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Bill Thayer

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[image ALT: A head-and‑shoulders photograph of a man in his fifties. He is quite bald, and wears a uniform tunic with a low standing collar embroidered 'U. S.'; a plain epaulet is visible on his right shoulder, and he wears two medals on his left breast. He is John H. Gifford, a 19c United States Army officer who is remembered in the obituary on this webpage, the personal reminiscences of a West Point classmate.]

Major John H. Gifford

The preceding image, and the text that follows, are reproduced from (the report of the) Forty-Fourth Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 11th, 1913.

 p140  John H. Gifford
No. 2218.º Class of 1867.
Died, May 21, 1913, at West Point, N. Y., aged 70.

As a private soldier in the ranks of the Sixteenth Indiana Infantry, John H. Gifford served the cause of the one and undivisible union of the states, having enlisted in May, 1861, and being mustered out exactly one year later. As so many of his comrades of the Class of '67, Gifford received his appointment as cadet at the Military Academy on account of services in the field. He entered West Point in June, 1863, and was graduated June 17, 1867.

As Lieutenant and Captain in the old Second Regiment of Artillery he served in virtually every section of the country. In Texas, campaigning against the ferocious tribes of the plains and mountain ranges; in Alaska (where, with several classmates, he suffered shipwreck in Cook's Inlet, in 1868, experiencing on this occasion the horrors of famine), in California, Kansas, and at numerous posts along the Atlantic seaboard. He was graduated at the Artillery School in 1873 and in 1890. His last post was at Fort Preble, Maine, where he was retired as Captain for disability in the line of duty, in 1898. In 1904 he was advanced to a majority on the retired list of the Army because of his early service in the War between the States.

After his retirement Gifford was for many years at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and for six years Quartermaster of the National Soldiers' Home.

Such in briefest outline is the simple and in no wise spectacular record of Gifford's life and service as an officer of the U. S. Army.

 p141  Of his remoter ancestry but little is known. The family is supposed to have been of Scotch descent. Gifford's father was born at Pen Yan, N. Y., where, after the death of both parents, he was adopted by a childless uncle, by whom he was taken in very early youth to Indiana, where he grew to man's estate. At the time of his nephew's enlistment in the Indiana Volunteers, he was a practicing physician at the small town of Laurel, in Franklin County.

In 1885 John Gifford was married to Miss Helen B. Kimberly at Old Point Comfort, Virginia. She died in 1906, leaving an only child, a daughter, Ann, now the wife of Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.James H. Cunningham, Coast Artillery. It was at their quarters at West Point that Gifford died. He had been seriously ill for many months; but the end when it came was sudden.

But after all it is neither to the lengthy record of faithful military service, nor to the incidents of his happy domestic life, that my thoughts revert now in writing these few words of heartfelt affection in memory of John Gifford. In a kindly sympathetic letter from his daughter, Mrs. Cunningham, received by me soon after his death, I read — not without a touch of deep emotion — "I have heard my father speak of you so often, and always with so much affection. One of the pleasantest days of his life was the day you and he drove around West Point last June. He told me about it again and again." Further in the letter Mrs. Cunningham speaks with loving pathos of her father — "You know how splendid he was. He was so modest, and talked so little of himself."

To us, his classmates, now standing upon the last pinnacle of age, it is the incidents of early life that are recalled most clearly, like clean cut cameos against a dull background of the intervening years. I recall John Gifford as a "plebe," exceedingly tall, gaunt, even a trifle ungainly, accepting with stoical indifference the "hazing" of that day — then at its  p142 worst — conforming to the customs of the corps, fetching and carrying for the "old cadets," doing, as I remember somewhat to my shame, more than his share of the toil and tribulation of "plebe camp." Seldom even impatient, never either fretful or irascible, he held steadily to his course with kindly good nature alike for classmate or the older kinsmen.

In his studies John went his way with equal or greater serenity. Not endowed by nature with that "fatal facility so easily the bane and handicap of brilliant men, he "boned" "math" and "phil" with patient perseverance. Resolved to attain his diploma and a commission, he toiled early and late, often after taps, blanket over window and transom. The spring tides of semi-annual examinations rose periodically, swirling around us of the "immortals," as we clung desperately to the rocks of "subjects" and "questions." Often the waves of academic disfavor dashed beyond and above him, and subsiding, carried out into civil life the "found deficient" who had easily appeared to rank him in the last section; but leaving John Gifford always safe.

Recurrences year after year of these ordeals at last brought us to the final day. To those who know and understand the difficulties it is no irony to say that the man who is graduated at the foot of the class has made of himself in a very real sense, an "honor man."

John Gifford and I tented together every one of our four camps. We shared the cruel discomforts of the first, as "candidates" and as fourth classmen. How well I remember the first Sunday in that "plebe camp." It was a day such as early June seldom inflicts upon the Hudson Highlands — cold, cheerless, miserable. A penetrating rain added its downpour to the misery, and — for reasons unknown— no church service served to mitigate the gloom. The furloughmen not having yet left, camp was crowded. Two yearlings — quite oblivious to our feelings — made down their beds, while we  p143 plebes sat on the locker till the first drum for dinner roll call, thinking unutterable thoughts of "man's inhumanity to man."

But these and like experiences were only by way of that larger education — the severe training to "endure hardness" which, more than aught else — so faithfully molds the shape and tempers the spirit of the youth capable of adapting himself to the most strenuous of lives.

When at last in our turn John Gifford and I became "old cadets" we continued to share the same tent; as "yearlings" in "D" Company; afterward in "A." We held the same views as to treatment of new cadets. Frankly what we had suffered we imposed; but never with severity. John was especially gentle and unexacting. Certainly then and always he was heartily loved by every class. We shared each other's chewing and smoking tobacco, and when our sparse purses permitted, indulged together in mild revelry at the "Dutchwoman's," with turnovers and buckwheat cakes. I look back upon those days "far‑called" as the happiest of life, and to dear John Gifford as the most affectionate and loyal of comrades.

A classmate.

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Page updated: 27 Jan 14