Sacred Ties: From West Point Brothers to Battlefield Rivals: A True Story of the Civil War

Sacred Ties: From West Point Brothers to Battlefield Rivals: A True Story of the Civil War

by Tom Carhart


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The gripping story of six West Point graduates who fought each other in the Civil War.

With Civil War clouds darkening the horizon, they were strangers from different states thrown together as West Point cadets: George Armstrong Custer, Stephen Dodson Ramseur, Henry Algernon DuPont, John Pelham, Thomas Lafayette Rosser, and Wesley Merritt.

Right after their graduations, war erupted in 1861. They stayed blue or went gray, and even faced each other in battle. Acclaimed military historian Tom Carhart vividly brings to life these young men of valor and honor, and the valiant victories and crushing defeats of the war. They made their marks on the history of a new nation split apart, then reunited and rebornbut only at the cost of the blood of brothers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425239100
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/05/2011
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Tom Carhart has been a lawyer and a historian for the Department of the Army in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of West Point, a decorated Vietnam veteran, and has earned a Ph.D. in American and military history from Princeton University. He is the author of four books of military history and teaches at Mary Washington College near his home in the Washington, D.C. area.

Read an Excerpt

One Benny Havens

In the late 1850s, a young man who wanted to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, had to receive a political appointment from his congressman, each of whom could have only one cadet from his district there at any given time. There were relatively few colleges in this country then, and virtually no other schools of engineering. While students at civilian colleges had to pay their own tuition as well as for their room and board, it was the reverse at West Point: cadets were active-duty members of the United States Army, and even though they were restricted to that army post for training as cadets, they did receive a small stipend each month.

These appointments, then, became popular and were often quite difficult to secure. But rather than just getting a free education in engineering, West Point cadets were primarily being trained for careers as army officers. It was believed at the time that, in order to make the best officer later, cadets had to be put through rigorous paces in order to "toughen them up." This meant that, once enrolled, they underwent a very spartan and difficult regimen of education and training before receiving their diplomas and their commissions as second lieutenants in the United States Army.

The academic curriculum at the academy was rigorous and demanding, the military training was precise and challenging, and the constant discipline cadets endured in their daily lives was severe, strict, and unrelenting. They attended class on six days each week and received a grade on a test they took every day in every subject. They wore only tight, high-collared uniforms, whose coats were studded with three vertical rows of brass buttons shining from their chests. They marched in parades several times each week as well as to and from their classes and meals, and their food was bland, tasteless, and often inedible. Their rooms, persons, rifles, and military equipment were always subject to inspection, and gambling, smoking, and possession of alcohol were strictly forbidden. Cadets could not have a mustache, a wife, or a horse, and they were restricted to the grounds of West Point for their entire time as cadets, save only a ten-week vacation during the summer after their second year. If the inspecting officer found any flaws, or if they violated any of a long list of regulations, they received demerits, and in the event they accumulated more than one hundred demerits in a semester, they would be expelled.

But probably the worst violation of regulations was for cadets to sneak out of their rooms after taps and go off post to a tavern and drink alcohol. In the event they took such a risk and were caught, the punishment for such an offense was immediate dismissal.

Even so, every year some cadets took that risk, perhaps as much to prove they could get away with it as to actually drink forbidden fermented fruit. A cadet dismissed for such an act would sometimes be able to get himself reinstated by the secretary of war, though good political contacts in Washington by the cadet or his family were all-important here. But such reinstatement was not automatic, and any cadet who went "over the wall" after taps was running the very highest risk.

Probably the favorite saloon for cadets taking such a dare was that run by Benny Havens. Benny had started at West Point as a supplier of foodstuffs, and he did quite well, even becoming legendary for his friendly relationships with cadets. But when he was finally caught smuggling alcohol to them, he and his wife were thrown off the post and forbidden to return.


This was no doubt a major blow to the Havenses.

But Benny was not one to give up easily, and he set up a saloon a mile or so south of West Point, down near the river and just below the small village of Buttermilk Falls (whose name has more recently been changed to Highland Falls). While popular with both civilians and officers from the staff and faculty at West Point, Benny's most prized customers were cadets sneaking off post after taps. In the common perception of cadets, the staff and faculty charged with their command and education were generally harsh with them, and so were perceived to be the enemy, while Benny and his wife were proven friends.

