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Bill Thayer

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[image ALT: A photograph of a somewhat slightly built, serious-looking man maybe in his late fifties. He has a full head of hair and wears a handlebar moustache. He is wearing a double-breasted uniform jacket with braided epaulets and with eight pairs of brass buttons tapering towards the waist. He is Garret J. Lydecker, an American Army officer, whose career and life is sketched in the obituary on this webpage.]

Garrettº J. Lydecker

The preceding image, and the text that follows, are reproduced from (the report of the) Forty-Sixth Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 11th, 1915.

 p85  Garretº J. Lydecker
No. 2020. Class of 1864.
Died at Detroit, Michigan, July 9, 1914, aged 71.

Living in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1843, were John Ryer Lydecker and Elizabeth Salter Ward, his wife. Lydecker came of sound old Holland stock, sagacious, courteous and conservative. His wife was of English blood, and they were well mated. On November 15, 1843, their first son was born and received the name of Garret J. from one of his Dutch forebears. New Jersey was the state of his birth, but New York that of his boyhood, for at the age of six he was formally entered as a pupil in the primary department of Ward School, Number 38, and when only thirteen had outstripped every competitor and received his certificate of admission to what was then the height of the public school system — the New York Free Academy.

"Learning came easy to Lydecker," was the explanation of school mates. Pages over which other pupils seemed to labor, he read with ease and remembered with accuracy and understanding. Mathematics proved no problem to his alert and eager mind. The law allowed the Free Academy to receive no pupil under the age of fourteen, so for a year the lad studied "out of school" the tasks and lessons that would have been his had he entered in the fall of '57. It resulted that from the date of his admission in 1858, he easily set the pace for his fellow scholars, and later led the Freshman class by a score unequalled in the records at the institution. Much of this became the subject of newspaper comment at the time.

Daniel E. Sickles was the representative in Congress of that district in 1859 and 60, and Tammany was his patron saint. John Ryer Lydecker was politically of the opposite  p86 persuasion and personally not of Sickles's following. Nevertheless, when Sickles was called on in the summer of 1860 to fill at once a vacancy at West Point, he sought the brightest lad in his bailiwick, and the Free Academy promptly named Garret J. Lydecker. Sickles stood by the schools in spite of Tammany and sent Lydecker's name to the Secretary of War. Therefore, when only sixteen years and eight months of age, as directed in a stereotyped letter, signed John B. Floyd, the star of the New York schools, a quiet, self-possessed young gentleman, stood one morning late in August in the presence of Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Holabird, then Adjutant of the Academy, and was turned over to the tender mercies of Cadet Corporals Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Rabb, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Twining and "Mont" Wright, on duty over the September new cadets.

Recitations started before he had begun to learn the manual and promotion came to the first section in mathematics before he was in complete uniform. Men there were in the class just entering who, like Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Burnham, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ernst and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Cuyler, had the advantage of two or three years in age and higher education, but never once during the long course was there doubt as to the headship of that class of 1864 — Lydecker's brilliant mind and possibly better grounding won and held it from first to last.

It was in '62 that we, of the plebe class, first met, but it was '63 before we grew to know him. As was the custom of that day and generation, harsh and bullying methods attended our weeks of initiation and training — the hardening process being considered essential, the refining as incidental. No one, however, thought of complaining. It was all accepted in silence as part of the system, but there came a day in the midst of the devilment when the furlough class doffed their "cadets," donned the natty uniform then prescribed, and departed on the nine weeks' leave accorded that year. The cry of "Candidates turn out" had brought our motley crew scampering into the area from the "L" of the old barracks,  p87 and forming in two ranks, fa­cing eastward. It was shortly before dinner roll-call, and while we stood at rest, awaiting the pleasure of Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.J. N. G. Whistler, Commandant of new cadets, there came springing lightly down the steps of the Fifth Division the first furloughman of the summer, and as though it were yesterday, I see him now. Of medium height, but slender, agile and graceful, handsome in feature and with the softest, merriest, dark brown eyes, fairly radiating cheer and kindliness, he stood before us a moment, shaking hands with the cadet corporal in charge, and then, laughingly looking us over, as we to a man gazed enviously on him. He wore the jaunty blue furlough forage cap and engineer wreath, the single-breasted frock coat of the subaltern, minus the shoulderstraps, dark blue and very full trousers, with a gold cord down the seam — the dress of the Engineers. The coat, to our astonished eyes, was unfastened throughout, displaying a dazzling white waistcoat, with the tiny gilt button of the Academy, closing almost to the throat. His feet were shod with the dainty, soft-leather "dancing shoes," then a specialty at the Point, and every item of his dress was as spick and span as care could make it. But it was the geniality, the all‑pervading kindliness that appealed to us. For the first time since our entrance some one hailed us as though we might yet be men and brethren. "Goodbye and good luck to you, plebes," he said. "See you later," and that was our introduction to Lydecker.

