Category Archives: West Point

The Routine of Beast Barracks at West Point: 1860

From Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War

Like cattle to the slaughter, the small herd of new cadets was escorted with many a scream and promise of a dire future to a tent on the edge of the encampment.  They were hustled into line, and sent in, one by one.

Ben was third.  The adjutant seemed bored with the ritual, seated behind a field desk in the tent and looking at a piece of paper.  Ben came to a halt three paces in front of the desk and waited.

“Name, new cadet?”

“Ben Agrippa Rumble.”

The adjutant responded automatically.  “That’s New Cadet Rumble, got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

The adjutant finally looked up.  “We all know you and we know about you, Mister Rumble.  Most of us have, shall we say, shared some libation with you at Benny Havens.  We all know your father.  But none of that matters now.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.  Then.”  The adjutant got to his feet and began issuing orders.  “Come to attention when addressing an upperclassman.  Heels together.  Toes out.  Hands by your side, palms out fingers closed, little fingers on the seams of your trousers, head up, chin in, shoulders thrown back, chest out, belly in, eyes straight ahead.  Stay like that and don’t move.”

The instructions came like bullets, Ben contorting his body to comply.

The adjutant looked past Rumble as another upperclassman entered.  On cue the side flaps on the tent were loosened and dropped, darkening the interior.  The only light came from a single candle flickering on the field desk.  The adjutant left, leaving Rumble alone with the unidentified cadet behind him.

“We have a problem with you, Mister Rumble,” the newcomer said.  “You’ve seen most of us imbibing in your grandfather’s tavern.  Which means you’ve seen most of us violating quite a few regulations.  Once you sign in to the Corps, you will be bound by the honor code.  Do you see the problem?”

“No, sir.”

“Duty requires you tell the truth about what you’ve seen.  You will be bound to that.  If you do not tell the truth, then you are dishonorable.  However, if you tell the truth, then many a fine cadet might have their futures destroyed.  We can’t allow that to happen.”

“It won’t, sir.”

“We can’t take that chance.  I think the sooner you leave the Corps, the better,” the anonymous cadet said.  “You can’t stay.  You’re a threat to too many.  And if you don’t tell the truth, the Vigilance Committee will come for you.  I very strongly suggest you do not sign the roll, and go back down to your grandfather’s tavern.  We are gentlemen here.”

Ben said nothing, feeling a line of sweat course its way down his back in the now-stuffy tent.  The seconds passed.

“Think hard on it,” the upperclassman advised.

When Rumble still said nothing, the upperclassman came so close, Rumble could feel his breath on his neck.  “Don’t push this.  It’s more than just about the tavern and the honor code.  This is a place for gentlemen.  We don’t want your kind here.  The lack of honor is in your blood.”

Ben wheeled.  “And what kind is that?  What do you mean by lack of honor?”

“Watch you tongue!”

“Watch yours!” Ben stepped closer, chest thumping against the upperclassman’s.  “Are you a man?  Willing to face me?”

The upperclassman laughed, even as he backed up.  “You can fight as many of us as you want.  It won’t change a thing.  It won’t change your blood.”

Then with a rustle of canvas he was gone.

The adjutant returned and took his place behind the desk.

“Well, Mister Rumble?”

Ben’s jaw was tight, his muscles vibrating.  “Yes, sir.”

“Do you wish to say something?”

“No, sir.”

The adjutant sighed and pointed at a piece of paper.  “Sign here, indicating you are on the active roster of cadets.”

Ben went to the table, quickly signed, and resumed the position.

“You will go to the quartermasters and be measured for uniform, the barber, the surgeon for exam, the armory to draw a weapon, and you will do all this within the next hour and report back here.”  The adjutant made a great show of checking his pocket watch and making a notation in the log.  “Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You will do all this at the double.  Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You know the four answers you are allowed, don’t you New Cadet Rumble?”

“Yes, sir, no, sir, no excuse, sir and sir, I do not understand.”

“Use the last one sparingly. Go!”

Ben ran from the tent, almost crashing into an upperclass cadet who halted him and berated him for his unmilitary appearance for almost ten minutes, eating into his hour allotment and clearly trying to provoke him into action he would not be able to take back.  With every fiber of his being, Ben bore the insults and hazing.

