lost promotion in June, in consequence of being absent several months on sick furlough. Wessels, from some cause, was reduced to the ranks, and Capt. Hitchcock appointed Johns 1st Captain. Geo. Pegram was the next captain in rank to Wessels, I came next, and Mudge was the 4th Captain. Pegram and myself immediately tendered our resignations as captains. They were promptly declined by Capt. Hitchcock, who said, he had not intended any disrespect to Pegram or myself, but promoted Johns as an act of justice to him, as a soldier who had been providentially absent from sickness in June. We again pressed our resignations, from no personal ill feeling toward Johns, for he was our dearest friend, but from a sense of wounded military pride. Captain Hitchcock saw this, and proposed that the correspondence should be laid before Gen. W. Scott, who had just arrived on the Point, and the decision be left with him.
In due time we were sent for by Gen. Scott. As we entered his room he arose, kindly took each by the hand, and said: "I am proud of you, my Virginia boys. You did right in resigning; but Captain Hitchcock has made the amende honorable. Go back to your duty." Johns was soon broken, when Pegram became 1st Captain and graduated as such.
Rev. Thomas Warner was Chaplain and Professor of Moral and Political Philosophy fifty years ago. He was a fine-looking old gentleman, not unlike, in person, President Jackson. He had a most intellectual face, was a good scholar and a good talker, occupying most of the time of the class in his interesting discussion of questions in moral and political philosophy. Ordinarily he was too deep for the class, but he always commanded their attention.
p14 As a Divine his influence was not equal to that of his predecessor, Bishop M'Ilvaine, although his sermons satisfied the cadets, since they rarely exceeded ten minutes in their delivery.
Rev. Charles Pettit M'Ilvaine, D. D., was called to the chaplaincy of the academy in 1825, and resigned Dec. 31, 1828, so that he had just left the academy when my class entered. I cannot in these reminiscences of those early days omit some reference to this great and good man, whose labor had such far-reaching influence in the after career of so many of his pupils.
I chanced to meet Bishop M'Ilvaine in Italy in 1858, and we traveled in Europe together for several months. Reaching Civita Vecchia early on Sunday morning, our party spent the day there, and in the afternoon the Bishop and myself took a long stroll together on the Via Aurelia. I asked him to give me some account of the interesting revival of religion which had existed among the officers and cadets of the academy during his chaplaincy.
He said, when he entered upon his duties at West Point, the spiritual condition of the Institution was deplorable — no sense of religious obligation — but few professors of religion among the cadets — and not more than one, if one, among the professors. Skepticism, in its varied forms, was prevalent among officers and cadets, and his labors for some time seemed to be in vain.
He finally determined he would combine, with his pulpit ministries, the distribution of religious tracts, leaving them in the rooms of the cadets while they were at drill. They would be as "bread cast upon the waters," and would return "after many days." The answer came sooner than he expected.
The case of Leonidas Polk was of special interest. Intelligent, high-toned — commanding in person — holding a high position in the corps, and justly popular. He was one who had only to be assured on the point of duty, and he was ready to brave all public opinion, and meet the claims which Christianity imposed. His conviction was thorough and, in the spirit of the missionary, he labored among his fellows with a zeal that showed the earnestness of his character. The awakening begun — it spread from room to room — from heart to heart, until the interest became so intense, that the Bishop added, "Had I gone on with a sermon I was preaching to them, I verily believe I should not have been able to moderate or control their feelings. I had to stop, and I did stop."
It was with pleasure I listened to the details which he gave of p15the special cases among officers and cadets, involving more than ordinary interest, and as he proceeded with his narrative, his eye lighted with its wonted fire, when he added, "The office of a Bishop does not give the happiness which that of a Pastor affords. I long to see some fruits of my ministry, and that my labors are bringing souls to Christ."
On my return from Europe, I had the pleasure of a visit at my home in Virginia, from Bishop Polk. He listened with the deepest interest to the account which I gave him of Bishop M'Ilvaine's conversation on the road from Civita Vecchia to Rome. It revived to him all the memories of those blessed days at West Point. He detailed to me the incidents connected with his own personal experience, his own indifference to divine truth; how he had taken up a tract lying on his table to light his candle with, how his curiosity was awakened when he discovered it was on the Evidences of Christianity by Olynthus Gregory, the same who was the author of the text-book on Mechanics — how he drew up his chair to read what "Old Greg" had to say on the subject of Christianity — how his interest was awakened, how his unbelief was removed, and he passed into the joy and peace of one accepted in "The beloved."
Some years later that West Point chaplain, and that young cadet, met again in Cincinnati. The chaplain was then the Bishop of Ohio — the cadet, having "purchased a good degree" as a minister, was to receive, at the hands of his beloved pastor and teacher, the highest office in the church as Missionary Bishop of Arkansas.
How faithfully and earnestly, how effectively this Cadet Bishop fulfilled this high office in the missionary field of an extensive territory — how he organized and watched over the diocese of Louisiana; how, at the call of his country, and for his country's sake, he girded on the armor of the soldier in the "times which tried men's souls;" how purely he walked as a Christian soldier, and how bravely he met his death in the cause he believed to be the cause of right I forbear to dwell. Faithful he was unto death.
