Ralph Kirshner has provided a richly illustrated forum to enable the West Point class of 1861 to write its own autobiography. Through letters, journals, and published accounts, George Armstrong Custer, Adelbert Ames, and their classmates tell in their own words of their Civil War battles and of their varied careers after the war.
Two classes graduated from West Point in 1861 because of Lincoln's need of lieutenants: forty-five cadets in Ames's class in May and thirty-four in Custer's class in June. The cadets range from Henry Algernon du Pont, first in the class of May, whose ancestral home is now Winterthur Garden, to Custer, last in the class of June. “Only thirty-four graduated,” remarked Custer, “and of these thirty-three graduated above me.” West Point's mathematics professor and librarian Oliver Otis Howard, after whom Howard University is named, is also portrayed.
Other famous names from the class of 1861 are John Pelham, Emory Upton, Thomas L. Rosser, John Herbert Kelly (the youngest general in the Confederacy when appointed), Patrick O'Rorke (head of the class of June), Alonzo Cushing, Peter Hains, Edmund Kirby, John Adair (the only deserter in the class), and Judson Kilpatrick (great-grandfather of Gloria Vanderbilt). They describe West Point before the Civil War, the war years, including the Vicksburg campaign and the battle of Gettysburg, the courage and character of classmates, and the ending of the war.
Kirshner also highlights postwar lives, including Custer at Little Bighorn; Custer's rebel friend Rosser; John Whitney Barlow, who explored Yellowstone; du Pont, senator and author; Kilpatrick, playwright and diplomat; Orville E. Babcock, Grant's secretary until his indictment in the "Whiskey Ring"; Pierce M. B. Young, a Confederate general who became a diplomat; Hains, the only member of the class to serve on active duty in World War I; and Upton, "the class genius."
The Class of 1861, which features eighty-three photographs, includes a foreword by George Plimpton, editor of theParis Review and great-grandson of General Adelbert Ames.