The days passed in a blur for Ben.  Within a week he learned how to march, carry his musket and some basic maneuvers.  It seemed as if the drum rattled out the marching cadence all day long at the encampment.  The days were long with reveille at 5:00 am.  Then there was roll call to account for everyone.  Then ‘policing’ the tent city, removing anything that wasn’t supposed to there, and it seemed as if the upperclass went out of their way to place disgusting objects in the strangest places for the plebes to find.  And woe unto them if they did not find the objects.  Then drill from 5:30-6:30.  Then arrange their bedding, raise the walls of their tents so it was open to the air, and inspection, and prepare for morning parade.  They marched to the mess hall for breakfast.  Ben had eaten in the mess before so he was prepared for the terrible repast that awaited.

Right after breakfast, which was wolfed down as there was never enough time allowed to properly eat, the guard was mounted.  Then artillery drill from 9:00 to 10:00.  Then back to the tents to clean and polish gear, a never-ending task.  No matter how shiny a cadet made his brass, an upperclassman could always find fault with it.  The march to lunch at 1:00.  Then dancing from 3:00 to 4:00, because every cadet would be an officer and an officer was a gentleman, and a gentleman knew how to dance.  Then another police call.  Then Infantry drill from 5:30 to 6:45 followed by evening parade and inspection.  Then dinner.  Followed by final roll call at 9:30 and lights out at 9:45.

Besides making soldiers, the strict regime forged a class of men that grew tight and developed bonds that would last a lifetime.  Cooperate and graduate was a maxim beat into each plebe from the first day at the Academy, but, strangely, Ben felt his classmates separating from him as each day passed, rather than bonding, no matter how hard he tried to be one of them.

Civil War Comes To West Point

From Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War

“Cadets!” Master of the Horse Rumble snapped as he took the familiar spot on the floor of the riding hall.  “Assemble, in-line, one rank.”

The cadets of the class of 1862 scrambled out of the stands and fell in to the left and right of Rumble.

When all were in place, Rumble issued his second order. “Cadet George Armstrong Custer, front and center.”

With a self-confident grin, Custer stepped out of the ranks and double-timed to a spot just in front of Rumble. Custer was just shy of six feet, broad shouldered and athletic.  He had blue eyes and golden hair that lay on his head in a tumble of curling locks.  The word circulating in Benny Havens was that Custer was quite the lady’s man off-post.  The word circulating in the Academy was that Custer was not quite the academic man, the Immortal in every section, overall ranking last in his class and lingering very close to being boarded out.  In some ways, Custer reminded Rumble of Cord, but there was a dark edge to Custer that disturbed Rumble.

“Double-time to the stables, Mister Custer, and bridle your horse.” Rumble made a show of looking at his pocket watch.  “You have three minutes.”

Custer dashed off.

“Cadets, at ease,” Rumble ordered.

An instant buzz of excited conversation filled the riding hall. War was in the air.  And not just war, but Civil War.  Many southern cadets had already left the Academy, the first as early as the previous November, when a South Carolinian had departed, in anticipation of his state’s secession.  He was followed by all the rest of the cadets from South Carolina, three Mississippians and two Alabamians.

The divide touched the highest ranks of the Academy as the Superintendent appointed back in January, G. T. Beauregard, had lasted only five days before being relieved for his southern sympathies after advising a southern cadet who sought consul on whether to resign: “Watch me; and when I jump, you jump.  What’s the use of jumping too soon?”  With his departure, old Delafield resumed the post for several months before a permanent replacement was appointed.  Delafield was still on post, awaiting his next assignment.

The overwhelming feeling in the press was that most of the Academy was pro-slavery. But that was only to those outside of the gray walls.  Rumble knew the cadets better than they knew themselves and it was more the fact that the southerners who remained were the loudest and most outspoken, airing their opinions freely and to anyone who would listen.  The northern cadets had some sympathy for the plight of their southern brethren, but that sympathy had not been put to the test.  There was a sullenness and brooding among the Northerners that few could interpret.

Behind Rumble, seated in the corner of the stands, writing in a leather journal, was Ben, now a young man of twenty. He’d grown with a spurt when he was sixteen, and was now two inches shy of six feet, but as slender as Grant had been as a cadet and Rumble feared his son would never fill out.  Ben had his mother’s face, soft, freckled and open.  His most distinguishing feature was his bright red hair.  He could be recognized all the way across the Plain from that alone.