Bishop M'Ilvaine and Bishop Polk — father and son in the Gospel of the Son of God. They have met again — "without spot or wrinkle" — "having washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."
And now, my classmates, let me, in conclusion, say a few words p16personal to ourselves. Fifty years ago have made sad changes with us. We, who were boys fifty years ago — buoyant with hope — are gray-haired old men now, soon, very soon, to lay down our armor and be counted among those that were. Come near to me, by old comrades, while I run over with you the roll of our class.
We commenced fifty years ago with a class of 130; we graduated 43, and of these only the small band that meet here to‑day remains! My classmates, where are our old comrades? Where is Frederic Smith, the first distinguished graduate of our class? Gone — mysteriously gone to the tomb! Where are Mudge and Center, and McKavittº and Anderson, and Capron, and Blake, and Barbour — the warm-hearted and chivalrous Barbour? Their blood now mingles with the earth in the swamps of Florida and on the plains of Mexico — cloven down on the battle-fields? Where is Bliss, the gifted and lamented Bliss? Having won the highest honors in his profession he, too, has fallen "in the pestilence that walketh in darkness, and the destruction that wasteth at noonday." Where is our first Captain — Pegram? Where are Dimon and Hale, and Miller and King, and Sidell — the poet laureate — of our class? Where are Burnett and McClure, and Harris and Garrett — "Old Roscius," as we called him? Where are Thomas and Davis, and Shiras and Hooper, and Riggs and Seaton, and McCrabb and Hunter — the noble-hearted Hunter? Where are Ringgold and Allen, and Du Bose and Harrison, and Reid? Ah! my classmates, as I call over the roll of such names as these and ask where are they, the response comes back to me, that while the laurel wreath has decked the brow of many, we have had to weave the cypress over the graves of all our large class but the small remnant that answers to the roll-call to‑day!
Barnard, here; Cullum,g here; F. H. Smith, here; Schriver, here; Waller, here; Du Pont, here; Alvord, here; Wessels, here; Myers, here; Ruggles, here; Johns, here; H. L. Scott, here. These twelve are all that are left of our large class to answer "Here!" to the roll-call to‑day!
a I transcribed the text of this address from the facsimile of the original 18‑page pamphlet, online in the Digital Collections of the U. S. M. A. Library; since it is referred to nearly a dozen times in Douglas Freeman's biography of Robert E. Lee, also online on my site, it seemed convenient to put it up here for linking purposes. My transcription, carefully proofread and thus presumably errorfree, pretends to no merit other than searchability and local links; taking advantage of having it up, though, I offer the few brief and possibly useful notes of my own that follow. To keep these footnotes to a minimum though, I've linked the first mention of each graduate's name in the text above to his entry in Cullum's Register, which gives a summary of his career, to which often enough I've added further information or photographs from other sources and links to yet other biographical information, sometimes of considerable extent.
b Francis Henney Smith was the first Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, serving from 1839 to 1889 and a key player in the secession of Virginia as a member of the governor's council: see for example his presence at the meeting that accepted Robert E. Lee as commander of Virginia's forces (Freeman, R. E. Lee, Vol. I p465). For a capsule biography, a photograph, some of his letters, and a gateway to exhaustive information about him, see the Francis H. Smith Correspondence, in the Records of the Superintendent, VMI Archives. For a capsule of his scholarly career and a list of his scientific works, see Prof. Rickey's page.
c The Class of 1833, including its non-graduating members, can be tracked thru all four years, by academic and disciplinary standings, with their states and dates of appointment, in the following Official Reports of the Board of Visitersº made available as PDF documents by the USMA Library:
as plebes, 1830
as yearlings, 1831
as cows, 1832
as firstclassmen, 1833
although Cadets John Allen, Isaac Burnett, George Dimon, John M'Crabb, Abraham Myers, Joel Riggs and Augustine Seaton were appointed in 1828 and therefore also appear in the Report for 1829.
d It was natural that he should have attended this gathering: just a few years before, on June 17, 1870, he had been among the 43 alumni to attend the first meeting of what would become the Association of Graduates, and gave the keynote address (Annual Reunion, Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, 1870, pp1‑2).
f Thomas Gimbrede (1781‑1832) was an engraver and painter of miniatures emigrated from his native France in 1802; he is known for his patriotic portraits of American public figures. His self-portrait as a young man is shown on this page at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was appointed teacher of drawing at West Point on January 5, 1819. For another recollection of him, see John Latrobe, Reminiscences of West Point, p31.
g George Washington Cullum rose to the rank of brevet Major General in the Union Army in the Civil War, and was superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy from 1864 to 1866; his presence is thus another mark of the reconciliation being effected between North and South. Gen. Cullum had been a close friend of Francis Smith's, but in 1865, when Smith, as superintendent of the reconstituted Virginia Military Institute, asked to visit West Point, Cullum curtly turned down his request: see their exchange of letters, Nov. 13‑16, 1865. It was too early.
Cullum is mostly known today for his Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy. Many hundreds of its biographical sketches are onsite: see my orientation page.
Images with borders lead to more information.
History of West Point
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Page updated: 10 Mar 14