West Point and Ulysses S. Grant

tulip

Cadet
Honored Fallen Comrade
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
There seems to be a misconception that the West Point education in the 19th C was substandard. This claim is often used as another way to swipe at Grant. In the American Perspective special on Grant one of the talking heads claimed, “Grant was not well-educated.” Yet I have never heard that attached to Robert E. Lee who attended the school earlier when the curriculum was not as fully developed.

I think that if you really look at the West Point education in the early 19th C, you will come away with a different perspective and realize that while there were deficits on the military side, the total curriculum was quite advanced. In his book on Custer, Jeffry D. Wert states, “The education provided, equaled or excelled that offered in most of the country’s colleges and universities.” [Custer pg 28]

Sylvanus Thayer literally created the West Point that would so completely impact the officers serving in the Civil War and accommodate the nation’s move west. A graduate of both Dartmouth and the Academy, Thayer was appointed superintendent in 1817. “Thayer’s ideas on curriculum differed sharply from those then prevailing among conventional pedagogues as well as from those of the reformers at Harvard. . . .Thayer’s West Point would be an engineering school, the first in the United States. Cadets would take required mathematics and science courses each semester; Greek and Latin would not be taught. French, however, was a requirement because Thayer believed that the best books on mathematics, engineering and the art of war were in French. Physics (then called natural philosophy), chemistry and engineering, mostly civil, complemented the mathematics courses. Cadets also had to take drawing to enable them to present data and designs graphically, not for the sake of artistic expression.” [Jefferson Davis, American, William B.Cooper pg 33-34]

As the only engineering school in the country, the Academy was well regarded for its scholastic record. The yawning frontier waited to be conquered and engineering was in great demand. There were canals and bridges to be built; roads and railroad thoroughfares to be surveyed; minerals to be mined and rivers to be tamed. West Point engineers were uniquely qualified for this mandate from the ever roving American electorate.

Young men clamored to get in, but getting an appointment was not necessarily easy. Emory Thomas states in his biography on Lee: “Competition for the approximately one hundred appointments were keen, and the Secretary of War rejected no less than 25 applications from Virginia in 1824.” [page 43] While getting an appointment sometimes depended on family connections to a congressman, there was also room for promising candidates without influence, making West Point a truly democratic school.

Graduates of the Academy were highly sought after by the civilian sector and many chose to pursue careers outside of the army after graduation. George McClellan resigned to make his mark in railroading. Jefferson Davis, turned to politics and improving the army from his office in Washington. Herman Haupt, the youngest graduate of West Point ever, built the Hoosac Tunnel and laid out the Pennsylvania Railroad. Braxton Bragg resigned to run his plantation while designing and building a drainage and levee system for Louisiana. A West Point education as a stepping-stone to success was both recognized and valued by 19th Century. “In considering West Point, Jesse (Grant) did not necessarily envision a military career for his son. The Academy was the nation’s leading engineering school. . .” [Ulysses S. Grant by Brooks Simpson page 9]

Entrance requirements were relatively easy while examinations throughout the four years were rigorous. “West Point was in theory an egalitarian institution . . . and the comparatively easy entrance examination affirmed the principle. Classroom work, however soon revealed the great disparity in educational opportunities across the country in the 1840s. For a George McClellan, educated at the best schools in Philadelphia, privately tutored and with two years of college, the classroom held no fears. For a Thomas J. Jackson . . . for whom any mathematics beyond simple arithmetic and any language beyond English were utter mysteries, it was a struggle for survival.” [George B. McClellan, Stephen Sears, page 5]

Grant was somewhere in between in his early education which took place on the Ohio frontier. “In 1836 Jesse sent Ulysses to a prep school in Maysville to bone up for admittance exams . . . The following year the boy attended a local subscription school followed by a year at a school in Ripley headed by the Reverend Rankin.” [Ulysses S. Grant by Brooks Simpson page 9]

The West Point class of 1843 began with 77 cadets and graduated 39, an attrition rate just over 50%. Thomas Jackson’s class, 3 years later began with 122 aspirants and graduated 59. In fact, the young Ulysses was able to enter only because Bart Bailey, a neighbor, had failed his exams twice at the end of the first year. While some students were allowed to start their first year over due to extenuating circumstances, there was no favoritism or breaking the stringent rules to accommodate an influential patron. One cadet George Derby from the class of 1846 explained in a letter home: “It is not thought a disgrace to be dismissed from here for the studies and discipline are very hard, and a man who succeeds should be thought uncommonly talented, and one found deficient should not be blamed, for I verily believe that not one half of those appointed can possibly graduate.” [Class of 1846 by John C. Waugh pg 17]

Thayer’s curriculum was difficult and requirements in discipline unbending. In <u> Stonewall </u> by James Robertson, the curriculum is described as: (1817-33 period) “West Point's course of study came to stress much more than military subjects. Cadets in Jackson's day were required to do passing work in no fewer than ten fields of study. Mathematics was the dominating subject . . . Algebra, geometry and the other forms of math (3/4s of the WP course work). ..French was necessary part of the curriculum because many military and technical works were in that language. Drawing consisted of a progression of sketch work from human figures through topography to landscape designs. Physics, mechanics, and astronomy were but one grouping in a catchall area known as natural and experimental philosophy. Horsemanship, geography, history and the use of sword were among the other subjects in the curriculum." Robertson explains that daily recitation was the basis of the education method. "To vary from either the lecture or the textbook was akin to heresy. Hence memorization was always the basis of learning. [pg 32]