This was his first trip back to West Point since Rumble had maneuvered his son’s dismissal from the Corps and his entry into college in Maine. The few days had not been enough to thaw the chill between the two and Rumble had little idea where his son’s feelings lay or what his thoughts were.  But he had kept his promise to Lidia and saved his son from four years of hell and that was enough for now.

Custer came galloping back into the riding hall with a flourish.  He urged the large horse toward the far end of the hall. Despite it’s size, the horse was no York, at least a hand smaller than the long-deceased legend of the riding hall,

“Cadets,” Rumble cried out.  “Attention!”

The line snapped to.  Rumble called out the names of two cadets to take the center position. He noticed out of the corner of his eye that Delafield, his hair whiter than ever, had entered the hall.

“Gentlemen, hold in place, wings forward to observe,” Rumble commanded.

Using the two cadets as anchor, the lines on either side moved forward until all could see the two men in the center.

Custer reached the far end of the hall and waited.

Rumble turned to the line of cadets and raked his gaze left and right.  He remembered Matamoros and the Mexican line, the steel glinting in the sunlight.  He shivered and focused, once more grateful Ben did not wear the cadet gray.  “Mister Custer, you may—“

A plebe came running into the riding hall, uniform collar unbuttoned, face flush with excitement.  “It’s war!  Fort Sumter has been fired upon!”

Discipline vanished as the remaining southern cadets broke into cheers.

Natchez, MS, the richest city in America. In 1841.

A key character in my novel, Duty, Honor, Country is from a plantation outside Natchez, MS.  In this scene, he has just returned home, and meets his mother.

Summer 1841, Just South of Natchez, Mississippi

Rumble reined in the horse and gazed west from the bluff, feeling the familiar sheen of sweat on his body and breathing in the fragrance of magnolias. He’d galloped south from Natchez at first light, and the sun was still ascending in the east.

The Mississippi River appeared deceptively slow and calm, but beneath its muddy surface was a twisted and tangled knot of dangerous currents. Much like Palatine.  The grand house was almost grand, maintenance having been a bit slack over the past couple of years since last he’d seen it.  The fields were ripe with cotton, yet he’d heard rumors in town that there were problems with shipments from Palatine being delivered on time and in the proper bulk.  To his right, steamers cruised up the river, heading for the docks of Natchez for their loads of white gold.

Natchez had more millionaires per capita than any other in the United States. The townsfolk liked to say it was cotton that brought the money, but for Rumble it was much costlier:  The blood of the slaves who worked the fields and the souls of those who ruled over them.  Eli Whitney had had no idea the misery he was inflicting on the world when he invented his cotton gin.  Prior to that, slavery had slowly dying out due to its inherent inefficiency.

Rumble wore his uniform, proud of the chevrons on his sleeve from his recent promotion to sergeant by Superintendent Delafield. And proud of his Army blue.  Also, he knew it would grate on Tiberius, who often liked to be called Colonel, though the man had never worn a uniform or wielded a weapon in battle.

“I do swear, I do not like that river,” a woman’s voice drawled behind him.

Rumble turned the horse, a smile lighting up his face. “Mother.  You never swear.  Not really.”

Dressed in a dark-red riding dress, Violet Rumble sat sidesaddle on her old horse, a closed parasol in her deerskin gloved hands. A bright red bonnet with the feather of some exotic bird crowned her head.  She looked elegant, as always.  The horse was perfectly still, almost a statue.  His mother had been riding that nag as long as Rumble could remember.  It had been broken a long time ago and seemed content to stay broken and be a pedestal to Violet Rumble.  He rode up to her, and she leaned over, pecking him on the cheek.

But she was still focused on the river. “It almost took you from us.  I stay as far away from it as possible.”

“I think that is a wise thing,” Rumble said. “So you still watch the road and saw my approach?”

“It is better to watch the road than the river,” Violet said. She gently nudged the reins, facing toward Palatine House.  “What do you think of the old place?”

“I think it looks fine.”

“You never were good at lying,” Violet said with a laugh. “It’s falling apart.  Your father spends all his time up there—“ she pointed with the parasol toward the second story porch.  Rumble could make out a figure dressed in white seated in a large wicker chair.  “He never goes out to the fields any more.”

“You mentioned in your letter that he was ill.”

