Classes Divided: The West Point Classes of 1860 and 1861

This entry is part 16 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

West PointJust as the American Civil War divided the country so too did it divide the United States Military Academy at West Point. The military academy had the unusual occurrence of having three graduating classes in two years.

The Class of 1860 had a total of 41 members who represented states both North and South. Among the graduates were young officers who would lead brigades, divisions and corps for both sides in the coming conflict.

The following year the academy graduated 45 young officers in May, only one of which was a Southerner from Tennessee. There were two Kentuckians, a border state. One month later another 35 young officers graduated. By then all of the Southerners had gone home to enlist in the nascent Confederate States Army. Many had resigned several months before their graduations.

The graduates of the three classes can roughly be divided among the classes of service that they served in during the war. A number of them served in several different branches during the four years of war.

The Artillerymen

The ‘Gallant’ John Pelham should have graduated in the class of 1861 but he resigned just a few weeks before his planned graduation, in order to accept a commission in the militia of his home state of Alabama. Pelham soon caught the eye of J.E.B. Stuart who provided his battery with horses and transformed his battery into “horse artillery”.

Pelham and his artillery were involved in every major military engagement of Stuart’s cavalry from the First Battle of Bull Run to Kelly’s Ford, more than 60 encounters. He particularly distinguished himself as the Chief of Stuart’s Artillery in the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) and Battle of Fredericksburg.

At Kelly’s Ford on March 17, 1863, Pelham participated in a cavalry charge, his artillery not being engaged. Standing up in his stirrups, he urged his men to “Press forward, press forward to glory and victory!” Not long afterward, he was struck in the head by a fragment of an exploding Federal artillery shell. He was carried six miles (10 km) from the battlefield to Culpeper Courthouse, and died the following morning without having regained consciousness. He was 24 years old.

Henry Du Pont graduated first in his class from the academy in May 1861. He served throughout the war as an artillery officer in the Union Army. At the Battle of New Market, Du Pont defended the Union rear with his artillery as his comrades withdrew. After the Battle of Cedar Creek, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the initial Union withdrawal. He was also promoted to the brevet rank of lieutenant colonel.

Finally, here’s a cadet that was instrumental in the Union victory on the third day at Gettysburg, Alonzo H. Cushing. He graduated from the academy in June of 1861 and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the artillery. He was brevetted major following the Battle of Chancellorsville.

 Cushing commanded Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery at Gettysburg, and was hailed by contemporaries as heroic in his actions on the third day of the battle. He was wounded three times. First, a shell fragment went straight through his shoulder. He was then grievously wounded by a shell fragment which tore into his abdomen and groin. This wound exposed Cushing’s intestines, which he held in place with his hand as he continued to command his battery.

After these injuries a higher-ranking officer said, “Cushing, go to the rear.” Cushing, due to the limited number of men left, refused to fall back. The severity of his wounds left him unable to yell his orders above the sounds of battle. Thus, he was held aloft by his 1st Sergeant Frederick Füger, who faithfully passed on Cushing’s commands. Cushing was killed when a bullet entered his mouth and exited through the back of his skull. He died on the field at the height of the assault. He was 22 at the time of his death.

Currently, the recommendation for the long belated award of the Medal of Honor is awaiting a review by the Defense Department and approval by the President.

The Cavalrymen

James H. Wilson graduated in the class of 1860 and was assigned to the engineers. He spent the first years of his service as a topographical engineer but in 1864 he transferred to the cavalry where he would eventually become a top cavalry commander.

His daring cavalry raids destroyed vital Southern infrastructure in both the Eastern Theater and the Western Theater but his men with a sense of discipline that usually prevented looting and other collateral damage to civilian property. His repulse of a flanking attack by Maj. Gen.Nathan Bedford Forrest was instrumental in saving the Union Army at the Battle of Franklin. He was one of only a few Union officers to best the legendary Southern cavalryman. 

Wesley Merritt graduated in the class of 1860 and was immediately posted to the 2nd U.S. Dragoons (heavy cavalry) under John Buford. He served in a number of cavalry actions during the first two years of the war, most notably Stoneman’s Raid and Brandy Station. He was promoted from captain to brigadier general after Brandy Station for his “gallant and meritorious service”.

His brigade was engaged on the third day at Gettysburg, following Pickett’s Charge. Merritt took over command of the 1st Division of the Cavalry Corps following the death by typhoid fever of its commander, John Buford, in December 1863. He commanded that unit during Philip Sheridan’s Valley Campaign. 

Arriving at the opportune moment, his division routed the Confederate forces at the Third Battle of Winchester, a deed for which he received a brevet promotion to major general. He was second-in-command to Sheridan during the Appomattox Campaign and was one of several commissioners for the surrender at Appomattox Court House. He was brevetted major general in the regular army, in April 1865, for bravery at the Battle of Five Forks and the Appomattox Campaign.

Judson Kilpatrick was a May 1861 graduate who started his Civil War service in the artillery. Three days later he was transferred to the infantry. He was the first Union officer to be wounded. He was struck in the thigh at Big Bethel in June 1861. By September he was lieutenant colonel of the 2nd N.Y. Cavalry, a unit that he helped to raise.

Nicknamed Kill-Cavalry by his detractors, Kilpatrick was known for his daring tactics. He had a bad reputation with others in the Army. His camps were poorly maintained and frequented by prostitutes, often visiting Kilpatrick himself. He was jailed in 1862 on charges of corruption, accused of selling captured Confederate goods for personal gain. He was jailed again for a drunken spree in Washington, D.C., and for allegedly accepting bribes in the procurement of horses for his command.

The next post will cover the Infantrymen and the Engineers.


Series Navigation<< Seasoning the Civil War SoldierClasses Divided: The Infantrymen >>

Leave a Reply