After his formal banishment, Benny Havens and his bar became quite popular among cadets. Slipping out of their rooms after taps and avoiding the road, they had to make a treacherous approach through the woods on a steep and rocky slope, a foray rendered all the more dangerous on a moonless night. During the winter, however, the trip was made easier simply because they could come and go on the frozen Hudson. There were no icebreakers in those days, and the Hudson would remain frozen for weeks at a time, the ice so solid that you could easily walk across it to the eastern bank. On the rare occasions when officers would be approaching his saloon that late at night, it could only be to catch cadets. But Benny's loyalty to cadets was never even suspect, and when the noise of officers approaching was heard, Benny would hustle them out windows or the back door, released like sparrows to flutter madly through the trees.

Sneaking off post to imbibe at Benny's, of course, was a high-risk venture. The punishment, as mentioned above, was dismissal, although some superintendents enforced this regulation more strenuously than others. But the threat of dismissal was always there, hanging above the heads of any errant, risk-taking cadets who might be caught at Benny's.

Over the years, sneaking out after taps for a drink at Benny's became almost a rite of passage for the more daring cadets. It was not uncommon, therefore, that cadets were caught, either at Benny's or in the woods as they tried to get away, and some of these were sent packing. But that, of course, often turned on other factors.

One of the most famous cadets to be caught was none other than Jefferson Davis, class of 1828 and a future senator from Mississippi, U.S. secretary of war from 1853 to 1857, and the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. In the summer of 1825, Davis and four other cadets were caught and arrested at Benny Havens's, and all were tried by court-martial in August.

Despite the clever but spurious arguments he made in his own defense, Davis and the others were found guilty and sentenced to dismissal. But Davis and one other cadet were saved because of their good records, while the other three were sent packing. This group included James F. Swift, who might have been considered somewhat special among his classmates in that he was the son of the first man to have graduated from West Point, General Joseph G. Swift, class of 1802. Clearly, then, no favoritism was shown in this area to any cadet with "special connections," which Davis did not have while Swift clearly did.

Even so, this high risk made the experience all the more delicious to those who ran it. And whether they realized it at the time or not, it was also a special preparation for the great pressures they would endure and the risks they might have to run in the Civil War that loomed before them.

In military circles, there has long been interest and debate over the supposed "principles of war," and there are at least some common themes upon which there is wide agreement. A good example of this would be the principles of war as they are accepted today by the U.S. military and known by the acronym MOOSEMUSS: mass, objective, offensive, security, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, surprise, and simplicity. But while this list may seem exhaustive, there may be room for other elements as well, one of which is often crucial to battlefield success or failure.

That is the spirit of the commander.

Raw personal courage under the life-and-death pressures of the battlefield is required of that person, but also, given the predictably slow flow and uncertain accuracy of information or intelligence reports, a certain levelheaded flexibility is indispensable. And that flexibility, to be effective, must include a genuine willingness to take risks.

In most wars, one can readily detect the presence or absence of these crucially important elements in the tactics or strategy implemented by senior leaders, and they are often the keys that spell victory or defeat. One has only to glance superficially at major battles from the Civil War to see these aspects of effective combat leadership, or their absence, openly displayed by the battlefield performance of the commanders.

One well-known example where personal failure of spirit led to disaster was that of George B. McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, at the battle of Antietam. There, despite his two-tone superiority in personnel, he failed to attack (and seems to have quailed at the prospect of attacking) the Confederate army before him on either 15 or 16 September 1862. When he finally did attack on the 17th, it was with three uncoordinated assaults at different points and times, a clumsy strategy that allowed his opponent to maneuver his own troops from interior lines so as to reject each attack in turn. And at the crucial moment late in the day, McClellan failed to take the limited risk of committing his fresh reserves, an action that clearly would have led to a decisive Union victory in an otherwise close contest. In addition, McClellan was careful to personally stay far away from the actual fighting that day, a failure to "lead from the front" that reflected poorly on his battlefield leadership.