“He had a spell where he could not stand for two days. He refused to have a doctor come.  He can get up now, but he is not the same.”

“He knows I’m here?” Rumble asked.

“He does now,” Violet said.

“You did not tell him of the letter?”

“He did not tell me he was sending the message via St. George,” Violet said as if the quid pro quo of deceit was the natural state of affairs and quite reasonable and normal.

“How did you know then that—“ Rumble stopped. Violet knew everything.  “So what will be the welcome?”

“I’ve already welcomed you.  It’s my home also, you know.”

“Yes, mother.”

She reached out and her gloved hand gripped his forearm with force. “It’s true?  You have a child.”

Rumble licked sweat off his upper lip.  “Yes.”

“A son?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve done well.  And his name?”

“Ben Agrippa Rumble.”

“Oh my!” The normally unflappable Violet Rumble, formally Violet Rudolph of the esteemed Rudolph’s of Clarksville, Tennessee, was rarely shocked, but she regrouped quickly.  “That will make things more interesting to say the least.”  She glanced back at the Mississippi.  “You did it in his memory?”

“Yes, mother.”

“That was noble.” She flicked the reins and her horse began ambling toward Palatine House.  “But short-sighted and impetuous.”

A new blog post every day leading up to the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War on April 12th and the publication of Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War, the first in my series.

Tomorrow:  The only mutiny in the US Navy, which led to the founding of Annapolis

How West Point Cadets became Cows and Ulysses S. Grant became a cadet

An excerpt from Duty, Honor, Country which explains both:

June exams were over—Cord had passed all courses, barely—and now the cadets in the class of 1843 were free until the 28th of August. Summer furlough between the second and third years at the Academy was the highlight of most cadets’ time at West Point, being a time when they didn’t have to be at West Point.  Finishing their Yearling year, cadets went home and came back to be called Cows, due to the additional weight most gained away from the meager fare of the cadet dining hall and the strictness of the training regime.

Cord left his room and met Sam Grant, also in mufti, in the hallway of the barracks. Grant held a small haversack containing all his non-military clothing and gear.  Unlike Cord, Grant had not put on weight, although like him, Grant had gained his adult height.  Over the course of two years Grant had grown six inches, but still remained a paltry one hundred and twenty pounds.

“Looking very civilian,” Cord said to Grant.  “To Ohio?”

Grant was enthused. “Yes.  I’ll be there in a few days.”  He slapped Cord on the back.  “Be careful you don’t split those britches.”

“I’m moving slowly for just that reason.  Already ruined the shirt.”

Grant looked at the damage. “What’s that?”  The edge of a black scroll was visible etched into the skin on Cord’s chest.

Cord grabbed the left side of his shirt, covering the tattoo. “Something I got at sea in memory of my mother.  You know how the Supe feels about inking the skin.”

Grant sighed, looking back into his room, like an inmate let out for a little exercise but knowing he’s going to be locked up again. “I feel like I’ve been here forever.  Gray, gray, gray.  Buildings, uniforms, mood.”

“I don’t mind the gray,” Cord said. “Better than being on some ship.  I just thought some things would be different coming here.”

“Different how?” Grant asked.

“I don’t know,” Cord said. “Why’d you come to West Point?” he suddenly asked Grant.

Grant laughed bitterly. “I didn’t want to.  My father arranged my appointment without consulting me.  When the appointment was a given, I was informed and told in no uncertain terms that I would be going to the Academy.”

“Why’d your father want you to come here?” Cord pressed.

“My father is very conscious of pecuniary matters. It pleases him to no end that I am receiving my higher education on the government’s teat.  He also told me that he sensed I had little skill in the world of business.”

“So you are at odds with your father,” Cord said.

“No.”  Grant shrugged. “One has to trust family.  He has my best interests at heart.  It’s what a father does.”  Grant hefted his haversack over his shoulder.  “Why’d you come here?”

“To escape.”

“From your home?”

“Yes.  My journey here is the opposite of yours. I wrangled my appointment from an uncle on my mother’s side of the family who has political connections.  I informed my father after it was a given.”

“His reaction?”

“He was probably as pleased to hear of my appointment as you were to be informed of yours.”

“And now we both go back,” Grant observed as they walked out of the barracks together, mingling with other former Yearlings.  They were heading for South Dock to catch the ferry to New York City, where they would scatter across the country for their few months of freedom.  It was a pleasant, early summer day.  The trees were green, the sky was blue and one could almost forget the misery of the dark winter and shake off the gray stone on the buildings.

