West Point, N.Y. is the home of the U.S. Military Academy. This elite and prestigious facility is a four year coeducational federal service academy. It sits overlooking the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York City. It has over 4,200 students on campus and about 1000 students graduate each year. These students enter the U.S. Army or other service branches as 2nd Lieutenants or equivalents. The Academy was created in 1802 by President Thomas Jefferson.
The graduates of West Point include the best of the best. The list includes generals and officers who have achieved important military milestones and they are true heroes. Graduates of West Point include Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, John Pershing, Omar Bradley, George Patton, David Petraous, Norman Schwarzkopf, Alexander Haig, Brent Scowcroft and many others. The list includes astronauts, national security leaders, two U.S. Presidents (Grant and Eisenhower) and the current head basketball coach at Duke University.
During the Civil war, most all of the generals on both sides were graduates of West Point. Two hundred ninety-four graduates served as general officers for the Union, and 151 served as general officers for the Confederacy. Nearly every general officer of note from either army during the Civil War was a graduate of West Point and a West Point graduate commanded the forces of one or both sides in every one of the 60 major battles of the war. Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, George Meade, William T. Sherman, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Jefferson Davis, George McClellan, A. P. Hill and J. E. B. Stuart are included in this list.
The goats of the class are another story! In 2006 James Robbins wrote a book called The Last of Their Class that details the stories and tales of several men who ranked at the bottom of their class at West Point.
The first was Confederate General George Pickett. He is known as the person who led the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 3, 1863. This was the last day of the three day battle.
George Edward Pickett was born in Richmond, Va. He received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at the age of 17, and graduated last in his class at West Point in 1846.
On September 13, 1847, Pickett came to prominence during the Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican American war when he was the first American soldier to reach the top of the castle’s walls. In the course of the action, he retrieved his unit’s colors when his future commander, James Longstreet, was wounded in the thigh. For his service in Mexico, Pickett received a brevet promotion to captain.
Promoted to captain in March 1855, he spent a brief period at Fort Monroe, Virginia before being sent west for service in the Washington Territory. The following year, Pickett oversaw the construction of Fort Bellingham. In 1859, he received orders to occupy San Juan Island in what is now the State of Washington in response to a growing border dispute with the British known as the Pig War.
As the situation with the British escalated, he was able to hold his position until reinforced and General Winfield Scott arrived from Washington D.C. to negotiate a settlement. In the wake of Lincoln’s election in 1860 and the firing on Fort Sumter the following April, Virginia seceded from the Union. Learning of this, Pickett left the West Coast with the goal of serving his home state. Arriving after the First Battle of Bull Run, he accepted a commission as a major in the Confederate service. He was quickly promoted to colonel and assigned to the Rappahannock Line of the Department of Fredericksburg.
By 1862 he was a brigadier general under Major General James Longstreet, his commanding officer in the Mexican American war. That fall he was promoted to Lieutenant General and made Major General two months later, under James Longstreet. He fought at Williamsburg, Va. and Fredericksburg, Va. but Gettysburg was his first serious battle as a division commander. Pickett was known for his long hair and beard and was called a dandy by some. Pickett’s division was selected to lead the attack on July 3rd as they had not seen hard fighting the day before. They had been assigned to guard the Confederate communications lines between Chambersburg and Gettysburg for the first two days of the battle. General Lee’s goal was to attack from the Confederate position on Seminary Ridge to the Federal position on Cemetery Ridge; a distance of ¾ of a mile and a 20 minute quick march. The Confederates launched a massive artillery volley on the morning of the 3rd which was answered by Federal cannons. Following what was the largest sustained artillery attack in history, the famous Pickett’s Charge began. The Confederate artillery attack had missed their target by overshooting the Union lines and as a result the Federal lines were not weakened by the artillery attack. In addition, the Confederates were running out of ammo due to the fact their supply wagons had been moved away from the firing line to protect them from being hit and exploding.
Early in the afternoon, upon the reluctant order of General Longstreet, Pickett led the charge. Some 15,000 Confederate troops marched towards the Union position where 6,500 Union troops were positioned. They crossed the Emmitsburg Road and were slowed as they had to cross two fences, one on each side of the road. One 16 foot portion of that fence itself took over 836 bullets. When the Confederate troops got close to the Union line, the Union cannons opened fire which further cut down the Confederate troops. About 200 to 300 Confederate troops reached the center of the Union position. Brutal hand-to-hand combat, as well as, point blank musket fire came with the vicious struggle.