His unwillingness to take the risks associated with an attack on all fronts at the same time, and perhaps more importantly, his failure to commit his reserves at the height of the battle, led to his abject failure. His lack of personal courage, of course, had a deep effect not only on his staff and subordinate commanders but even on the common soldiers under his command who never saw him anywhere near the line of battle.

Compare this nadir of command of the Army of the Potomac with the battle of Chancellorsville and the actions there of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. On 2 May 1863, while facing a Union force more than twice the size of his own, Lee dispatched more than half his army to make a day-long march around the enemy's right flank. Arriving in late afternoon, they delivered a crushing blow against the surprised Union forces and effectively destroyed the fighting spirit of Lee's Union adversary. This luckless and lackluster man, who was taking a cyclical turn in command of the Army of the Potomac, was the already insecure Joseph Hooker. Commonly known in the North by the nickname of "Fightin' Joe," his performance on this battlefield against an opponent of the highest caliber showed him to be something else entirely.

Until that moment, dividing one's force in the face of a superior army had been considered by virtually all "authorities" to be one of the greatest tactical sins a commander could commit. Even today, one would hesitate long before taking such a drastic step. But Lee clearly knew what he was doing, and for a true military genius, all principles and other rules are quickly out the window while other factors, including audacity alone, carry the day. As for individual courage, Lee was often at the very front of battle, risking enemy fire in order to closely observe and sometimes redirect the operations of his troops. At the battle of Spotsylvania on 12 May 1864, for instance, his own men had to pull on the reins of his horse as he moved forward, this to keep him from unnecessarily risking his life by personally leading a counterattack.

And experience in taking risks might well be a key to later military success, such as the risks taken by West Point cadets laughing and singing and drinking illicit liquor with their closest friends at an off-limits bar. To them, the possibility of being dismissed from the academy for that violation of regulations alone was very real. It cannot be denied, therefore, that the act took a certain amount of personal courage and self-confidence, and may well have been just as important a part of their preparations for war as any other.

Indeed, the Benny Havens experience may well have been the highest risk any of them had ever taken. Poised as they were on the precipice of war in 1860, there would be an undeniable relationship between their West Point experiences and their future battlefield performance. Within the next few years they would face higher risks still, risks whose penalties for failure would be colored with blood rather than embarrassment. But for those cadets who took the dare, an illicit run to Benny's provided a fair predictor of the risks they would be willing to run, indeed the courage they would be able to muster, on the battlefields that lay before them.

Once safely arrived at Benny's, cadets could taste special treats that simply were not available inside the academy confines. The specialty of the house was known as "flip": into a large flagon, Benny would pour ale, cider, or rum along with well-beaten eggs, the mixture sweetened and spiced and then heated by plunging a red-hot iron bar, known as a "flip dog," into it. This was a delicate move, for if it was removed at just the right second, it left a delicious caramel-like flavor to the punch, while leaving it in too long could leave a burned taste that ruined it. But Benny was a master at this feat, and when he was serving a group of off-limits cadets, he performed it with relish amid gales of laughter from some homesick and hungry boys. Though sometimes loud and brash seeming, these were really only young lads who had crept through the dark woods, tripping over stones and underbrush, just to find this island of solace in their otherwise harsh and desolate West Point world.

And Benny's wife was a renowned cook as well, serving turkey roasted over the open fire, and sometimes ham, beef, or chicken, too, all accompanied by delicious flapjacks. This combination was attractive, but most normal customers, including officers, went home at a reasonable hour. It was only occasionally and around the midnight hour that cadets would mysteriously creep out of the woods and in the back door. Knowing the risks they were running, and given his own rocky relations with the academy, Benny was benevolent not only in keeping his tavern open but also in providing a watchful eye for officers who might show up unexpectedly.

For those cadets who had shown the spine to sneak out of barracks and through the woods to Benny's, their reward was ample. Not only did they drink brimming glasses of hot flip, they were also served large plates of sizzling hot meat and flapjacks, a veritable feast for these poorly fed boys far from home. But perhaps most of all, it was the mood and the setting that just exuded warmth and welcome, a place where cadets could truly relax until the predawn time came for them to trudge back and get ready for another day of classes. They were all young and strong, of course, and their constitutions could easily handle one night with little sleep but much flip. And the memories no doubt kept them warm through some long and frigid winter nights in their poorly heated barracks.

