Thursday, June 16, 2011

All Things Military: Mr. Butler's West Point Education

We all know that, before embarking on his subsequent careers as rogue, gambler, blockade runner and - did I leave something out? - oh yes, Confederate soldier and devoted husband, Rhett Butler started out as a West Point cadet. And though he managed to get himself kicked out of the prestigious Academy (for drunkenness and "something involving women" nonetheless), we thought it would still be worthwhile to take a look at his time as a West Pointer. So here we are, ready and eager to explore what daily life would have been like for a 19th century cadet!

The Academy

By way of introduction, we'll start with a few words on the institution itself. The United States Military Academy was founded in 1802, but plans for such an establishment go back to the War of Independence, when the need for having a facility to train professional military officers first became obvious. The concept of a military academy, however, was seen as too elitist and too European by the newly-emancipated and always-democratic Americans.

Finally, after a few false starts, the Academy was formally established in 1802, as a national university with a focus on science and engineering. Its first years were a little uncertain, but after 1817, when Sylvanus Thayer became superintendent, the Academy, now consolidated and boasting of a reformed curriculum and stricter code of conduct, became the nation's leading civil engineering school.

View of West Point, United States Military Academy in the 19th century (1857)

Since it was designed to be an institution for all of America, the West Point Academy strove to maintain a mixed student body, with cadets ranging from aristocrats to farmers' son, and with at least one cadet from each of the congressional districts of the United States (the latter point having been established by law in 1843).  The entrance age varied a lot in the earlier years, with incoming cadets ranging from 14 to 20, to then center around the interval from 14 to 16.

Loosely speaking, Rhett could have attended the Academy somewhere between 1842 (when he was 14) and 1848 (when he was 20 and back in Charleston, raising trouble and getting thrown out by his father). He most probably attended it in the second half of this interval.

Getting In

The admission process to the Academy was not an easy one. First came the "bureaucratic" part. In order to be admitted to West Point, a young man had to be nominated by a member of the Congress. Enter anxious families writing letters and exerting their influence to secure the precious nomination. The level of exertion varied of course according to the family's social and economical situation. For a rich and well-connected family like Rhett's, this step wouldn't have posed any problems. Poorer families, on the contrary, went to great lengths to obtain nominations for their sons, all the more so since such an endorsement would not only give their offspring a rare chance to move up into the world, but it would also do so without considerable damage to the family's finances. A West Point education was free!

Once nominated, the young man aspiring to the honor of becoming a West Point cadet still had some hurdles to pass. Even though the admission requirements were kept to a minimum throughout the 19th century to ensure fair chances of getting in for those from a rural background, they still included basic knowledge of mathematics and passing a vision test that required candidates to tell whether a dime held up 14 paces away was showing head or tails. 

Studies, Exams and Daily Life

So, once in, what was our fictional cadet, Rhett Butler, supposed to learn at the Academy? The study program held two components considered complementary - and equally important - for a young man's education in the 19th century: military subjects and discipline, on one hand, and academic subjects, on the other.

When it came to the academic subjects, the first two years focused almost entirely on mathematics in the mornings and French in the afternoon. (The emphasis on French can be partly explained by the fact that the French were thought to have the leading textbooks in mathematics, engineering and military sciences.  The cadets needed to know French in order to be able to read their manuals.) After that, engineering and related subjects (mineralogy, geology) formed the core of the curriculum, along with drawing, that was an essential skill for both engineers and soldiers (think of the importance of drawing maps in battles).

You can see the daily schedule of the West Point cadets including all the classes they took in the table below. This schedule applied to all days with the exception of Sundays. Keep in mind the fact that the First Class is the final year, the class about to graduate, while the Fourth Class is the first year, the class of the junior cadets.

Employment of Time During the Day, at the United States Military Academy. The Regulations of the United
States Military Academy, 1839.
As you can glimpse from the above, the course of study was rather strict and demanding, accounting for a typically high degree of failure (sometimes even up to half of the class!) during the first two years. After the first two years, most people tended to fail because of scandals involving women and drinking. Cadets had no control over their schedule and little free time, with basically every minute from reveille to lights out mapped out for them.

But if you thought their life was surely uncomfortable enough... enter the examinations. At West Point, cadets were graded in every subject every day! The daily examinations (or "recitations") were conducted by a teacher and several instructors, who could be either recent graduates or gifted students from the senior years. According to their daily grades, the cadets were placed into sections suitable to their abilities (the first section having the top students, the next one the mediocre ones and so forth). Each section worked at a different pace and sometimes even after different textbooks. These sections were re-evaluated on a weekly or monthly basis. On top of the daily examinations, cadets were supposed to pass general exams in June and December.

You can see probably see now how West Point life would have put quite a strain on your average cadet. And what's a young man to do, faced with all these restrictions and the stress of perpetual examinations? Why, misbehave, of course!

Misdemeanors and Demerits

Cadets were not only ranked according to their grades, but also according to their conduct.  The slightest misdemeanor, from not folding one's bedding to sitting down on post, could earn one up to ten demerits. 200 of these black marks meant expulsion from the Academy. (Now, if sitting down on post earns one 8 demerits, anyone cares to place bets on how much "something involving women" was worth?) 

The demerits of the cadets from all the years (classes) were written down in a conduct roll, which was public information. And of course, the individual sheets of demerits were kept, since they affected the student's ranking. We know, for example, that Robert E. Lee managed to finish West Point with no demerits at all.

So that was our insight into life at West Point. And we have to say, after reading all this, we can sort of see how and why a rebellious young man like Rhett would manage to get expelled from the Academy, can't you?

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