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Bill Thayer

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 [decorative delimiter] Class of 1833

[image ALT: A head-and-shoulders photograph of an old man, seen three-quarters from his left, with a more or less full head of wispy hair and a thick moustache; he is wearing a fierce expression and a military uniform jacket with brass buttons and wide lapels, a shirt with a high collar and a thin cravat; his left epaulet can be seen, bearing a single star. He is Benjamin Alvord, a 19c American general, the subject of a detailed biographical sketch on this webpage.]

Vol. I

(Born Vt.)

Benjamin Alvord

(Ap'd Vt.)


Benjamin Alvord: Born Aug. 18, 1813, Rutland, VT.

Military History. — Cadet at the Military Academy, July 1, 1829, to July 1, 1833, when he was graduated and promoted in the Army to

Bvt. Second Lieut., 4th Infantry, July 1, 1833.

Served: in garrison at Baton Rouge, La., 1833‑35, — and Key West,

(Second Lieut., 4th Infantry, July 21, 1835)

Fla., 1835; in the Florida War against the Seminole Indians, 1835‑37, being engaged in the Skirmishes at Camp Izard, Feb. 27, 28, 29, and Mar. 5, 1836, — Action of Oloklikaha, Mar. 31, 1836, — and Combat of

(First Lieut., 4th Infantry, Sep. 23, 1836)

Thlonotosassa Creek, Apr. 27, 1836; at the Military Academy, 1837‑39, as Asst. Professor of Mathematics, Sep. 28 to Nov. 5, 1837, — and as Principal Asst. Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, Nov. 5,

(Capt., Staff — Asst. Quartermaster, July 7, 1838: Declined)

1837, to Aug. 28, 1839; on frontier duty in Cherokee Nation, 1839‑40, — and Ft. Gibson, I. T., 1840; as Adjutant, 4th Infantry, at Regimental headquarters, Apr. 1 to July 29, 1840; on frontier duty at Ft. Smith, Ark., 1841, — Survey of Military Road from Ft. Gibson, I. T., to Ft. Wayne, I. T., 1841, — and Ft. Gibson, I. T., 1841; in the Florida War against the Seminole Indians, 1841‑42, being engaged on an Expedition against Billy Bowlegs, in Big Cypress Swamp, Nov., 1841, to Mar., 1842, participating in the Skirmish of Dec. 22, 1841; on frontier duty at Jefferson Barracks, Mo., 1842‑44 — and Camp Salubrity, at Natchitoches,º La., 1844‑45; in Military Occupation of Texas, 1845‑46; in the War with Mexico, 1846, being engaged in the Battle of Palo Alto, May 8,

(Bvt. Captain, May 9, 1846,
for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca-de‑la‑Palma, Tex.)

1846, — and Battle of Resaca-de‑la‑Palma, May 9, 1846; on Recruiting service, 1846‑47; in the War with Mexico, as Chief of Staff of Major

(Captain, 4th Infantry, Sep. 9, 1846, to June 22, 1854)

Lally's column on its march from Vera Cruz to the City of Mexico, July‑Dec., 1847, being engaged in Defense of Convoy, at Paso de Ovejas, Aug. 10, National Bridge, Aug. 12, Cerro Gordo, Aug. 15, and Las Animas

 p554  (Bvt. Major, Aug. 15, 1847,
for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in several Affairs with Guerrilleros at Paso de Ovejas, National Bridge, and Cerro Gordo, Mex.)

Aug. 19, 1847, — and Combat of Huamantla, Oct. 9, 1847; in garrison at East Pascagoula, Mis., 1848; on frontier duty at Ft. Gratiot, Mich., 1848‑52; in garrison at Ft. Columbus, N. Y., 1852; on frontier duty at Benicia, Cal., 1852, — Ft. Dalles, Or., 1852‑53, — and constructing

(Major, Staff — Paymaster, June 22, 1854)

Military Road in Southern Oregon, 1853‑54; and as Chief Paymaster of the Department of Oregon, June 22, 1854, to July 7, 1862.

Served during the Rebellion of the Seceding States, 1862‑66: in command

(Brig.‑General, U. S. Volunteers, Apr. 15, 1862)

of the District of Oregon, July 7, 1862, to Mar. 26, 1865; in waiting

(Bvt. Lieut.‑Col., and Bvt. Colonel, Mar. 13, 1865, and Bvt. Brig.‑General,
U. S. Army, Apr. 9, 1865, for Faithful and Meritorious Services during the Rebellion)

orders, Mar. 26 to Sep. 13, 1865.