In the early morning hours of one particular day in April 1860, six West Point cadets were seated comfortably around one of Benny's tables drinking flip as they laughed and celebrated with each other. There may have been three or four other cadets at Benny Havens's that night—or early morning—as well, since the records of the party are somewhat confused. But these six men were there, and they form the centerpiece of our story. They had gathered to celebrate the impending graduation of two of their number: Wesley Merritt and Stephen Dodson Ramseur.

Within only a few years after graduation, both men would find themselves promoted to major general, at which rank they commanded divisions—typically five to ten thousand men—in the Civil War that was still just a looming threat. They were joined in celebration by four other fast friends, who had another year at the academy still left before them: Henry Algernon DuPont, John Pelham, Thomas Lafayette Rosser, and George Armstrong Custer. It was Custer who had organized the party, and he and Rosser would also become generals commanding divisions, one on either side of the Civil War, before four years had passed after their own graduations.

These men were drawn from many states, a genuine cross section of the American population.

Wesley Merritt was born on 16 June 1836 in New York City, the fourth child of John and Julia Merritt. John was a lawyer, but in 1840 the hard economic times of the late 1830s forced him to move his family to southern Illinois. After eight years of farming, they moved to the small town of Belleville, where he became editor of the Belleville Advocate. He enjoyed the newspaper business, and after three years, they moved on to the larger town of Salem, where he founded the town's only newspaper, the Salem Advocate.

The newspaper was a great success, and John remained the editor through the Civil War. He became a prosperous citizen, and by 1860, he owned property valued at about twelve thousand dollars. He considered himself a political moderate, but he, his wife, and children were all loyal Democrats, as were most of their neighbors. The Advocate strongly promoted Stephen A. Douglas, and in 1860 even suggested that southern Illinois join Missouri as a separate western republic in the event of disunion of the states.

From ages fifteen to nineteen, Wesley attended the Christian Brothers School, then studied law under Judge William Haynie in Salem. But his studies ended in April 1855 when he applied for and won the appointment to West Point of his congressman, W. H. Bissell. After receiving the approval of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, Wesley entered the United States Military Academy on 1 July 1855.

Stephen Dodson Ramseur was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina, on 31 May 1837, the oldest son and second of Jacob and Lucy Ramseur's nine children. Jacob was a farmer, but he also owned a mill and was a partner in a yarn manufacturing company. Young Dod, as he would always be called by family and close friends, grew up hunting and fishing like many country boys. His friends later remarked on the unusual combination they saw in him of gentle behavior and an almost reckless courage in dangerous situations.

Educated at the Pleasant Retreat Academy, Ramseur enrolled in Davidson College in September 1853. He readily adapted to the strong Presbyterian atmosphere at the college, and he found a mentor in his mathematics professor Daniel H. Hill. A West Point graduate himself, Hill promoted Ramseur's interest in the military academy and advised him on the courses he should take in preparation for going there. After Ramseur had spent two years at Davidson, Hill recommended him to Congressman Francis B. Craige. Ramseur won Craige's appointment, and in late June 1855 he made the long trip north and joined Merritt at West Point.

Henry Algernon DuPont was born 30 July 1838 to Henry and Louisa DuPont in Eleutherean Mills, Delaware, the oldest of their nine children. His father, Henry, had graduated from West Point himself in 1833, though he only remained in the army for one year. The DuPont family was already quite wealthy when Henry Algernon was born, having earned their family fortune through the production of gunpowder. Henry Algernon applied to West Point as well as to the Virginia Military Institute, but was admitted to neither. He attended the University of Pennsylvania for one year in 1855–56, and fi nally won admission to West Point in the summer of 1856.