Grant stopped to shake hands with Pete Longstreet.

A new blog post every day leading up to the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War on April 12th and the publication of Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War, the first in my series.

Tomorrow:  How Texas Caused the Mexican War

George Pickett leading the most successful charge—of the Mexican War

Pickett is well known for the charge at Gettysburg that carries his name and is considered the high water mark of the Confederacy and led to it’s ultimate defeat (yes, I know, it isn’t over yet for many).

But what many don’t know is that Pickett, who graduated last in his class of 59 cadets in the class of 1846, bravely led a charge during the Mexican War that helped win that war for the United States. By the way, the class ‘goat’ is the cadet who finishes last in ranking but still manages to graduate.  Another famous goat is George Armstrong Custer, but more about him in another post, as he also makes an appearance as a lieutenant in Duty, Honor, Country.

An officer came scurrying down the trench.  Another West Pointer. The opposite of Longstreet in appearance, but not quite the same as Lee.  The man had long hair, curling down to his shoulders.  His uniform held all the accoutrements of rank one could possibly sew or pin on and had somehow been freshly cleaned and repaired.

“Major Lee, may I present George Pickett, ’46,” Longstreet said by way of introduction.  “Also of the 8th Infantry.”

Pickett only had eyes for Lee.  “Major, I—“

“Time,” Lee said, flicking shut the face of the watch and heading down the trench, continuing whatever task the general had assigned.

Pickett was staring after Lee, red-faced.  More concerned about the lack of acknowledgement from the West Point legend than the pending assault.

*****

Grant stiffened, peering through the telescope. “The standard bearer of the 8th is down!  Old Pete has the colors.”

Even without his scope, Rumble could see the regimental flag waving back and forth and moving inexorably toward the walls of the fort.  Grant and Rumble started out of the ditch when the flag suddenly dipped to the ground as Longstreet fell to his knees, wounded.  Another officer, Pickett, grabbed the colors from Longstreet and dashed forward, displaying them over his head with dash and screaming for the men to follow him.  He reached the wall of the fortress and climbed up on the rubble where the cannons had done the job of breaching the stone.  Pickett paused for a moment, bullets flying all about him, then disappeared into the fortress, a flood of blue clad soldiers following, an inexorable tide of destruction.

Grant and Rumble found Longstreet lying with his back against a boulder, blood flowing from a wound in his hip.

“George is something isn’t he?” Longstreet greeted them.  “Never hesitated.”

“You were something,” Grant said.  “Didn’t see you stopping either, till you got hit.”

“It’s nothing,” Longstreet said.  “A flesh wound.”

Rumble knelt next to Longstreet and checked the wound.  “It isn’t bad.”  He reached into his haversack and pulled out some bandages.  “I put the odds at ten to one you’ll be walking within a week.”

Longstreet laughed through his pain.  “I won’t bet against myself.  One of my rules.”

Rumble tightened down the cloth.  He spotted a couple of stretcher-bearers and called them over.  Bugles blared to their rear.

“Assembly for the 4th,” Grant said.  He put a hand on Longstreet’s shoulder as the stretcher-bearers lifted him.  “Take care of yourself, Pete.”

“Both of you stay safe,” Longstreet called out as he was carried away.

Grant and Rumble dashed back down the rock-strewn slope to rejoin the regiment.  Now that the fortress had been taken, the way to Mexico City was open.

A new blog post every day leading up to the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War on April 12th and the publication of Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War, the first in my series.

Tomorrow: Benny Havens, his infamous tavern outside West Point, and Edgar Allen Poe

Did you know Ulysses S. Grant was a horse whisperer?

He also held the Academy record for jumping a horse for many years. Here are two excerpts from Duty, Honor, Country:

“You can’t force him,” Ulysses S. Grant said in a level tone. “You have to lead him.”

While Rumble filled out his uniform coat, Grant was lost in his. He was slender to the point of emaciation, his frame slightly stooped, and the dress gray tunic hung loosely from his shoulders as if they were a thin hanger.  He was several inches shorter than Rumble’s six feet and dwarfed by York.

Rumble shifted uneasily as Grant took a step toward the horse. “Careful, Sam.”

