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WEST POINT IN THE FIFTIES: The Letters of Henry A. du Pont Edited by Stephen E. Ambrose The great generals of the Civil War, on both sides, were graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Grant, Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, Halleck, Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Reauregard, and many others first learned their soldiering on the banks of the Hudson River. Furthermore many of the outstanding regimental, brigade and division commanders were young men who graduated from the academy in the late fifties and in 1860 and 1861. George Custer, Emory Upton , James H. Wilson, John Pelham, J. E. R. Stuart, Thomas Rosser, Stephen Ramseur, and Cadmus Wilcox belonged to that group. In 1802 Congress founded the school that eventually trained so many men so well for combat. In its first fifteen years it led a checkered existence . Primarily, West Point was a school designed to give some smattering of engineering knowledge to army officers, but it had no consistent approach, no academic program, and no prestige. Then, in 1817, Sylvanus Thayer began his sixteen-year tour of duty as superintendent. Known as the "Father of West Point," Thayer made the academy one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the country at that time, and probably the best school for training potential officers in the world. Thayer transformed West Point into an academic school by dividing the cadets into four classes and broadening the scope of required courses by including ethics, French, English, and natural philosophy. He created an examination system which began with weekly class reports and culminated in the June orals. Thayer also organized the Corps of Cadets into companies, officered by their own members, and had the cadets attend annual summer encampments where they learned the rudiments of a soldier's life. Ry the fifties, West Point was a well-established school with a deserved reputation for quality. Cadets, appointed by their congressmen, arrived in June and underwent the first of their examinations. If they successfully passed both the mental and physical tests, they became fourth-class cadets and joined the summer encampment. They remained on probation, however, until after the January oral exams, when they received their official appointments or warrants as cadets. The 291 292CIVIL WAR HISTORY next big obstacle was the June oral, followed by another encampment. As fourth-class cadets, or "plebes," the young men had to perform much extra duty, but in general the "hazing" now associated with the public image of the academy was uncommon.1 The following letters, written by Henry Algernon du Pont in his fourth-class year, provide an excellent picture of life at pre-Civil War West Point. Henry A. du Pont was born in 1838, the first child of Henry du Pont and the former Louisa Gerhard. His great-grandfather was Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, the famous physiocrat, and his grandfather was Eleuthere I. du Pont, the munitions manufacturer and founder of E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company. In 1850 the elder Henry du Pont, himself an 1833 graduate of West Point, resigned his army commission to become head of the Du Pont Company. Henry A. du Pont, the author of these letters, had completed preparatory work at a private school near Philadelphia and finished one year at the University of Pennsylvania before entering West Point. These letters are in the Henry Algernon du Pont Papers, a part of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur collection at the Eleutherian Mills Historical Library, Wilmington, Delaware. They are printed with the permission of the library. The original letters are quite legible. The editor has omitted purely family references and the repetitious "West Point N.Y." from the datelines. In a few instances punctuation has been changed, but never at the sacrifice of meaning. O O O June 21, 1856 My Dear Mother: I write a few lines to you in great haste. . . . We are established in camp and I scribble this on the top of my lock-up which must prove my excuse for careless writing. We have finished our examinations of which I, as you may suppose, am very glad. On Monday we will hear who are the rejected candidates. I think...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 291-308
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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