Thomas Lafayette Rosser was born in rural Virginia on 15 October 1836 to John and Martha Rosser, their second child and oldest son. In 1849, financial reverses caused John to move his family to a 640-acre farm along the Sabine River in Texas, some forty miles west of Shreveport, Louisiana. But he was forced to stay behind, and young Tom, thirteen years old, led the family horses and wagons west, becoming the family man for the trip. Although he owned a few slaves, John's right-hand man in developing the farm was Tom. Wanting him to get an education, however, he sent Tom to a school in a neighboring county for four years.

In 1856 Rosser won an appointment to West Point from Congressman Lemuel D. Evans. He realized that his academic preparation was weak, so he arrived at West Point two months early. He spent that time boning up on his academic skills in the small town just outside the academy's grounds. But his concerns were misplaced, for he would pass all the academic admission tests, and on 1 July 1856 he was admitted to the academy.

John Pelham was born on 7 September 1838 to Atkinson and Martha McGehee Pelham in the plantation home of Martha's father in Benton County, Alabama. Martha was a cousin of the great statesman Henry Clay, and her family was quite wealthy. John was the third of seven children—six boys and one girl—and their father, Atkinson, was a doctor, having graduated from Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia. He set up his medical practice in nearby Alexandria, but he also owned and ran a thousand-acre plantation adjoining that of his father-in-law. After the secession of Alabama, all six sons would enter Confederate service, though Dr. Atkinson Pelham remained a civilian through the war, and practiced medicine until the day he died in 1880.

John grew up, then, in a wealthy plantation family. He soon became quite an accomplished horseman, and he got the best education available in that area at the time. The Pelham boys gained a local reputation of being a bit wild, and John was certainly at the forefront there. He was very athletic, but also could be quite polished and charming. One of his West Point classmates, Adelbert Ames, later described him as the most popular man in the class, a "gentleman in the highest sense of the term—a discourteous act was wholly foreign to his nature." And so it was that he won an appointment and joined his classmates at West Point on 1 July 1856.

George Armstrong Custer was born on 5 December 1839 in New Rumley, Ohio, to Emmanuel and Maria Custer. Both had been married before and widowed, so they brought their own children to the marriage and added five more who survived infancy, of which George was the first. And clever, mischievous George, an ever-laughing long-haired blond, was the favorite of his parents as well as all his brothers and sisters. They called him "Autie," which was the way he pronounced his own middle name when he was learning to talk.

Emmanuel was a blacksmith, and all these children were many mouths to feed. One of Maria's daughters from her first marriage, Lydia-Ann, married a horse breeder who lived in Monroe, Michigan, thirty-five miles south of Detroit and not too far north of the Ohio line. Ann, as she was called, just adored George, and it was agreed that he would live with her while going to school.

Custer spent many happy years in Monroe, and even when he moved back to Ohio in 1855 to finish his education, he still thought of it as his adopted home. In 1856, he took a job teaching in Ohio and also applied to Congressman John A. Bingham for an appointment to West Point. Those were political plums, but Custer was persistent, and in January 1857 he won the appointment. That summer he passed the admissions tests at West Point and was admitted to the academy on 20 June 1857.

Looked at objectively, this was a somewhat unusual group. Custer was the great joker of the corps at the time, a man who never took academics seriously, accumulated almost as many demerits as possible without being dismissed, and did just enough to get by. DuPont was more studious and would graduate first in his class, while Custer would graduate dead last. Custer and Rosser had a lot in common, as both were somewhat boisterous types, each as much of a bon vivant as was possible for cadets. Ramseur and Pelham were both quite religious, and Merritt and Ramseur were somewhat stern and serious in their demeanor. So how did they become such good friends, so close as to risk everything for one illicit night out together?

The only fair way to answer that is to try to understand that the pressures on cadets at West Point often forced the most unlikely personalities together and made them dependent on each other, many times in ways they had never thought possible. And this naked exposure of one stripped-down human being under great pressure to another allowed—almost required!—a sort of comfort, familiarity, and camaraderie in which personality types mattered little. All had taken their social masks off and revealed their true selves to each other at some point, and that mutual exposure made them vulnerable to, and comfortable with, each other. They had all been stripped naked by the academy and thrown into the same metaphorical pool, sink or swim together. Now they genuinely relished the deep and trusting friendship that had grown from this. Truly, "brotherhood" only approximates the interpersonal bond they had forged together.

