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West Point Graduation ­ 1859

By Brad Applegate

Milestones Vol 35 No. 2

During the month of June, 1859, a New York Times reporter left us an account of the examination and graduation of 22 West Point cadets including Charles Reed Collins of New Brighton, Pennsylvania. According to the article, cadets entered school between 16-18 years of age from all over the United States with the new arrivals reporting to West Point in June and all were immediately placed on a rigorous schedule:

5:00 am Reveille
5:30 am Room Inspection, Study time
7:00 am Breakfast
7:30 am Guard Mounting, Recreation
8:00 am Class Parade
Class recitation and study
1:00 pm Lunch
1:30 pm Recreation
2:00 pm Class Parade
4:00-sunset Military exercises
Sunset General Parade
General Quarters
10:00 pm Lights out

The above schedule operated six days a week except on Sunday which the cadets had off. Also, cadets were confined to West Point, and were permitted to leave only for a few weeks after completion of their second year.

Cadets received a monthly allowance of $30 but did not actually receive payment until after graduation. Out of that monthly allotment, the cadets had to pay $10 for room and board, $2 for laundry, clothing, and other expenses. As a result of the monthly charges, cadets used up most of their allowance; and received little or nothing at the end.

Five long years of study, discipline, and hard work later, examination week for the class of 1859 began on a sour note as clouds rolled in and rain pelted the cadets, visiting ladies, dignitaries and Board of Visitors. A Board of Visitors appointed by the President and chosen from a number of states would report to the Congress on the actual state of the discipline, instruction and fiscal affairs of the academy. Members of the Board served without pay and were given only room and board at the academy, plus they were required to travel by the shortest route to West Point and back and were paid 8 cents per mile. They would oversee examination week and attend graduation ceremonies.

Despite the rain, a full week of examinations were held to demonstrate the cadets' proficiency in the military skills required to become an officer. The examination schedule was as follows:

Thursday - Review of Cadets
Friday ­ Sea Coast Artillery
Monday ­Battalion Drill
Tuesday- Light Artillery and Siege Battery
Thursday- Horsemanship (held indoors), bayonet, and foil
Friday- Mortar (postponed to later that afternoon due to rain)

After a grueling week of testing, the graduation ceremony took place on June 14, 1859 at West Point's Library. The day began with rays of sunshine streaming from the sky, and after a week of rain, it was a very welcome change. In the morning ten cadets who had failed the first exam were retested with seven passing to continue with their education. In the meantime, visitors and their ladies could be seen scurrying around the yard viewing the buildings at West Point such as the library, gymnasium, batteries, and chapel. Out of all of these buildings the chapel was the most newly decorated and interesting. Upon entering the chapel, one could see the artifacts on display from previous wars. Cannons and flags captured from the British during the Revolution covered one wall and on the other wall were seized weapons from the recent Mexican War.

A little before 5 p.m. everyone gathered in the library for the presentation of diplomas. A special guest among those present was General Scott, commander of the army. After seats were taken, Col. Delafield, Commander of the Post, called each cadet in turn and presented him with his diploma. Before the next cadet was called, Delafield told them their division(s) of the army which they qualified for as recommended by the Academic Board. Having an outstanding grasp of his studies, Charles Reed Collins finished 3rd in his class and was therefore eligible for all divisions within the army which included: Engineers, Topographical Engineers, Ordinance, Artillery, Infantry, Dragoons, and Cavalry.

After the last cadet received his diploma, the band played the "Star Spangled Banner" and the fife and drum corps struck up the tune "Soldier Boy". Following these rousing songs, Col. Delafield recognized John Kerr as the graduation speaker. He spoke of new leaders leaving the "path of virtue" dictated by West Point and straying onto an easier path. He also spoke of the importance of continuing to learn for if they did not, it would have been a waste for them even to been at West Point. He went on to remind them of their great responsibilities as citizens and soldiers. As the speaker finished up to loud applause, the band began playing again as the audience filed out of the library.

In the evening, the graduating class took part in their last general parade with the ceremonies ending in a fireworks display created by class members. Finally, freed from cadet life, the newly minted officers would now have to wait patiently to find out their career military assignments.



"West Point Academy, annual examination, concluding exercises, daily routine, presentation of diplomas", New York Times, June 14, 1859.

"West Point Academy, Annual Examinations, Exercises of the Week, The Examining Committee, Names of the Graduation Class, June 13, 1859..