Grant was focused on the horse. His piercing blue eyes stared deeply into the bay’s.  Grant took another step closer, within hoof range, but it was also close enough for something to pass between man and beast.

The horse twitched, began to rear, but stopped, nostrils flaring.  The bay shivered, took a step back and glared at Grant.  Outside the stall, Rumble remained perfectly still.  Grant slipped the bit in the horse’s mouth, whispering all the time to the beast, calming, forceful, reassuring.  The horse’s ears had been laid back, but now they relaxed, twitching forward to catch the young man’s soft voice.

And later, at the graduation ceremony for the class of 1843, Grant set the record:

The Master of the Horse, Sergeant Herschberger, strode out to the bar. He looked at it, at Rumble and frowned.  Then the slightest trace of a smile flickered on the stern Master of the Horse’s face, gone so quickly one would wonder if had been there at all.  He called out in a thunderous voice:  “Cadet Grant!”  The order echoed through the riding hall.

Grant, still weighing a paltry one hundred and twenty pounds, spurred York forward from the line. The contrast between the slender cadet and the massive horse would have been greater if it were not for the relaxed way Grant rode.  He didn’t seem to be controlling York, but a part of the beast, the mind behind all that muscle below the saddle.  Grant saluted the Superintendent with his saber, then slid it into the scabbard.  As he turned to head for the far end of the hall, he winked at Rumble.

In the reviewing stands, Benny and Letitia Havens sat with Ben between them.  Letitia held Abigail on her lap. Not far from them was George King, dressed in a navy uniform, the insignia of an ensign on his sleeve.  His face was tanned and his ice-blue eyes held an edge to them that had not been there when he was a cadet.

Hidden at the far end of the building, near the horse doors leading to the stable, St. George stepped into the dark shadows, and folded his powerful arms across his broad chest, his clothes dusty and worn from a long, hard ride.  His slouch hat was pulled down low.  His black sash was wrapped around his solid waist, and a discerning observer could see the outline of his Le Mat pistol tucked inside.

Grant galloped the Chesnut bay to the far end of the hall. He spotted St. George, frowned, but focused on the task at hand.  He turned the horse, paused for just the slightest of moments.  He leaned forward and whispered something into York’s ear.  The horse’s ears lay back and nostrils flared.  Together, they began the straight run for the bar.

Man and beast accelerated across the floor, loose tanbark flying up behind, hooves thundering on the wood underneath. Grant and horse were measuring strides based on the rapidly closing distance.  At the perfect spot Grant twitched the reins and York gathered himself, seeming to shrink for a second, all muscles tightening, and then bounded smoothly into the air.  With inches to spare, Grant and York flew over the bar.  They landed without mishap.  There was a moment of stunned silence.

“Very well done, sir!” Sergeant Herschberger cried out, acknowledging that Grant had just set an Academy record. The crowd roared its approval.  Herschberger turned to the rest of the class of 1843 lined up on their mounts along the wall.  “Class dismissed.”

As you can see, the novel is a mixture of history and a handful of fictional characters. The ties between Grant, Rumble, George King, and others is at the heart of the story.  Every little event, leads onward to greater events.  As tomorrow’s post will show.

A new blog post every day leading up to the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War on April 12th and the publication of Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War, the first in my series.

Tomorrow: Why was U.S. Grant known as Unconditional Surrender Grant?

Did you know Ulysses S. Grant wasn’t his real name?

Here is another excerpt from Duty, Honor, Country that explains that fact:

Winter greeted the first day of 1841 by howling off the Hudson River and screaming among the leafless trees on the high bluffs. Inside the Academy stable, three cadets, bundled against the cold, fumbled with frozen fingers to gear up their horses.  York was still the pride of the stables and Grant still the only one to master the Hell Beast.  In adjoining stalls, Elijah Cord and Pete Longstreet worked on preparing more amendable mounts in complete silence.

Sam had been born Hiram Ulysses Grant, but was now stuck with Ulysses S. Grant.  The congressman from Ohio who had given Grant his appointment to West Point had gotten the name wrong on the paperwork he sent the Academy.  In the military once a piece of paper changes your name, the name is changed. So it was written and so it would be, despite all Grant’s efforts to right the mistake.

