Writer Robbins Discusses West Point Culture
James Robbins came to Hamilton to talk about someone no Hamilton student wants to be: the individuals last in their class. Robbins was talking in particular about the “Goats,” men who graduated last in their class from West Point and ended up fighting in the Civil War. He drew extensively from his book, Last in their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Ghosts of West Point (2006) in providing an often-humorous overview of America's most famous Goats.
Robbins began by differentiating between the two types of Goats—individuals who were simply poor students and those who were “smart but did not care about [class] rank.” He focused entirely on the second group, presenting first the story of Henry Heath, from West Point's Class of 1847. Heath earned his first demerit on his first day of college and continued from there, “devising many schemes for fun and folly.” Heath ended up fighting for the South in the Civil War.
The most famous Union Goat was George Custer. He graduated early, in June of 1861, to join the war effort. Robbins observed that “a lot of what people know [about Custer] is colored by Little Bighorn.” He also noted that Custer may have set the West Point record for demerits and at the time of his graduation was under arrest for allowing other students to fight on his watch. In the Civil War, Custer went on to exhibit, as Robbins put it, a common characteristic of Goats—physical bravery. Custer was a “crazy warrior” who frequently led bold attacks on Confederate forces.
Opposing Custer was a Confederate Goat of equal prominence, George Pickett. A “lovable rogue,” Pickett was also physically brave. He had numerous claims to fame before the Civil War, including during the Mexican War and again during a standoff with the British along the Canadian border. Robbins asserted that Pickett's bravery led him to commit to “Pickett's Charge,” the famous failed attack at Gettysburg which left him a broken man.
Robbins' presentation was peppered by anecdotes about other Civil War-era Goats and notable figures. He shared stories of Custer's interactions with his classmates on the battlefield, including an incident where Custer rescued a wounded Confederate friend—then served as the best man at his friend's wedding while the war was going on. Throughout, Robbins provided a compelling, lighthearted, and interesting look into the lives of men who were last in their class but played a significant role in American history.