Resigned, as Brig.‑General, U. S. Volunteers, Aug. 8, 1865.

Served: as Paymaster of New York city, Oct. 1, 1865, to May 15, 1867; as Chief Paymaster of the District of Omaha, May 25, 1867, to Apr. 15, 1869, — and of the Department of the Platte, Apr. 15, 1869, to Dec. 28,

(Paymaster-General of the U. S. Army, Jan. 1, 1872, with Rank of Colonel, and of Brigadier-General, July 22, 1876)

1871; and in charge of the Paymaster-General's Office, Jan. 1, 1872, to June 8, 1880.

Retired from Active Service, June 8, 1880, at his own request, having Served over 45 Years.

Civil History. — Author of Memoir on "The Tangencies of Circles and of Spheres," 1855 (8th Vol. of "Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge"), — and on "The Interpretation of Imaginary Roots in questions of Maxima and Minima," 1860 (April Number of "Mathematical Monthly"); of "Memoir on the Intersection of Circles, and Intersection of Spheres," 1860, and, with extensions, read, 1878, before the National Academy of Sciences; and of numerous Essays and Reviews, 1833‑67. Degree of A. M. conferred by the University of Vermont, 1854.

Died, Oct. 16, 1884, at Washington, D. C.: Aged 71.

Buried, Evergreen Cemetery, Rutland, VT.

Biographical Sketch.

Brigadier-General Benjamin Alvord was born, Aug. 18, 1813, at Rutland, Vt. Here he grew up to manhood an earnest youth, studious in habit, and imbibing an ardent love of nature from every fountain of the beauty and grandeur of his native State, diversified by hills and valleys, elevated plateaus and soaring mountains, and fringed on one side with historic lakes, and on the other with the most picturesque of rivers. Here he learned the lessons of patriotism which have characterized the Green Mountain boys since the days of Ticonderoga and Bennington. And here, by the example of Allen, Stark, Warner, and other Revolutionary heroes, was implanted that love of military fame which made the enthusiastic lad a soldier of his country.

At the age of sixteen, Alvord entered the Military Academy, where he developed decided mathematical talents, being always among the first to work out difficult extra problems, and was noted for his ingenious application of geometrical methods in their solution.

Upon his graduation, July 1, 1833, he was promoted to the Fourth Infantry,  p555 in which distinguished regiment he served over twenty years, himself adding not a little to its merited reputation. After two years of garrison duty at Baton Rouge and Key West, he went to Florida, the Seminole War having opened with Dade's Massacre and the threatened destruction of the population of the State, for none could tell at what moment, or in what manner, they would be assailed and subjected to the most cruel and brutal death. Though the troops did their best and fought bravely at Camp Izard, Oloklikaha, and Thlonotosassa Creek, in all of which actions Alvord took an active part, the campaign of 1836 was a failure, and, without any knowledge of the country, it could scarcely be otherwise.​a The theatre of operations was in a dense wilderness, where every hommockº and swamp was a natural citadel garrisoned by unseen savages, who could sortie from their places of safety to the attack of exposed parties, and, if pressed, return to their hiding places with the fleetness of deer.

Alvord was soon relieved from the constant watching, daily disappointments, and weary marches against this Parthian foe, for a more congenial employment at the Military Academy as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics, from which department he was soon transferred to become the Principal Assistant Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, holding that position, to the great advantage of the Academy, till Aug. 28, 1839, when he was ordered to frontier duty in the Indian Territory, where at various posts he remained two years.

The Florida War had continued with varying success, when, in 1841, Alvord was again ordered to that pestilential region. While the northern settlements of the State were as well protected as human skill and military means could devise, the available force of the Army, aided by the Navy, was directed against the Southern Indians, who counted upon all immunity from danger, environed as they were by swamps, deep mud, mangrove bushes, and a large expanse of everglades. Here were to be seen dragoons wading in water waist-deep, the artillery and infantry picking their way along oozy paths amid cypress swamps and shining alligators, and sailors and marines alternately serving in boats and on dry land. With fortitude, for months, all bore the toils and privations of this amphibious life in the Big Cypress Swamp till the Indians were dispersed, and taught that white men could penetrate to their securest strongholds.