During the Civil War, Custer, Rosser, and Pelham were aggressive extroverts who would fight with wild abandon, openly showing the sort of raw courage in combat that risked their lives but also inspired their men. For their part, Ramseur, Merritt, and DuPont were no less brave themselves, but somewhat more introverted and less given to flash and color. All six would prove to be splendid battlefield commanders, each in his own way. But those actions still lay in their unknown futures, and that night, they had gathered as the closest of friends for one thing only, and that was to celebrate.

As they ate and drank and laughed, they certainly sang as well, for this was a loud and raucous celebration. In that day, long before music could be recorded, singing in such settings was an armywide tradition. One song in particular would have been most appropriate, and they surely sang it, to the tune of "The Wearing of the Green":

Come, fill your glasses, fellows, and stand up in a row, To singing sentimentally we're going for to go;
In the army there's sobriety, promotion's very slow,
So we'll sing our reminiscences of Benny Havens, oh!
Oh! Benny Havens, oh! Oh! Benny Havens, oh!
We'll sing our reminiscences of Benny Havens, oh!

Yes, it was a song about Benny Havens and his tavern, where they spent some of their happiest high-risk time together as cadets. In 1838, a Lieutenant O'Brien of the 8th Infantry was visiting his friend Ripley A. Arnold, who was about to graduate from West Point, and of course they visited Benny's place. While they were toasting each other there, O'Brien called for pen and paper and wrote the first few stanzas of what has become the most famous and enduring West Point song, entitled simply "Benny Havens."

It is not surprising, given the songwriter's name, that he first sang it to the tune of "The Wearing of the Green," another tradition that has endured. O'Brien wrote a number of verses, including the first, mentioned above. And as the song's popularity took off, many others wrote verses as well, among which the following are probably the best known and most often sung:

To our kind old Alma Mater, our rock-bound Highland home, We'll cast back many a fond regret as o'er life's sea we roam; Until on our last battlefield the lights of heaven shall glow, We'll never fail to drink to her and Benn Havens, oh!

May the Army be augmented, may promotion be less slow,
May our country in the hour of need be ready for the foe;
May we find a soldier's resting-place beneath a soldier's blow, With room enough beside our graves for Benny Havens, oh!

To our comrades who have fallen, one cup before we go, They poured their life-blood freely out pro bono publico. No marble points the stranger to where they rest below; They lie neglected far away from Benny Havens, oh!

All young men who reported to West Point and began their education and training as cadets in the 1850s were no different from any other frail, flawed human beings, and the same has been true from the days of the academy's founding until the present time. The strongest human instinct among them, of course, the first among Abraham Maslow's renowned hierarchy of human needs, was for simple survival. The prospect, therefore, of these cadets facing death or grievous wounding in combat as a part of their professional commitment after graduation, even though still many years off in the future, could be quite sobering, to say the least.

As young men barely out of their teen years, of course, they were still too young to recognize, let alone accept, their own mortality. Even so, the academy's goal is that, when needed, its graduates will voluntarily step forward and literally offer their lives for our country, no matter the military challenge they may face. And planting that sense of commitment so that it grows and flourishes can be quite a challenge for the academy.

The advantage West Point has here lies in the education and, more particularly, the military training and self-discipline acquired and absorbed by all cadets, a formal program that does provide them a military base on which they will be able to further grow professionally. When they confront hostile fire for the first time, the hope has always been that young West Point graduates will almost instinctively fall back on their training. If they are able to do that, the dread that might otherwise paralyze them is immediately replaced by routine. Concentrating on certain actions as they were repetitively trained to do gives them a different focus, and fear is then generally replaced by dutiful performance. Fear never goes away, of course, but once a young officer learns to control it, he can then perform at his highest level while leading troops into battle.

An important part of this training is the cadets' psychological commitment to their duty, even—and perhaps most importantly—in the very face of death. And so it was, and remains today, that cadets would attempt in many ways to reinforce this dedication, whether through their routine but meticulous appearance in uniform, marching in parades, rehearsing bayonet drill, or even something as seemingly trivial as a group of them singing songs whose words, it was hoped, would dictate their actions.

