The Class of 1861: Custer, Ames, and Their Classmates after West Point

The Class of 1861: Custer, Ames, and Their Classmates after West Point

The Class of 1861: Custer, Ames, and Their Classmates after West Point

The Class of 1861: Custer, Ames, and Their Classmates after West Point


Ralph Kirshner has provided a richly illustrated forum to enable the West Point class of 1861 to write its own autobiography. Through letters, journals, and published accounts, George Armstrong Custer, Adelbert Ames, and their classmates tell in their own words of their Civil War battles and varied careers after the war.

Two classes graduated from West Point in 1861 because of Lincoln's need of lieutenants, forty-five cadets in Ames's class in May and thirty-four in Custer's class in June. The cadets range from Henry Algernon du Pont, first in the class of May, whose home is now Winterthur Gardens, to Custer, last in the class of June. "Only thirty-four graduated", remarked Custer, "and of these thirty-three graduated above me". West Point's mathematics professor and librarian Oliver Otis Howard, after whom Howard University is named, is also portrayed.

Other famous names from the class of 1861 are John Pelham, Emory Upton, Thomas L. Rosser, John Herbert Kelly (the youngest general in the Confederacy when appointed), Patrick O'Rorke (head of the class of June), Alonzo Cushing, Peter Hains, Edmund Kirby, John Adair (the only deserter in the class), and Judson Kilpatrick (great-grandfather of Gloria Vanderbilt). They describe West Point before the Civil War, the war years, including the Vicksburg campaign and the battle of Gettysburg, the courage and character of classmates, and the ending of the war.

Kirshner also highlights postwar lives, including Custer at Little Bighorn; Custer's rebel friend Rosser; John Whitney Barlow, who explored Yellowstone; du Pont, senator and author; Kilpatrick, playwright and diplomat; Orville E. Babcock, Grant's secretary until his indictment in the"Whiskey Ring"; Pierce M. B. Young, a Confederate general who became a diplomat; Hains, the only member of the class to serve on active duty in World War I; and Upton, "the class genius".

The book features eighty-three phot


The Class of 1861 is, in a way, a book of collective autobiography. Two classes graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1861 because of Lincoln's urgent need for lieutenants. This book covers all members of Adelbert Ames's May class and George A. Custer's June class- including Southerners who left before graduation to join the Confederacy. I use Custer's fame to introduce the other 1861 graduates, some of whom, like Custer, became "boy generals" in the Civil War that was just beginning. For the most part, they tell their story in their own words. This book is their view of themselves; naturally, it is very favorable. Others, of course, would have a very different view of them, as many of these figures are controversial. But The Class of 1861 tries to maintain an autobiographical tone, with each sketch told from its subject's point of view.

In part one, class members give not only accounts of battles but analysis of the war. Much of the analysis is by Emory Upton, "the class genius," and his friend Henry A. du Pont, whose estate is now Winterthur Garden. Also heard from is mathematics professor and West Point librarian Lieutenant Oliver Otis Howard, after whom Howard University is named. the chapters in part two deal with their lives after the war. Excerpts from a variety of writings make it possible to hear a subject's voice, as in Adelbert Ames Journal While Abroad, written before he became governor of Mississippi.

The first time a cadet is mentioned, his class (May or June) and class standing will be included in parentheses. Appendix A, "Roll Call," gives brief biographical sketches of all the cadets and lists them in order of class standing. That is also the order of their photographs in the gallery, which includes nongraduates John Pelham and the Southerners who became generals.

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