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

Article excerpt

The Class of 1861: Custer, Ames, and Their Classmates After West Point. By Ralph Kirshner. With a foreword by George A. Plimpton. (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, c. 1999. Pp. xx, 224. $34.95, ISBN 0-8093-2066-5.)

The United States Military Academy at West Point began 1861 with a five-year curriculum. Because of the outbreak of the Civil War, however, the academy graduated two classes that year, the first on May 6, and the second, what would have been the class of 1862, on June 24. In The Class of 1861 Ralph Kirshner traces the careers of the forty-five graduates and of the two non-graduates who joined the Confederacy from the May class and the thirtyfive graduates along with three Confederate non-graduates from the June class. Kirshner narrates this overview history of the Civil War largely by focusing on these men's experiences and by using the class members' own words. He follows up with detailed surveys of the postwar years of selected class members, while briefly summarizing the lives of all. The book is a sort of celebration of the cadets of 1861. It is fun to read, and for the most part it unpretentiously does not profess to be more than that.

The war gave the 1861 graduates the opportunity to advance rapidly, and some became, in the phrase used then and since, "boy generals." Those in the Union army included, from the May class, Charles Elias Babcock, third in class standing; Adelbert Ames, fifth; Emory Upton, eighth; Edmund Kirby, tenth; Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, seventeenth; and Guy Vernon Henry, twentyseventh. George Armstrong Custer, thirty-fourth and last in the June cohort, also gained his star fighting for the Union. Thomas Lafayette Rosser and John Herbert Kelly, both of the May class, and Pierce Manning Butler Young from June, were among the Confederates' boy generals. Even in our unsentimental time there remains something romantic and glamorous about rising to be a general officer while in one's mid-twenties, and that sense of romance permeates this book.

Among West Pointers graduating directly into war, of course, there were bound to be early deaths, but Kirshner can readily enough evoke a nineteenth-century style of sentimentality for them as well. First Lieutenant Charles Edward Hazlett, fifteenth of the May class and serving in the Fifth U.S. Artillery, for example, was shot in the head at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, while bending over to catch the last words of Brigadier General Stephen H. Weed on Little Round Top. Colonel Patrick Henry O'Rorke, first in June and with the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry, died leading a bayonet charge on that same Little Round Top. …

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