As the retreat started, many Confederate troops begin to run due to the fear of being shot in the back. Pickett met General Lee who said “Place your division in the rear of this hill and be ready to repel the advance of the enemy should they follow up their advantage.” Pickett replied, “I have no division now Sir.” Pickett’s division lost over 6,000 killed or injured. This was 40 percent of the division members. Of his 32 officers, 12 were dead and 19 wounded, for an amazing 97 percent.
After the failure at Gettysburg, Pickett continued to command his division during the Overland Campaign as well as the Siege of Petersburg. During the battle of Five Forks, however, Pickett and his men were defeated. This led to the eventual collapse and surrender of the Confederate army at Petersburg.
Pickett never recovered emotionally. He tried his hand at farming and business and failed at both. He eventually became an insurance agent in Norfolk, VA. He died in July, 1875 from ill health. As a post note, his great, great grandson, George Pickett IV attended West Point and graduated in 1944.
The second goat from a West Point class was General George Armstrong Custer. Custer was accepted to attend the Military Academy and graduated in 1861 from West Point as the last in his class of 35 students. This was just as the Civil War had begun. Similar to Pickett, Custer was known for his long hair, style and flamboyant uniforms. History, however, records Custer due to his unfortunate loss at the battle of Little Big Horn.
He was mustered into the Union army as a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry that same year he graduated. Between 1861 and 1863 he was widely known as a risk taker in battle. In June 29, 1863 Custer was assigned to command a brigade in Kilpatrick’s division. While in this position he led his men in the Battle of Gettysburg where he assisted in preventing Confederate J.E.B. Stuart from attacking the Union rear which was located near Baltimore Pike. During the battle with Confederate cavalry, Custer’s horse was shot out from under him. He was quickly picked up by a fellow officer and led the battle against Stuart’s troops into a trap where many of them were killed. This bold action resulting in ending the attack on the Union troops by Stuart’s cavalry.
During the Richmond campaign in 1864, Custer participated in the battle at Yellow Tavern, where Confederate J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded. Following this campaign, he and his men were transferred to the Shenandoah Valley in Va. He fought with General Phil Sheridan to defeat Mosby’s Raiders in northern Virginia near Louden County in a vicious series of battles. He played a major role in the defeat of Jubal Early’s army at Third Winchester and Cedar Creek. By early 1864, he had achieved the rank of brigadier general — the youngest general in the Union Army — and been favorably noticed by his commander-in-chief, President Abraham Lincoln. At an official reception, Lincoln met Custer’s wife, Elizabeth, and exclaimed, “So this is the young woman whose husband goes into a charge with a whoop and a shout.” As Custer’s final major act in the war he led the division responsible for cutting off Lee’s last avenue of escape at Appomattox, Va. in April, 1865.
In 1866, Custer was of the newly formed 7th Cavalry and was assigned to command the cavalry in the west. While in this position he took part in Winfield Hancock’s expedition against the Sioux and Cheyenne in 1867. After a court-martial and suspension from duty for an unauthorized visit to his wife, Custer was restored to duty by General Philip Sheridan.
Custer went on to take part in the Yellowstone expedition into the Black Hills, which precipitated the Sioux uprising of 1876, which culminated in the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. Under the over-all command of General Alfred H. Terry, Custer was part of a two column attack. However, upon discovering a large native settlement that included between 3,000 to 5,000 warriors, Custer proceeded to divide his own forces into three battalions. Without waiting for needed support, Custer led an attack which resulted in the annihilation of his immediate command and a total loss of 266 officers and men, including two of his brothers, a nephew and a brother-in-law. The soldier’s remains were given a hasty burial on the battlefield, but within the next year Custer’s body was reinterred at West Point and given a full military funeral with the restored rank of Brigadier General, in keeping with military tradition that upon your death a soldier is promoted to the highest rank he held while alive.
In 1978 West Point ended the General Order of Merit and announced the official end to the “Last of the Last Man.” The goat tradition continues quietly with the cadets to this day and when that person’s name is read out at graduation; a loud cheer erupts!
So the lesson learned here is that even the last person in your class, may go on to play a pivotal role in the history of your department or agency. As a friend of mine so clearly pointed out: It appears they were promoted according to the Peter principle; they both achieved a rank of authority; and, when it came time to perform they failed, miserably. Lesson learned: if they don’t have it; don’t promote them and when you call on them to do something you will never be able to predict the results.