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