From Florida, Alvord again went to the Western frontier, and in July, 1845, joined the "Army of Occupation," under General Taylor, to take possession of Texas, which "had become an integral part of our Union." This involved the United States in the War with Mexico, hostilities beginning upon the Rio Grande, where were fought the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca-de‑la‑Palma, in both of which Alvord participated and won his brevet of Captain for his "gallant and meritorious conduct" in these engagements.

For a year Alvord was detached on recruiting service, after which he again took the field as Chief of Staff of Major Lally's column, "a little more than a thousand strong," convoying sixty-four wagons from Vera Cruz to the City of Mexico. The Mexican guerrillas (1,200 to 2,000) believing that a large quantity of specie was being transported in the train, attacked it, Aug. 10, 1847, at Paso de Ovejas, — a strong position behind the ruins of a stone house upon a hill. In this spirited engagement, "Alvord," says Major Lally, "distinguished himself by his example of coolness and courage in rallying the men, and leading them up to charge the height and stone house in front and on the right, from which the enemy delivered a very heavy fire." On the twelfth, Lally's column was again met in force by the enemy at the National Bridge, but, though our loss was severe, the guerrillas were beaten and forced to retreat. The struggle was renewed with vigor on the fifteenth, from the various  p556 strongholds of Cerro Gordo, where, four months before, General Scott had gained a great victory over Santa Anna. Though the enemy had been severely punished in these engagements, a fourth attack was made on the nineteenth, at Las Animas. In this last, Major Lally being wounded, the command of the column devolved upon Captain Alvord, who continued its march to the city of Jalapa, which he occupied the next day. In this series of actions great gallantry, fortitude, and perseverance had been shown by these raw troops, whose total casualties amounted to one hundred and five, while those of the enemy were much greater. Alvord's dauntless pluck, skillful leader­ship, and good judgment did much for our success, and his merits were recognized by the bestowal upon him of the brevet of Major "for gallant and meritorious conduct" in these engagements.

Lally's command, after resting at Jalapa to refit the train, recruit the animals, and provide for the sick and wounded, resumed its march, and under General Lane, whom Lally had joined, encountered Santa Anna, with four hundred Mexicans, on October 9th, at Huamantla, in which combat Alvord did good service.

After the Mexican War had terminated, Alvord was in garrison at various posts. While in Southern Oregon, constructing a military road, he was appointed, June 22, 1854, a Paymaster with the rank of Major, and for six years continued in Oregon as the Chief Paymaster of that department.

Upon the breaking out of the War of the Rebellion, Alvord hastened to offer his services for active duty in the field. President Lincoln, so soon as apprised of Alvord's military qualifications and high character, appointed him, Apr. 15, 1862, a Brigadier-General, U. S. Volunteers, and assigned him to the command of the District of Oregon, embracing nearly the same territory as the present Department of Columbia. Although far from the scene of actual hostilities, his command was by no means an unimportant one. Fidelity, prudence, decision, and vigilance were absolutely needed, and these he possessed in an eminent degree. His administration of military affairs in this district, remote from Washington, from July 7, 1862, to March 26, 1865, required great discretion, and it is needless to say that he acquitted himself of his trust to the entire satisfaction of the Government, which bestowed upon him three brevets for his "faithful and meritorious services."

Alvord resigned his Brigadier-Generalship of Volunteers, Aug. 8, 1865, and resumed his duty of Paymaster at New York city, from whence he was transferred as Chief Paymaster of the District of Omaha till Apr. 15, 1869, and then of the Platte till Dec. 28, 1871. His long and valuable services now reaped their reward, he being appointed Chief of the Pay Department with the rank of Colonel, Jan. 1, 1872, and of Brigadier-General, July 22, 1876. This elevated position he held till retired from active service, June 8, 1880, with great credit to himself, reflecting honor upon the Army, and with manifest advantage to the Government.

From the foregoing narrative it will be seen that General Alvord lived most of his life in the field, where he was separated from society and books, yet he became a learned scholar; skilled in dialectics, ready in conversation, and polished in his writing. He had a special fondness for mathematics, botany, history, and biography, upon all of which subjects he prepared instructive and sometimes quite original papers. A singular fatality attended his higher labors. The manuscript of a History of the Mexican War was lost in the wreck of the Southerner on Cape Flattery, December, 1854, and a mathematical treatise, accepted for publication by the Smithsonian Institution, was lost in the fire in their building, January, 1865. The latter was re-written with additions, and published in the "American Journal of Mathematics," 1882.

 p557  The following are some of the Memoirs of General Alvord, viz.b —

"The Tangencies of Circles and Spheres," in Vol. 8 of "Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge," 1855.

