Thursday, November 11, 2010

Civil War generals before they became soldiers

Here's a fun treasure trove for history buffs. has acquired the West Point application letters from 1805 through 1866. The website has put the letters online for free through Sunday. Here are some of the available documents.
Back then, as it is now, the process for applying for admission to West Point included being nominated by a member of Congress. Lawmakers, governors, guardians, businessmen and other prominent citizens in a prospective cadet's home state would write recommendation letters. Although the handwritten letters are often hard to decipher, they can offer insights on how others viewed the budding military leaders, Atkinson said.

Ohio Congressman John Bingham, in his 1856 nomination letter for Custer, described the then-17-year-old as being a shade under 5-foot-10, with "no deformity." Custer, Bingham wrote, "reads well, spells correctly, writes a fair and legible hand, able to perform with facility and accuracy the ground rules of arithmetic ..."

A letter written in 1835 by Sherman's guardian referred to the future Union general, then 16, as "a good scholar and a fine energetic boy."

Thomas J. Jackson was seeking acceptance to West Point in 1842 when a South Carolina politician wrote a letter to the academy on Jackson's behalf. Jackson graduated four years later. In April 1861, that politician — Francis W. Pickens — was governor of South Carolina when he approved the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, the opening salvos of the Civil War.

Three months later in Manassas, Va., Jackson earned the nickname "Stonewall" when his Virginia brigade repulsed a Union assault during the First Battle of Bull Run.

And George Pickett, the Confederate officer who would find immortality leading what became known as Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, gave an early hint of his vanity in a letter he wrote to President James Polk in 1845, seeking admission to West Point.

"I am a young man, nineteen years old, six feet tall and moderately good-looking (as I am told)," Pickett wrote.
Typical vanity for Pickett. If you're a history buff, you might want to head over to's site and see what you can find. The records are also open and free this weekend for you to search your own ancestors.