Jim Robbins, frequently seen writing on the war here on National Review Online, is author of a new book, his first book, Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point. Last in Their Class tells the stories of a varied group of men who share a cult-like status in the history of West Point, while colorfully walking us through Academy–and American–history.
Jim talked to NRO editor Kathryn Lopez about the Goats and the book.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: “Goat”? Is the humiliation supposed to motivate?
James S. Robbins: I think it is as much a term of endearment as anything else. “Goat” connotes many things–stubbornness, pushiness, but also mischievousness and playfulness. The Goats were by and large charismatic, adventuresome, with a youthful bonhomie that generally made them very popular with their classmates.
Lopez: Were you a goat because you were a slacker? Or are the slackers always eliminated at West Point?
Robbins: There are two basic types of Goat. Charles Nelson Warner, for example, Goat of 1862, was the type who struggles with his studies, finds himself in over his head, but hangs on to graduate at the very bottom. The other model was the intelligent and talented cadet to whom grades and class rank were less important than pranks, socializing, and other pursuits. These were men like George Custer, George Pickett, and Henry Heth, who might well have excelled at their studies had the pursuit of knowledge been more compelling than the lure of good times. They and their comrades lived on the edge, seeking new and inventive ways of skirting the rules, and rising to the occasion only when the situation absolutely demanded it.
Lopez: John Pratt, the first goat was a victim of partisan politics during the Mexican War?
Robbins: Yes, Pratt was the first true Goat, noted for stealing away the commandant’s girlfriend. He was later a major general of the Kentucky militia. When the war broke out he volunteered to go but he was a Democrat and the governor was a Whig, so he was denied a command. He resigned his commission and out of spite ran against the local Whig delegate for a seat in the state house, which he won.
Lopez: How did James Whistler get himself expelled?
Robbins: Whistler was another good-time Charlie, a West Point legacy whom everyone loved but he could not stay out of trouble. In his third year he failed chemistry by misidentifying silicon as a gas. Superintendent Robert E. Lee reviewed his record and tried to be lenient (as he had been in the past), but Whistler had too many demerits and had to leave. “If silicon had been a gas,” he later said, “I would have been a major general.” But, as Marcus Reno noted, if he had then no-one would have known about his mother.
Lopez: Why is it no longer as cool to be a Goat as it once was?
Robbins: Definitely still cool. Maybe more so. In 1978 West Point did away with academic ranking and announced “The Last of the Last Man (or The Demise of the ‘Goat’).” Academic reformers were apparently swayed by contemporary educational theories about promoting self-esteem by minimizing the public consequences of competition. Today’s West Point graduates are listed in the register in alphabetical order, except for the honor graduates. But the Goats have turned out to be tougher than expected. Unpublished class rankings exist, and there is still a “Last Man” in every class. Despite the best efforts to stamp out the custom, every cadet at the commencement ceremonies knows who the Goat is, and when his or her name is read in the alphabetical list, the crowd bursts into sustained cheers.
Lopez: What’s an Immortal?
Robbins: This was an earlier term for the last section in the class, probably from a Persian unit mentioned in Herodotus.
Lopez: What was Edgar Allan Poe doing at West Point?
Robbins: Hard to say, other than having a good time. Few know that Poe was a sergeant major of artillery before he went to West Point, and could have pursued a worthy military career. He was also a good student, academically, despite all the time he spent drinking at Benny Havens’. But after six months at the Academy he simply stopped going to classes and was expelled. His later explanations were contradictory, and we will probably never know why he sabotaged his cadetship.
Lopez: How good was “Custer’s luck”?
Robbins: Pretty darn good until the end. Custer got out of many scrapes at West Point that led to the expulsion of others. And in the Civil War he was within inches of death many times. It says something that the expression became a commonplace throughout the Army. Custer took great risks, for great rewards. But ultimately his luck ran out.
Lopez: Has Custer gotten a bad rap?
Robbins: Custer was not perfect, truly, but in recent decades he has been subjected to a thorough campaign of denigration though the lens of political correctness. In particular his Civil War record has been obscured, which is a shame because he was a very daring and driven officer. I hope that the period of Custer revisionism has waned and people can take a more objective view of him.
Lopez: What was the most surprising historical fact coming out of West Point?
Robbins: There were many historical surprises I came across–but my most unexpected contemporary discovery during this project was finding out how little most people know about West Point. I think Americans would benefit from going there or to one of the other service academies and meeting the cadets who are preparing themselves for lives of service to our country. These are some of the smartest, friendliest, and most engaging young people you will ever meet. Very open-minded too. A wonderfully diverse group intellectually.
Lopez: Any fascinating goat mysteries you weren’t able to solve that you still want to?
Robbins: The mystery of Custer’s statue! A statue to Custer was erected after his death that his wife so despised she lobbied for years to have it taken down, which it was. It was later shipped to New York to be cut down to a bust by famed architect Stanford White (who designed the Battle Monument at Trophy Point). But White was assassinated by his former mistress’s jealous husband, and the statue (or its pieces) disappeared.
Lopez: What’s “Flirtation Walk”?
Robbins: Flirtation Walk is the path along the Hudson River first used during the Revolutionary War to maintain the chain that deterred British ships from passing. This path was off limits to cadets until the 1840s, when the boundaries were extended. Since that area is for the most part out of sight from the Academy, and since at this time there were many young ladies visiting West Point in the summertime, means, motive, and opportunity came into perfect alignment. Flirtation indeed.
Lopez: Who’s your favorite goat?
Robbins: That’s hard to say; there were many good ones. I really liked Henry Heth, Goat of 1847. He seemed like the kind of guy I would want to hang out with. He was also brave, dashing, handsome, and unpretentious. Everyone loved him and he left us a very readable memoir that I think captures his character. He was the archetype of the fun-loving Goat, and he went on to lead a noteworthy life.
Lopez: Do you like book writing? Would you do it again?
Robbins: Oh, you mean between NRO writing? Yes, my next project is on the Tet Offensive, and I would like to do a second volume of the Goats in time. I had to end this project after Little Big Horn because it was getting too long, but there are many more Goat tales to be told. I’m looking forward to it.