But it was in '63 and '4 that those of us who dwelt in the Third Division grew to know him, and know him well. Two rare spirits were those two inspectors of sub‑division — two of the kindest, most human hearts that ever beat under cadet uniform — Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class."Kaiser" Mackenzie, Cadet First Lieutenant, Company "B," presiding over the elders, and "Garry" Lydecker, Cadet Second Lieutenant, merrily ruling it over the plebes and yearlings billeted in the cockloft and the floor below, and if there was more fun elsewhere in cadet barracks than  p88 was ours that otherwise dreary winter, I have yet to hear of it. If there were two men who left a more grateful, admiring lot of lower classmen than did Mackenzie and Lydecker when they were graduated I have never heard of them. Plebe and yearling alike, sore beset with the fear of coming examinations could time and again take their troubles to either one of these gifted leaders, sure of sympathy and of patient, painstaking explanation. Problems that were posers to our unmathematical minds, were made luminous by those young experts. There were young fellows in three classes who found it more than hard to say good‑bye when Lydecker and Mackenzie left the old Third Division for the front. In those days men might be "walking extra" in the area of barracks Saturday afternoon, and heading a company of regulars on the Rappahannock by Monday night. It was the last year of the great war. The beginning of the end had come. In point of numbers the Class of '64 was puny enough, but we were ready to bet our prospective commissions on their efficiency. It was on Saturday, the 13th of June, they changed the gray for the blue, and on Monday, the 15th, Lydecker had reported for duty in front of Washington.

The next we heard of him was, that, as First Lieutenant of Engineers, he had reached the James River and was commanding a company of the Engineer Battalion in the siege of Petersburg. Before he was one year out of the Academy the brevet of Captain for gallant and meritorious services was awarded. Another year, and the shoulder-straps he was wearing by brevet became his by actual rank. At the age of twenty‑two he was a Captain in the Corps of Engineers.

Under the new rank Lydecker's first assignment was as Assistant Engineer on the lake surveys, with station at Detroit. Two years thereafter he was ordered to Galveston, but already Professor Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Mahan, the aging head of the Department of Civil and Military Engineering, had applied for his services, and on September 1st, that year, he began a tour of duty as Assistant  p89 Professor of Engineering. In the following summer, it will be remembered, the venerable professor who had put the finishing touch to each of nearly forty successive classes, broke under the long strain of years, and was succeeded by his old‑time pupil, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Junius B. Wheeler — Lydecker stepping up to the grade of principal assistant. The transfer of the Academy from the strict, if scholastic, control of the Engineers in '66, had resulted in an unmistakable "let down" in academic and military discipline, which even the coming of Emory Upton as Commandant, in 1870, failed at first to counteract. The position of professor or instructor for some time following 1866 was not as enviable as it had been, and more than one officer sought relief from duty before the end of the usually allotted four years. Lydecker served until the summer of 1872, his joyous disposition enabling him to rise superior to vexatious conditions. Moreover, the romance of his life had begun during the station at Detroit, and in the early autumn of '69, just after his entrance upon duty at the Point, he had been married to Miss Delia Witherell Buel, of one of the old families of that old French-founded city, and then the sunshine of his life seemed unbounded. Their cheery fireside became the rallying point of the younger element of West Point society. The brightest minds and keenest wits were ever about them, for those were the days when Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class."Alphabet" Davis, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Shaler, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Mallery, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Bass, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Barber, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Payson, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Tillman and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Fred Mahan were of the corps of instructors and the leading spirits in the glad old coterie ever hovering about the Lydeckers.

In the summer of '72 Lydecker was transferred to San Francisco as Chief Engineer at Headquarters Division of the Pacific, and was there on duty at the time of the Modoc War, the murder of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Canby and certain of the Peace Commissioners, and the final defeat of the savages; and it was Lydecker who succeeded in exploring and describing the jealously-guarded stronghold of the lava beds. From 1874 to  p90 '77 he was on engineer duty under the orders of Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.David C. Houston, but in May that year joined the staff of the Lieutenant General of the Army, and, though later assigned a wider sphere of duty, his first year with Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sheridan had given birth to a strong and abiding friendship which held Lydecker in close association throughout the five years of his station at Chicago, (supervising engineer work in the various harbors of Lake Michigan), and continued unbroken until Sheridan's death.

Then in June, '82, came momentous change and promotion. He had reached the grade of Major, Corps of Engineers, in March, 1880, but two years later was selected as Engineer Commissioner of the District of Columbia, the daylight carrying with it the rank of Colonel, which position he held, in spite of total change in the administration, until April, 1886, and then, when relieved of the Commissionership with its enviable rank and emoluments, he was retained at the capital by order of the Chief, as Engineer in charge of the Washington aqueduct and the extension thereof. It was intended as an evidence of confidence and appreciation. It meant a longer term of years at a delightful station, and it proved a misfortune.

President Garfield had died at the hand of an assassin in the summer of '81. Chester A. Arthur had succeeded him, and family, professional and political reasons all united in his choice of Major Lydecker for the Commissionership. There was no question whatever as to Lydecker's fitness for the work in hand. He was a master of his profession, well qualified for the duties before him, but the fact that John R. Lydecker was one of Mr. Arthur's closest friends and associates made the selection of his son an object of suspicion to patriots of the opposing political faction, in and out of Congress. This, added to the fact that there were scores of seniors who might have welcomed either of those appointments at Washington, made Lydecker's sevenyear sojourn  p91 at the Capital well nigh perilous from the start. But again the cheeriness of his nature, the broad and kindly fellow­ship for all men, seemed to blind him to the possibilities of envy, intrigue and malice. He had discharged every duty in the past with such consummate ease; he had abiding faith that others, too, were as thorough in matters of detail as he, while in subordinate positions, had ever been, and it all conspired to involve him in the one sorrow of his professional career.