Grant and Longstreet had the Superintendent’s blessings to depart post on this particular day and for this particular mission. Cord, as always, was on restriction, but for the first time since the incident at Benny Havens half a year ago, he was going to break the rules once more.  The months since his beating and Silencing by the Corps had been sufficient time for his wounds to heal and for the effect of the Silence to settle in.  As his body grew stronger, his spirit grew weaker.

Longstreet would be Grant’s best man at his wedding.  They served together in the Mexican War, Grant in the 4th Infantry and Longstreet in the 8th Infantry and both are in battle scenes from the book, which starts in 1840 at West Point, goes through the Mexican War, and into the Civil War and ends at Shiloh.  It’s the first book in what’s going to be a long series about West Pointers and the Civil War and on into the Plains Wars.  Grant and Longstreet would meet again in the Civil War, but on opposing sides, an issue that is at the core of Duty, Honor, Country.

A new blog post every day leading up to the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War on April 12th and the publication of Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War, the first in my series.

Tomorrow:  Did you know Ulysses S. Grant was a horse whisperer?

Thomas Jefferson founded the United States Military Academy although he disliked the military

As a graduate of the Military Academy, I don’t recall much emphasis placed upon the fact that Thomas Jefferson was the President who founded it.  In fact, the focus was always on George Washington.  After all, his statue is right there centered on the Plain, the mess hall is named Washington Hall, and when I was there, nothing was named after Jefferson.  The Academy recently opened a new library, and it is named appropriately after Jefferson.

Here is an excerpt from Duty, Honor, Country about this:

Fifty miles up the Hudson River from New York City, the river narrows and makes a sharp bend to the west.  The craggy highland on the left bank is called West Point and was first fortified to keep the American colonies united during the Revolutionary War.  The placement of a military outpost at West Point was dictated by both strategy and terrain.  The strategy insisted that the fledgling colonies stay connected and the British had seen the obvious:  control the Hudson River and they could sever the particularly troublesome New England colonies from the Confederation of rebelling states to the west and south.

The terrain was the dictate of geography on military tactics. At West Point, the narrow twist in the Hudson causes any sailing vessel to tack and slow to a crawl.  Add a massive chain floated across the river on rafts, covered by heavy artillery lining the bluffs above, and the small American garrison at West Point kept the colonies united throughout the Revolution.

After the Revolutionary War, the founding of the Military Academy at West Point had been dictated by necessity.  The country’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, detested the idea of a standing army, but accepted the reality that the country had to have such a beast.  So Jefferson determined to place a leash on the animal.  To keep the officer corps from becoming filled with sycophants who would support a particular party or person over the country, in 1802 he ordered the establishment of an Academy to train a professional cadre of officers that would draw its cadets from across the country and across the strata of society.  As West Point was a chokepoint in the geography of the new country, the Academy located there was to be a chokepoint to the power of the military that had to sustain a democracy.  Cadets would swear an oath—the very first law the First Congress enacted, an indication of its importance to the young country—to defend the Constitution, not any party or individual.

Thirty-eight years after the founding, two of these cadets, one from Ohio and the other from Mississippi, were in the Academy stable, preparing horses for a ride on a rare day exempt from duties and training.

By the way, the cadet from Ohio, is named Ulysses S. Grant.

A new blog post every day leading up to the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War on April 12th and the publication of Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War, the first in my series.

Tomorrow:  Did you know Ulysses S. Grant wasn’t his real name?

Jeff Davis was almost kicked out of West Point for partying

For Christmas 1826, a handful of cadets at West Point used their military training to plan a party. A party which would cause 19 cadets to be court-martialed, most of those to be expelled, a number which nearly included future Confederate States of American President, Jefferson Davis, class of 1828.

A few cadets smuggled alcohol onto post across the Hudson River in order to make eggnog for a Christmas day party in the North Barracks. As events escalated, the party went from drinking to a riot, causing numerous cadets to be put under arrest.

Alcohol consumption has always been an issue at West Point. During my time there, we had the 10-K rule, where a circle of 10 kilometers was drawn with the flagpole in the center.  Cadets were not allowed to consume alcohol at all, whether they were of legal age or not, within that circle.  Think through the ramifications of that rule on cadets who had cars?

Much like the North Barracks eggnog party of 1826, which was a blatant flouting of the rules, my company at West Point held a zero-K party. Figuring the best deception is brazenness, G-1 held a beer party right near the flagpole just off the Plain at West Point.  It was so obvious that officers passing by had to assume we had permission to do this.  After all, no one would be so foolish, but indeed we were and we got away with it.