Grant did fairly well at West Point although he was somewhat lazy. His friend and roommate Rufus Ingalls remembered: “. . . he was so quick in his perceptions that he usually made very fair recitations even with so little study.” Fortunately, Grant had an analytical mind that allowed him to excel in mathematics. “The subject was so easy to me as to come almost by intuition,” he admitted. “Grant’s studies were diversified his second year. Once more he excelled in mathematics and he showed promise in philosophy. Most surprising was his skill in drawing: one sketch demonstrated his feel for horses, while others reflected insight into human interaction. French remained a disaster, as did ethics – a catch-all term for grammar, writing, rhetoric and geography. [Ulysses S. Grant by Brooks Simpson page 14]

“Grant had another . . . talent, which might be described as ‘topographical memory.’ He could remember every feature of the terrain over which he traveled, and find his way over it again; he could also look at a map and visualize the features of terrain he had never seen. Grant could see in his mind the disposition of troops over thousands of square miles, visualize their relationship to roads and terrain, and know how and where to move them to take advantage of topography. . . ” [James McPherson –Drawn by the Sword pg 165].

Grant was certainly not an intellectual, but he was highly intelligent. His contemporaries were frequently astounded by his total recall of faces, names, events and campaigns with an eye to remembering the details that eluded others. Grant’s intellect ran to the pragmatic where quick analysis would produce results. In essence, intellectually Grant was a perfect West Point cadet and like other graduates of the academy, he was well educated for his time and place.
 

jac

Cadet
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
You might want to read Geoffrey Perret's (sp?) biography of Grant.Grant is a very interesting man- and in many ways, not at all like he is popularly percieved.
 

tulip

Cadet
Honored Fallen Comrade
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Jack: Grant was indeed an interesting man with many facets to his personality and character that are completely overlooked when he is summarily dismissed as a drunk and butcher.

My favorite biography of Grant is <u>Captain Sam Grant</u> by Lloyd Lewis. Lewis got hooked on Grant when he wrote <u>Sherman, Fighting Prophet</u> in the 30's. He set out to write a three volume bio of Grant and completed the first volume - Grant from childhood to taking command of the 21st Illinois. Unfortunately, Lewis died before completing his project. His widow turned over all his notes and supporting documents to Bruce Catton who wrote <u>Grant Moves South</u> and <u>Grant Takes Command</u>.

One of the most fascinating aspects to Lewis' biography is a little known book called <u>Letters from Lloyd Lewis</u>. It is a compilation of letters Lewis wrote his publisher as he went on the hunt for Grant through dusty archives, visiting battlefields and examining family letters. An unusual behind the scenes look at an historian at work preparing and researching, <u>Letters from Lloyd Lewis</u> I think would interesting to anyone studying the CW whether they admire Grant or not.

Remember this was the 50s. No computers. It was sweat equity to complete a biography. The Grant letters were not at the Grant Association but scattered from coast to coast. All of the Garland interviews for instance were at UCLA while all of the ORs and a cache of official documents were at the Smithsonian or Library of Congress. Writing a good bio then meant travel and hand copying, taking copious notes with pen in hand and cataloging hundreds of documents plus constant checking with other historians to verify every detail. Here is one letter that I think demonstrates both the thought process and the continuing conundrums of historical research.

The Newberry Library (Chicago) June 29, 1946 . . ."Have some new leads on Grant material in St. Louis and must go there soon. . . Emerson says Benjamin and Grant were the closest of friends, . . .I am trying to find Emerson's heirs in Missouri. The historical society knows nothing about him, yet he was a judge, prominent lawyer, landowner of Ironton MO and corresponded with Rawlins . . . From the newspapers of 1885 at the time of Grant's death, I am reaping a harvest of grain and chaff. Interviews with people who knew him, bits of gossip, differing with recollectors, etc. pile up in the bins. I try to thresh it out as I go along, but it is hard to separate the wheat from the rat turds, they look so much alike, and weigh about the same. Then, too, sometimes, just when I am throwing an item away, it touches some memory and I find when compared with another note, filed away somewhere and painfully to be located, it is valuable."
 
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Connie,

I noticed your late night posting here, and I must apologize. I have been very remiss in my communication with you. A personal matter has come up that has so distracted me. I have utterly lost my focus for the time being.

I know you offered me something, an article maybe, on General Longstreet and invited me to e-mail you. I am probably too distracted to even read about my favorite Confederate.

However, I would be pleased to correspond with you by e-mail. I was in Madison, Wisconsin some time ago with Senator Paul Simons campaign, and I stayed over and worked for your then Secretary of State. I enjoyed myself, but it was too dang cold. (I managed to get invited to tropical heat wave parties.)

Anyway, I was not able to find your e-mail address, but I will write to you if you will provide it. It would be a pleasure.

LongstreetLass
 

tulip

Cadet
Honored Fallen Comrade
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Go for it Longstreetlass. My email addy is not a secret. It's all over the place. Anyhow it is [email protected]. Just for a bit of color Aurelie is an old family name that goes back at least six generations. It was mother's name (she passed away in 1999 and was born in 1909), my middle name as well as my daughter's and granddaughter's. And 10 year old Alicia Aurelie promises me if she has a daughter it will be her's as well.

Madison like all of Wisconsin deserves it's "frozen tundra" reputation. I don't blame you in the least for being shivery if you were here in the winter.
 
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