• Weird History

West Point Goats In The Civil War

The term "Goat" holds a special place in U.S. Army tradition, and there were plenty of West Point Goats in the Civil War. The term refers to the cadet graduating from West Point Military Academy with the lowest Grade Point Average (GPA) or, as the 1909 Howitzer Yearbook put it, “the man who would have stood first if he had boned (i.e. studied).” Rather than being a badge of shame, it recognizes the tenacity or foolhardiness it takes to be the last graduate of the best of the best. 

Prior to administrative changes in the ‘70s, the order of graduation was based on class rank; therefore, everyone knew the last person presented with their diploma was the class Goat. And, because of their low ranking, Goats were usually shunted off to Infantry or Cavalry branches – becoming the very people who are most likely to see combat and be directly responsible for leading their troops into harm’s way. Though, nowadays, class rank is a closely held secret, the graduating class still manages to find it out prior to the ceremony. Graduating cadets give a riotous cheer when the Goat receives the diploma, and then they present the Goat with a silver dollar.

Everyone who has taken an American History class knows the names of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, and Phillip Sheridan, as well as their actions during the Civil War. But there were plenty of West Point failures who became Civil War generals. So, what mark on history did the West Point Goats in the Civil War make?

  • West Point’s First Goat

    Photo: Bureau of Engraving and Printing / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Pratt, John Taylor, Class of 1818, Did Not Fight in the Civil War. Pratt was denied his commission because of partisan politics, so he returned to Kentucky and became a merchant and state senator. When the Civil War broke out, he volunteered to do his part since he was still vigorous in his old age. His offer was politely declined by the Confederate forces.

  • The Brokerage Firm Founder Who Was Better At Making Money Than Studying

    Edwards, Albert Gallatin, Class of 1832, Union. After graduation from West Point, Edwards was stationed near St. Louis, Missouri, with the Mounted Rangers and Dragoons. He retired shortly after his marriage to Louise Cabanne and became a merchant and bank commissioner. He was appointed Brig. Gen. of the Missouri Volunteers. Although he didn't see any action, President Lincoln appointed him as Assistant Secretary of the U. S. Treasury. In 1887, at the age of 75, he founded the brokerage firm A.G. Edwards & Son Stock and Bond Traders.

  • The Goat Who Died En Route To The War

    Photo: VCU Libraries Commons / Wikimedia Commons / No restrictions

    McLeod, Hugh, Class of 1835, Confederate. McLeod resigned his commission within a year after graduating to fight for Texas independence. He served on the frontier battling Native Americans. As a Brig. Gen., he commanded the 1841 Santa Fe expedition, but he was taken captive by the Mexicans, who released him in 1842. He served Texas as Inspector General and as a member of the Texas House of Representatives. When the Civil War broke out, he was appointed a Col. Of the First Texas infantry regiment. However, he died of pneumonia in Virginia while en route to Gen. Robert E. Lee.

  • The Goat Who Exemplified The True Meaning Of The Term

    Photo: Quisenberry, Anderson C. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Crittenden, William Logan, Class of 1845, American. While Crittenden died before the Civil War, his spirit and bravery make him the epitome of the Goat. After graduation, he fought with merit in the Mexican-American War. In 1851, he resigned his commission to take part in the liberation of Cuba from Spain. He joined the Narciso Lopéz expedition. He and his men were cut off from the main forces, and he made the decision to return to Florida. They commandeered four small fishing boats, but they were captured by the Spanish warship Habanero and returned to Havana where they were brought up on charges of piracy and condemned to death by firing squad. The condemned were led out to the execution site in groups of 10. The firing squad commander demanded that Crittenden order his men to turn their backs to the firing squad and to kneel. Crittenden responded plainly, “[a] Kentuckian turns his back on no man and kneels only to God.” The execution was carried out on August 16, 1851.