"The man with a grievance is a trial to his friends," writes one of Lydecker's closest comrades and associates, but the man who ever hoped to hear a word of complaint from Lydecker was balked in his desire. No one who well knew him, and therefore could not but like and honor him, could fail to see that beyond expression he felt the censure that had been accorded, but never a word of it fell from his lips. So long as his integrity stood unchallenged the rest could be lived down.

Orders took him in August, '89, to Vancouver Barracks, something like exile after seven years of Washington City, but not for long. Those who best knew him felt that the exuberant health and buoyancy of the past would never again be his, but the Department speedily ordered him to congenial station and the charge of the most important works along the Ohio, yet in the summer of '93 found it essential to recommend a few months of sick leave, for Lydecker was obviously too ill to continue duty.

Partially restored, at least, and now at Detroit, the station he most loved, and in charge of new and still more congenial work, Lydecker rallied. From the winter of 1893‑4 to the date of his final retirement, his duties were the most desirable, and his technical work the finest of his professional career. In charge as Chief Engineer much of the time (for his Colonelcy came in May, 1901) of the harbors and navigation of the Great Lakes, of the St. Clair Flats, and at the  p92 Sault de Sainte Marie; as Division Engineer to 1904, and as senior member of various river and harbor boards, Lydecker was in his element. Succeeding General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Poe, upon the lamented death of that great engineer in October, '95, Lydecker took entire charge of the new lock — the "Poe Lock" of today, and completed the work in '96. It was Lydecker who designed or decided upon certain excellent features of the operating machinery which had not been determined up to the time of the general's death, and, by a singular and happy coincidence, it was under Lydecker's final lead that the Engineers completed the double channel at the St. Clair Flats, an improvement in the navigation of the Great Lakes first recommended by the board of which Lydecker was a member, soon after the close of the Civil War.

At no time since his cadet days had Lydecker been so thoroughly appreciated, and at no time so widely known and admired, as during the last decade of his active service. Though never again in robust health, he gradually regained much of the cheeriness which had been so marked a characteristic of his younger life. With station at Detroit, and with control of most of the harbors and waterways of the Great Lakes, he was the man looked up to by every shipmaster, navigator and vessel owner of the vast and growing commerce of the middle west. Through the canals of the Sault de Sainte Marie alone there passed under his guidance an annual tonnage far in excess of the world channel of De Lesseps from Said to Suez. Upon the professional ability of "the Chief" at Detroit, and the vigilance of his assistants, depended in a great measure the success or failure of the season's traffic. Through his hands, it might well be said, passed day after day the vast crop of the wealth-producing product of the northwest — millions in iron and copper and millions in wheat. Time had been, said the vessel owners, or their spokesman, the Press, when their urgings or complaints fell on ears heedless or unsympathetic, but never so with  p93 Lydecker. "He was the kindest, most approachable man I ever knew in office," was the sentiment echoed throughout the great and powerful Lake Carriers Association. He was most prompt and thorough in his office work: "The best Division Engineer I ever knew," said one of the greatest of his many brilliant and skilled assistants, himself a man more prone to censure than to praise. He made it a pleasure to those blunt men of affairs, the vessel men and ship owners, to come to him with their suggestions, and in the warmth and glow of all this popular approval, and in the sweetness and sympathy of his home life, in spite of slowly failing health and strength, Lydecker's last years on earth were probably the happiest of all. To those whose privilege it was to receive the welcome of his little household, for only one child, a beloved and devoted daughter, had blessed their union, an hour with the Lydeckers was the blithest of the day. Even the foreboding of bereavement could not dull the glad note of welcome; even the shadow of impending sorrow could not dim the light of kindness and sympathy. Theirs was a homelife almost ideal, and there, almost without a sigh or struggle, less than a twelve month ago, he calmly passed away.

Retired from active service at the age of 64, and promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, Lydecker kept up for several years his keen interest in what had been the crowning work of his life. His desk stood ever ready in the old office, and his successors at the station ever as ready with their welcome. Yet, long before the final summons came, old friends noted the symptoms of failing health, and even among those whose relations with him were purely of a business nature there had been heard frequent expressions of anxiety and concern. It was as though Detroit and Lydecker were interlocked.

So, too, in social circles as in business and professional life, even as at his own fireside, sunshine and cordiality had seemed to radiate from Lydecker's presence. Envy and  p94 jealousy were traits he never knew, and it followed that all over the old City of the Straits there was heard the note of sorrow and of sympathy at the announcement of his death, for one of the mightiest of our men of mark, the Engineers, and one of the kindliest, sweetest spirits of our day and generation swept onward beyond the bourne at that final summons from on High.

Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Charles King,

Class of 1866.

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Page updated: 23 Jan 14