While Jeff Davis was imbibing with his classmates, Robert E. Lee, class of 1829, was at a more refined party at the superintendent’s quarters where Sylvanus Thayer, considered the “father” of the Military Academy was quizzing him on trigonometry problems regarding artillery fire.  Thus can you tell someone’s personality by the way they party.

Jeff Davis wasn’t court-martialed and wasn’t dismissed from the Corps and thus history would play out decades later as Davis, class of ’28, and Lee, class of ’29, both ended up leading the political and military arms of the Confederate States of America.

My novel, Duty, Honor, Country, coming 12 April, opens with cadets drinking in famous Benny Havens tavern, one of them, William Tecumseh Sherman. The drinking escalates, along with other events, to a near duel, and the future for all involved is changed forever.

A new blog post every day leading up to the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War on April 12th and the publication of Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War, the first in my series.

Tomorrow: Pilot Peak, Kit Carson, the Donner Party and Conquering California

Duty, Honor, Country

12 April 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.  The official start, when Fort Sumter was fired upon.  It ‘s also the date my first book on the Civil War:  DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY, will be published.

However, the seeds of the Civil War were planted well before 12 April 1861, with the founding of the country.  Our story, though, starts in 1840, in Benny Havens tavern, just outside post limits of the United States Military Academy.  With William Tecumseh Sherman, a classmate, a plebe, and Benny Havens’ daughter coming together in a crucible of honor and loyalty.   And on post, in the West Point stables, where Ulysses S. Grant and a classmate are preparing to saddle the Hell-Beast, a horse with which Grant would eventually set an academy record, and both make fateful decisions that will change the course of their lives and history.

The key to this series is a simple fact I had to memorize as a plebe at West Point:

Who commanded the major battles of the Civil War? —— There were 60 important battles of the War. In 55 of them, graduates commanded on both sides; in the remaining 5, a graduate commanded one of the opposing sides.

That struck me as utterly fascinating and disturbing on a core level.  After all, how did men who went to the same Academy, who swore the same oath of allegiance, end up fighting each other?  In addition, it made me wonder if perhaps the war lasted so long and was the bloodiest in our history until World War II, because the leaders on both sides had all been trained in the same place?

So I decided to take a handful of fictional character and insert them into history, to rub elbows with those who would become great and those who would become infamous.  And have them live through events, both epic and personal.

The story ranges from West Point; to a plantation in Natchez, the richest city in the United States where cotton was king; to the only mutiny in the United States Navy; to St.  Louis where Kit Carson is preparing to depart on a famous expedition to the west with Fremont that would eventually bring California into the Union; to Mexico, where the United States Army suffered its highest casualty rate to this day and brought most of the western United States into the Union; to the founding of the Naval Academy; to John Brown’s hanging; to the firing on Fort Sumter; through First Bull  Run; the first battle of ironclads, the Monitor and Virginia; and culminating in the epic battle of Shiloh, where the United States had more casualties in one battle than in all previous wars combined and the face of warfare changed forever.

And that’s leaving out many more events that arc the story.  My handful of fictional characters are swept up by the tide of history and their factual contemporaries, and sometimes are more than swept up as they are the significant unknowns, the people who changed history but weren’t recorded by it.

This is history told both epic and personal so we can understand intellectually what happened, but more importantly feel the heart-wrenching struggle of duty, honor, country and loyalty coming into collision.

This first book will be followed by more books, taking our characters through the Civil War and beyond, into the Plains Wars and further.

As they say at West Point:  Much of the history we teach, was made by people we taught.

Coming 12 April 2011.

I hope you enjoy!

Bob Mayer

USMA ‘81

Infantry and U.S. Special Forces

PS:  If you want to read my latest novel, about a modern day West Point graduate, coming out of a covert unit and serving as a Federal liaison to a local police department who gets involved in a murder and counter-terrorist operation, check out Chasing The Ghost in eBook (only. 99) or print.

And, coming on the 4th of July, 185 years to the date after his death, The Jefferson Allegiance, a modern thriller where the pieces of the Jefferson Cipher must be found to found and put together to uncover the the Jefferson Allegiance, a document from the Founding Fathers, that in the wrong hands, could destroy the country.