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The Class of 1861

Custer, Ames, and Their Classmates after West Point

Ralph Kirshner

Publication Year: 2008

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 of their 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 ancestral home is now Winterthur Garden, 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 Class of 1861, which features eighty-three photographs, includes a foreword by George Plimpton, editor of the Paris Review and great-grandson of General Adelbert Ames.



Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

Some years ago I went to a large dinner at the White House, a social evening, and after dinner a few of us were taken on an informal tour by the president. At one point, I believe in the Oval Office, President Kennedy motioned to me and said, “George, I’d like to talk to you about your grandmother.” ...

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pp. xv-xvi

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 ...

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pp. xvii-xx

Pauline Ames Plimpton generously shared her reminiscences, reflections, and enthusiasm about her grandfather Adelbert Ames. She was the first of three people I talked with who knew members of the class of 1861. Her son, George Plimpton, also knew General Ames, and I am grateful to him for letting me use his reflections on the general ...

Part One: War Years

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1. Introduction: Buglers’ Assembly

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pp. 3-12

George Armstrong Custer (#34, June) was last in his class, or, as he put it, “only thirty-four graduated, and of these thirty-three graduated above me.”1 In his unfinished “War Memoirs”—on which he was still working while riding to Little Bighorn—Custer says, “The first official notification received by me of my appointment to the Military Academy ...

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2. Flames of Rebellion

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pp. 13-24

The senior class of 1861 graduated on May 6. The head of the class, Henry Algernon du Pont, remarked to his aunt, “I do not know why the list of graduates has not been published this year. The papers did not seem to get hold of the fact of our graduation at all, as all ceremony, grand reviews, etc. were dispensed with.”1 ...

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3. Courage and Ambition

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pp. 25-36

In a war where even generals sometimes led from the front, “boy generals” (in their mid-twenties) could earn the confidence of their men by displaying bravery on a regular basis. It certainly helped make Custer a popular commander despite his heavy casualties. ...

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4. The Vicksburg Campaign

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pp. 37-46

Peter Conover Hains, who fired the signal gun at Bull Run, was still alive when The Military Engineer published his article “The Vicksburg Campaign” in its issue of May–June 1921. At Vicksburg, he was the chief engineer of the Thirteenth Corps in the Union Army of the Tennessee. ...

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5. Gettysburg

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pp. 47-58

In the east, 1863 would also see Confederate “capacity for further mischief” reduced, but at a heavy price. John B. Williams (#26, May), who had fought at Bull Run, Yorktown, and Malvern Hill, was dismissed on February 11, 1863, for what would later be called combat fatigue. Orville E. Babcock noted on February 13, 1863, “Wrote to Cross. ...

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6. The Boy Generals

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pp. 59-65

The most obvious (if not the most attractive) quality in a boy general was ambition. On August 31, 1863, Colonel Thomas L. Rosser suspected (inaccurately) that Jeb Stuart was keeping him from becoming a general. “I have always liked Gen. Stuart,” Rosser told his wife, “and have supported him in every instance and it is very hard for me to believe that he would desert me ...

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7. Custer, Rosser, and du Pont

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pp. 66-86

On January 1, 1864, the famous Confederate diarist Mary Chesnut quoted Pierce Young, of the class of June: “General Young says, ‘Give me those daredevil dandies I find in Mrs. C’s drawing [room]. I like fellows who fight and don’t care what all the row’s about.’”1 ...

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8. Ending the War

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pp. 87-94

The last surviving Union general, Adelbert Ames, of the class of May, lived until 1933, the opposite of Felix Robertson in every way. Ames commanded the Federal infantry division that stormed Fort Fisher, “the Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” which guarded the South’s last major open port, Wilmington, North Carolina. ...

Part Two: Postwar Lives

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9. Adelbert Ames: Reconstruction Governor

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pp. 97-110

From the summer of 1866 until June of the next year, Adelbert Ames traveled in Europe and kept a three-volume “Journal While Abroad.” In his diary, he records his views on race, Reconstruction, President Johnson, and the role of an army officer in a republic. ...