"On the Interpretation of Imaginary Roots in questions of Maxima and Minima," in Vol. 2 of the New York "Mathematical Monthly," 1860.

"On Tangencies," — a very learned article in Vol. 4 of Johnson's New Universal Cyclopedia, 1877.

"The Mortality among Army Officers from 1824 to 1873," in the "Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science," 1874.

"The Intersections of Circles and the Intersections of Spheres," in Vol. 5 of the "American Journal of Mathematics," 1874.

"Curious Fallacy in the Theory of Gravitation," in Vol. 5 of the Bulletin of the Philosophical Society of Washington, 1883.

"A Special Case of Maxima and Minima," in Vol. 6 of the Bulletin of the Philosophical Society of Washington, 1884.

"An Account of the Compass Plant" (of which Alvord was the scientific discoverer), read to the National Institute of Washington, 1842, and, with additions, subsequently delivered to other scientific bodies and finally published.

"Winter Grazing in the Rocky Mountains," published in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, 1883.

Biographical Sketches of several Graduates of the U. S. Military Academy, 1874‑82.

Papers read before societies upon "Indian Superstitions," "Introduction of the Catholic Worship into Mexico," "Treatment of the Natives in America by the Spanish Monarchs of the 16th Century," "True Science as opposed to Skepticism," etc.

The most notable of Alvord's mathematical memoirs were those on "The Tangencies of Circles and Spheres" and the "Intersections of Circles and Spheres." The first of these memoirs, now well known, created much interest when it appeared. The latter memoir is a generalization of the former, the problems involved being: First, to draw a circle which shall make a certain given angle with three given circles. Second, to draw a sphere which shall cut each of four given spheres at the same angle. The problems are solved by purely geometrical processes. As the solution of the question of Tangencies of Circles in the first memoir was carried up and made to embrace the Tangencies of Spheres, in like manner the question of the Intersection of Circles is extended to the Intersection of Spheres. The whole solution is based on the principle of converging chords, giving a unity to both memoirs as achieving a generalization of the entire problem.

Alvord's paper on "Winter Grazing in the Rocky Mountains" is a startling revelation, in published form, of an established fact unknown till 1869, that, in the coldest weather and without shelter, all the domestic animals can find ample food on the nutritious summer-cured grasses, and that myriads of these animals are yearly raised on the elevated, arid, yet mild plateaus of the West, embracing an area of a million square miles, or about one fourth of our whole territory. The article fully explains how the grasses in the Rocky Mountains, as they stand on the soil, are cured by the summer's sun, the heat drying them, and thus retaining and concentrating in the stalk the sugar, gluten, and the other constituents of which they are composed. He also shows how the fine dry snows of these regions are drifted into the valley, leaving the uplands uncovered for grazing.

Alvord, as a soldier, was zealous and efficient in the performance, for half a century, of every duty devolving upon him; as a mathematician, he had a high capacity, particularly for geometrical investigations, in  p558 which he had few superiors; as a botanist, he was a close observer of nature, many of whose curious secrets he discovered; in historical and literary lore he was one of the best informed officers in the army; and as a writer he wielded a fluent, forcible, and perspicuous pen. But it was in his personal relations that Alvord was most attractive. Though ordinarily grave, he was never austere and gloomy; studious and contemplative, he had no arrogance of intellect; his matured wisdom continually welled out into new fountains of thought; his conversation, earnest, refined, and often playful, was always instructive; and whatever he wrote was trustworthy and sparkled with strong brain-force. His moral beauty of character surpassed his intellectual. every one who knew him in social life respected and loved him, so genial was his humanity and so broad his charity. Abounding in sympathy, benevolence, and kindness to his fellows, he was necessarily tolerant of their infirmities. Though he was in temper as gentle as a child and in manner as modest as a maiden, it was not from weakness, as those best knew who met him in debate or upon the battlefield. Always considerate of others, he was most exacting to himself, manfully bearing his own burdens, which he never sought to cast upon other shoulders. In fine, Alvord was a most useful officer, a sterling patriot, a devoted husband and father, a generous and tender-hearted friend, and a thorough Christian gentleman.

Thayer's Notes:

a Infighting and other problems contributed greatly, as the Army recognized at the time; see Cullum 177.

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b Some additional bibliography can be found on Prof. Rickey's site on the History of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at West Point.

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Page updated: 10 Mar 14