WEST POINT IN THE YEARS BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR - The Explorer: Import

WEST POINT IN THE YEARS BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR

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Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2001 12:00 am | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Even with all the trouble the United States Military Academy at West Point seemed to go through, and the on-again, off-again threats to close it down, Congress continued to send funding without hesitation. Even a continuing building program was a constant reminder that the academy probably had seen the last of the full blown fights to close it down.

There were always controversies that haunted the academy though, like whether bachelor officers should have their own quarters. There were some who felt that billeting these officers with the cadets was tantamount to being contaminated and of a very "disagreeable" nature.

Major Richard Delafield, who had succeeded the happily married Rene E. DeRussy, sought to have quarters built for the non-married officers, as did his successor, Robert E. Lee. Plans were drawn up and Congress had approved the funds for such construction.

But John G. Barnard was less interested in sparing his bachelor officers from having to set up housekeeping in the same buildings as the cadets and put an end to the construction efforts. As it turns out, Barnard was more interested in finding suitable quarters for his married officers, rather than those who remained single.

These were some of the lesser problems for the academy during the Golden Era of West Point. Richard Delafield served as superintendent from 1838 to 1845, during the years our nation went from being merely on the Atlantic and Gulf areas to spanning an entire continent, and from 1856 to 1861, when our nation was heading for very troubled waters.

From 1852 to 1855, the superintendent for West Point was Robert E. Lee. His name was already legend long before the Civil War, the offspring of a Revolutionary War hero and one of the first families of Virginia. He was a professional of the professionals, having graduated second in his class in 1829. He had served with distinction in the Mexican/American War, along with many other West Point graduates.

Lee was very much in the same camp as DeRussy, inviting cadets to Sunday visits as well as to small dinner parties and holiday gatherings. He was not one for severe discipline and could not understand why cadets wanted to disregard regulations. He had graduated without ever having suffered one demerit and could not understand why cadets liked to push the envelope.

It was not out of his nature to literally look the other way when cadets were pulling a fast one (such a leaving the campus without permission). But Lee had the respect of most cadets and many refrained from making his life difficult.

As it turned out, the times were becoming difficult on their own. When Bernard replaced Lee on April 1, 1855, he not only decided to stop the construction on the bachelor officer's housing, but he took the helm as the political landscape was beginning to smolder. His tenure did not last long though and within 17 months he was replaced by Delafield, again.

The issues which were starting to tear the country apart were now appearing at the academy, though more slowly. Since West Point was a national institution, great efforts were made to suppress any controversial issue which might cause hostilities within the ranks of the cadets (a 19th century version of political correctness).

The debate society (Dialectic Society) was forbidden to take on any issues which could ignite trouble. As early as the 1850s the society was considering the topic as to whether "a state under any circumstances (had) the right to nullify an act of Congress?" Needless to say, the superintendent quickly put the brakes on that endeavor.

The problem was, as the 1850s came to a close, the society was nearly paralyzed from doing anything as the polarization of the political atmosphere began to wash over the academy. Up until the mid-1850s, the administration and the cadets themselves had managed to keep the sectional sentiment to a mere trickle. But with a large Southern presence at an institution which was located in the upper reaches of Yankee territory, the strong feelings that many cadets had, both from north and south, came to be known.

Fights soon began to break out between cadets whose homes lay either north or south of the Mason/Dixon line. Many an upper classmen who hailed from the South swore vengeance on any abolitionist who was in the plebe class. Even those who had strong friendships began to experience the awkwardness of the times.

Eventually the bitterness that many were feeling began to destroy even these relationships. When a straw vote was held in October of 1860 and 64 cadets had cast their lot with Abraham Lincoln, Southern cadets (who had initiated the straw vote in the first place) took matters into their own hands and decided to interrogate all the cadets to find those heathen "Black Republican Abolitionists." Instead of the Northern cadets cowering from this threat, many a confrontation was recorded.

The anger in the nation was now instilled at the Academy. When Lincoln was elected on Nov. 6, within three days South Carolina organized its convention of secession. The first West Point cadet to resign from the academy was Henry S. Farley of South Carolina. Within a few months, more Southern cadets and academy officers would resign from West Point.

Delafield was replaced as superintendent on Jan. 23, 1861, by Capt. Pierre G.T. Beauregard. But within five days the new Secretary of War, Joseph Holt, requested his resignation since Beauregard's home state of Louisiana had just seceded from the Union. The war which so many had feared was now about to shroud our nation, as well as West Point.

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