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10. George Armstrong Custer: Little Bighorn

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pp. 111-119

The postwar road to Little Bighorn began in Texas in 1865, where Custer commanded a reorganized cavalry division of troopers wanting to go home and, for the first time, was unpopular with the men he led. Custer’s command was part of General Philip Sheridan’s army near Mexico. ...

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11. Thomas Lafayette Rosser: Custer’s Rebel Friend

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pp. 120-123

After breaking out at Appomattox Court House on April 9, Rosser was captured at “Courtland,” his wife’s house, on May 2, 1865, and taken to Richmond. He was soon released after the Federals learned that he had not surrendered at Appomattox and therefore could not be violating the parole that Confederates who were there received. ...

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12. John Whitney Barlow: Explorer of Yellowstone

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pp. 124-126

John Whitney Barlow is remembered not for a battle but for a park. His Report of a Reconnaissance of the Basin of the Upper Yellowstone in 1871 was published by Congress, which set aside land the next year for the first national park.1 From his headquarters in Chicago, General Philip Sheridan had sent Barlow, his chief engineer, to map the Yellowstone Basin. ...

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13. Henry Algernon du Pont: Businessman, Senator, Author

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pp. 127-129

After the Civil War, Henry Algernon du Pont remained in the artillery and served on a board (with his classmate Emory Upton) to assimilate tactics for artillery, infantry, and cavalry. Du Pont married Mary Pauline Foster in 1874, left the army in 1875, and lived in Europe for a year. He then became head of the sales division of E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. ...

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14. Judson Kilpatrick: Playwright and Diplomat

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pp. 130-131

The cavalryman became a diplomat on December 1, 1865, when Kilpatrick accepted an appointment as U.S. minister to Chile from President Andrew Johnson. Kilpatrick married Louisa Valdivoso, niece of the archbishop of Santiago, on November 3, 1866. Kilpatrick served in Chile until August 1868. ...

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15. Orville E. Babcock: The Rise and Fall of Grant’s Secretary

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pp. 132-135

For gallant and meritorious services in the field, Babcock had been brevetted brigadier general, U.S. Army, on March 13, 1865. After the war, Babcock stayed with Grant. The advantages to the young officer of being an aide to the commanding general of the army were obvious. ...

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16. Pierce M. B. Young: Confederate General and U.S. Diplomat

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pp. 136-137

Between being a major general in the Confederate cavalry and a United States diplomat, Pierce Manning Butler Young served in Congress. He was able to take his seat through the influence of the military governor of Georgia, General George G. Meade, whose son was a West Point friend. ...

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17. John J. Garnett: Sketches of Grant and Lee

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pp. 138-140

Robert E. Lee wrote a letter about John J. Garnett on October 18, 1866, that shows that after the war people asked him for advice on every subject. Dr. William Morris of Williamsburg had written to General Lee to find out if rumors about Garnett’s troubles during the war were true. ...

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18. Peter C. Hains: Bull Run to World War I

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pp. 141-143

Hains became major of engineers and superintending engineer of the Fifth Light-House District in 1870. While engineer secretary of the Light-House Board (1874–1879), he translated Léonce Reynaud’s Memoir upon the Illumination and Beaconage of the Coasts of France. ...

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19. Emory Upton: “The Class Genius”

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pp. 144-152

After the war, Upton became the most influential soldier of his class (and almost any other). After commanding cavalry in East Tennessee (July– August 1865) and Colorado (August 1865–April 1866), he became lieutenant colonel of the Twenty-fifth Infantry on July 28, 1866. ...

Appendix A: Roll Call

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pp. 153-172

Appendix B: Associations and Museums Honoring Members of the Class of 1861 and Their Families

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pp. 173-174


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pp. 175-204


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pp. 205-216


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pp. 217-224

Image Plates

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pp. 246-273

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About the Author, Back Cover

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pp. 274-275

Ralph Kirshner, a graduate of McGill, Long Island University, and the University of Maine, was a librarian in Maine, New York, and Wyoming. He has written articles on members of the class of 1861 and on other Civil War and historical figures ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780809384969
E-ISBN-10: 0809384965
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809328505
Print-ISBN-10: 080932850X

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 84
Publication Year: 2008