My Time at West Point and the Coming of War

Just like Huck Finn, if slavery was part of civilized society, I wanted to escape that society.

Deemed a failure as a slave master (not surprisingly, someone who frees his slaves will not be a master for long!) and wanting to get the hell off that cotton farm almost as badly as Willis and Newton did, I had dreams of serving in the cavalry on America’s western frontier. It’s a long story I can’t go into here, but in 1856, when I was still only 17, I obtained an appointment to West Point, no small feat then or now.

A fellow by the name of Thomas Rosser was my roommate for most of my time at the Academy, the Point, as we cadets called it. That big, burly Texan was a true and loyal friend, perhaps the best I ever had, but we held vastly different views on just about everything. In addition to claiming I was an abolitionist, which in truth I was, at one time or another he accused me of being a revolutionary, a socialist, a communist, a freethinker (you don’t hear about those too much anymore), a traitor to the South, and Lord knows what else. Bless his heart, since his own good nature would not allow for the possibility that I was truly evil, he convinced himself that I was simply weak-minded.

In addition to excelling as an artillerist, as one of the finest horsemen in the corps, I pretty much taught a clumsy, rawboned Northerner by the name of George Armstrong Custer how to ride a horse, something that was imperative for a soldier in the 1800s. Despite his being a Yankee, “Autie,” as he was known back then, was Rosser’s best friend and quite a character, almost managing to get himself expelled on numerous occasions. Autie shared my dream of serving on the frontier, but while I wanted to escape so-called civilized society, that world I grew up in that condoned slavery, he wanted to make the continent safe for civilization, Manifest Destiny and such. We all know how that turned out for him at Little Bighorn, but given that he outlived me by over a dozen years, I don’t take any satisfaction. What’s important, though, is that Autie became my nemesis—first my enemy and rival, but later my agent of retribution. (If you look up “nemesis” in the dictionary you’ll see that it actually means both of those things.)

If ever there was a golden age of white privilege...

For the most part, no matter our differences, Northerners and Southerners got along perfectly well during my first few years at the Point, and I freely admit it took me a long time to figure out why. There may have been Northerners among us who were opposed to slavery, even some downright abolitionists (black Republican abolitionists of the corps, we called them), but whether Negroes lived in bondage in the South or as second class citizens in the North misses the point, which is this: Not a single cadet questioned the notion that ours was a white man’s country in a white man’s world, and it was our prerogative to determine everyone else’s fate, whether it was bondage, confinement to a reservation, out and out slaughter, or what have you. To our way of thinking, such determinations were a matter of benevolence on our part.

But our tranquil, harmonious existence ended when John Brown raided the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in the fall of 1859. Brown was a radical abolitionist who intended to start a slave insurrection throughout the South. Despite the raid being a colossal failure and Brown facing the gallows, it demonstrated just how vulnerable the South was. There’s some agreement among historians that it made war between North and South inevitable, and I tend to agree. After all, how could Southerners live with the threat of insurrection hanging over them? Imagine always having to worry that you might be murdered in your bed while you slept!

Leave it to me to be serving as President of the Dialectic Society just when all hell broke loose. Don’t laugh, but I was probably the most well-liked man in the corps, with a reputation as a diplomat who got along with both Northerners and Southerners alike. (Did I mention that Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” himself, was a not too distant cousin of mine?) Anyway, what had generally amounted to nothing more than trivial discussions and boring speakers suddenly became passionate arguments and physical altercations, including at least one duel (undoubtedly the most exciting thing that happened during my years at the Point!).

My identity as a man was dependent on land and slaves. You be sure to remember that simple phrase, because I’m pretty sure that’s what it all comes down to when it’s said and done.

And just when things at the Point had simmered down, Abraham Lincoln was elected President and the Southern states started seceding one after the other. War would soon be upon us! As much as I hated the Cotton Kingdom and knew firsthand that slavery was evil, I won’t deny that I owed a good deal of my social status at the Point to being a wealthy planter’s son. In other words, like a microcosm of the entire South’s dilemma, my newfound identity as a man and a soldier was dependent upon land and slaves. Thinking the war would be over almost as soon as it started, and reasoning that I had more to lose by revealing my true sentiments, like most all the Southerners I resigned from the corps before getting my diploma and went off to fight for my home state of Alabama. Thus began what I like to call “my picaresque journey to destruction.”

I should mention that, as it happens, I met one of General Lee’s daughters, Agnes, at the Point only a few weeks before Lincoln’s election in 1860. She paid us a visit as part of her trip to New York City, where she represented her family at a ball for the Prince of Wales, the first British royal to visit America since the revolution. Maybe it was because the real prince had disappointed her so badly, but she was the first one to cast me in that role. Unfortunately, her undeniable fascination for the future “prince of the South” eventually led her to cast off her childhood beau, a dashing but flawed young man who was later hanged as a Confederate spy. I’m pretty sure she blamed herself for his death, and never recovered from the loss, but I’m getting way ahead of myself.