Before the advent of automatic weapons and devastating artillery rounds in the twentieth century, in all armies there were drummer boys who beat out a loud and steady marching cadence for soldiers in a given infantry unit. And when a soldier was caught up in that unit march, the rhythm of the group took over so that, terrified as he might be personally, it became very difficult psychologically for him to fall out of step and so let his fears take control of his body. Similarly, the words of songs sung by West Pointers, and in the case of Benny Havens, words written by West Pointers themselves, had a very powerful effect on cadets who learned and repeated them.

One other old verse probably best captures their sense of dedication and resolution in the face of impending battle, a verse these proud men almost certainly would have sung:

And if amid the battle shock, our honor e'er should trail,
And hearts that beat beneath our flag should turn or basely quail;
Then may some son of Benny's, with quick avenging blow,
Lift up the flag we loved so well at Benny Havens, oh!

These words are far from trivial, of course, for every generation or so produces a set of West Point classes whose members will face combat as young officers, some of them, as was the case with the men we are here observing at Benny Havens, almost immediately after their graduation. And while most West Pointers thrust into combat show the courage and selfless behavior desired, it must be recognized that not all are made of the stern stuff required to lead in battle.

These words that disparage those who cower is a self-statement by cadets, one that attempts to reinforce the ethic of courage and self-sacrifice, even to the point of death. Every young officer has two basic missions in the army: to perform his duty and to take care of his men. If you fail in the latter, of course, then whatever the former may be, it becomes all the more difficult to attain. Taking care of your men means, as a first step, making sure they are not unnecessarily killed or wounded. And sometimes that means stepping forward and showing them what to do.

The single ethic of an infantry leader in combat, for instance, is caught up in his repeating—and given the necessary environment, this is usually done by shouting—to his men the simple phrase "FOLLOW ME!" after which he steps forward and leads the way, usually into the face of hostile fire and possibly even death itself. But that leadership is the officer's duty.

The words of the large number of stanzas in the "Benny Havens" song were composed by cadets or recent graduates. Some of them are a clear effort to discourage the "quailing" of West Pointers in the face of battle. For this reason, the words remind any who would hesitate when the gunfire gets heavy that they will later be despised for their reluctance, should it not be overcome, by the majority of other graduates, for the academy calls on all West Pointers to risk everything when answering their call to duty.

Singing this and similar verses served to reinforce the value of selfless courage that is desired of all academy graduates, but as we shall see, there was no need for concern here. When thrust into the furnace of war, each of these six men turned out to be made of gold.

After rousing stanzas and more flip, Custer finally proposed one last toast to Merritt and Ramseur and the rest of their class, which he called the finest class in West Point history. Those words no doubt reflected alcohol-induced inflation, but they do illustrate the way these men felt about each other, the bond they had formed as cadets at West Point. Men in American society have never liked acknowledging that they love other men, but it does seem the only fair way to describe the bond they had formed among themselves.

DuPont, Rosser, Pelham, and Custer stayed behind for one more year as cadets, while Merritt and Ramseur graduated and were commissioned. One of the army's major roles at the time was to protect settlers as they moved west across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, and both men were assigned to that duty. They would not stay there long.


Excerpted from "Sacred Ties"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Tom Carhart.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Benny Havens 7

2 Two Key Institutions 25

3 Cadet Days 34

4 Impending Disunion 59

5 The Fighting Begins 84

6 Fighting on the Peninsula 113

7 Second Battle of Bull Run 133

8 Battle of Antietam 143

9 The Battle of Fredericksburg 162

10 Battle of Chancellorsville 173

11 The Battle of Gettysburg 195

12 The Wilderness 216

13 Battle of Spotsylvania 230

14 The Shenandoah Valley 244

15 Cavalry Clashes 262

16 Tora, Tora, Tora 275

17 Cloudburst 296

18 Counterattack 315

19 Valley Conquest and Rosser's Raids 342

20 Appomattox Campaign 356

21 Old Soldiers 365

Notes 389

Index 407

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