Nellie Bly at West Point

Nellie Bly

The New York World/June 9, 1889

She Inspects the Tightly-Laced Young Cadets at Their Military Maneuvers

AH! It’s very nice to be a cadet, but it’s much nicer to be a cadet’s “cousin.” The West Point cadets and their “cousins” with an occasional sprinkling of sisters and mothers had a lovely time last week. I was at the West Point Hotel for a day or so, enjoying the closing exercises of our historic military school, and the way happiness was booming was enough to coax the sugar-water out of the maple trees that it might mingle with the sweetness which prevailed everywhere.

Those who have never visited West Point would be delighted with the surroundings, aside from the pretty girls and handsome cadets who lend life to the scene. West Point is the most beautiful spot on the Hudson River. On the level, green plateau, dotted with fine buildings and shaded with magnificent trees, it juts out like a half moon over the beautiful river, and from certain points gives an unsurpassed view of the Hudson. And then, when back on the grounds, West Point looks like a little smooth Eden, guarded from the outside world by a chain of solid green mountains. From these great mountains, which cast back echo after echo on the guns of West Point, as if indignant that their quiet should be disturbed, comes a lively breeze that tans the cheek of the cadet and makes him look as if he had seen service.

The Giddy Girls In Raptures

When I reached West Point it looked very quiet. Several pretty girls were trying to find amusement and exercise at tennis, and I saw an occasional officer, but nothing gave much prospect of any liveliness. When I got to the hotel it was little better. Quite a number of girls, ordinary, pretty and very pretty, were sitting in groups on the veranda, and their mothers and chaperones formed other groups. There were some men, but not the men the girls had come to West Point to see. There was really nothing to do but long for dinner time. It’s so often such company to eat! As I was not particularly hungry I watched the others eat and wondered why we all came there. Two girls, who sat at the same table, afforded me some amusement.

“Don’t you like Mr.—?”

“Yes, I do. But wasn’t he ashamed of his mother?” replied the other.

“Well, I don’t blame him,” the first giggled.

“She was perfectly awful. She wore such a funny coat all trimmed with fur.”

“And did you see how he sat on it all the time so we wouldn’t see it?” And then they both laughed.

They expected some of the cadets to take them to walk and they became so nervous that they could hardly wait to finish their dinner. Indeed, they didn’t finish. Several times they jumped up and rushed out to see if the much longed-for cadets was yet in sight. At last the one girl rushed in to tell the other that she had secured a cadet for her.

“He will have to wait until I finish my dinner,” she laughed. “No, I won’t go directly,” and yet, laughing, she flung down her napkin and rushed out to greet the boy in waiting.

I am glad to say that I saw no more girls of this type. The majority of them were indeed lovely, and just as sweet and nice as girls can be. Two very charming girls had lost their trunks in the Johnstown disaster and indeed only escaped themselves by missing the unlucky train by a moment. They arrived at West Point minus their pretty gowns, and the two other girls, unusually kind and thoughtful, shared with them their lovely dresses, and I did not see a prettier group while there than these four girls formed.

A short time after dinner a notice was nailed up on the veranda to the effect that there would be a seacoast battery drill at 5 o’clock for the Board of Visitors. Long before the hour set for the drill the visitors, accompanied by cadets and other friends, made their way down the shady paths near the river shore. The steep decline presented a picturesque sight with the young people in gaily colored gowns and uniforms dotted over the hillside on projecting rocks and mossy logs, more intent on their conversations than on the exhibition they were about to witness.

Sea-Coast Battery Drill

The drums beat and then we saw a number of handsome cadets in their close-fitting uniforms march down the winding road to the shore and separate in groups about the different guns, whose fierce black noses peeped over the embankment as if daring any kind of a foe to approach that quarter.

The command was given and the cadets began to load the guns. Then the girls became enough interested to listen to explanations about the drill and to ask a few questions. The bags of powder which were rammed into the gun and the shell which went into another, were objects of interest to all. The guns and mortars were numbered and besides they were all known by some name, as, for instance, the one which threw shells was called “Black Betsey.” A lieutenant explained to me afterwards that the names were bestowed because of some episode in which the gun had largely figured. One, he said, was used to bombard a Southern town. The Confederate soldiers had defended every side except one, where there was an enormous swamp. They thought this bit of ugly nature was ample defense, but the Union soldiers built a raft and putting the gun on it, went into the swamp and successfully bombarded the town. From that time the gun was known as the “Swamp Angel.”

There was a sharp command, a puff of smoke and a black ball flew high into the air until it looked like a crow and then came down on the white target on the side of the mountain. I watched the girls and there wasn’t a scream. Whether the company of fighting men supported their courage or whether they were non-screaming girls, I can’t say. That fact of the absence of screams interested me as much as the sight of the shells going way to the top of Crow’s Nest, and dully booming back the fact that they had created havoc with beautiful nature.

Before the drill was over everybody was tired of shooting and anxious to get to the top of the hill again. Even the most sentimental couple at West Point was slowly climbing the hillside. They were rewarded for their return by one of the prettiest sights at West Point. Everybody rushed over to the walk fronting the officers’ homes, and here they turned their faces towards the beautiful parade ground, as smooth and level as a checker-board. Before long the band, in its white and gold uniform, came out on the lawn. They were followed by the cadets, who went through their daily drill magnificently, much to the admiration of the visitors. It was such a beautiful sight amid unsurpassed loveliness, that everybody forgot about supper and watched with regret the last glimpse of the cadets as they marched back to their quarters.

The Jovial Visiting Board

The evening was passed very quietly. Some cadets who had friends at the hotel were permitted to call on them for a short time, and the visitors thronged the drawing-room and the veranda, listening to the music by the post band. Most of the Visiting Board were lodged at the hotel, one or two of them preferring to room with some of the officers. Gen. Lew Wallace was one of the Board. He remained at the hotel, and made himself popular by telling wonderful stories.

“He devoted two hours to telling a story last night,” said a gentleman to me. “It was very interesting and admirably told. I think if it had been taken down in shorthand it would not have needed revising before going to press. But after it was all over a gentleman told me that he had heard Gen. Wallace tell the same story before, and at that time, also, as if it had never been rehearsed, and that he also understood that the General had at one time published the same tale.”

“It reminded me,” said another gentleman, speaking about the same subject, “of the orator who got up and said, ‘Friends, this is an unexpected honor, and I come before you wholly unprepared,’ and then pulled a written speech of many yards out of his pocket.”

One of the women whose husband was on the Visiting Board was truly amazing in her dress and manner. She has been the subject of numerous complimentary notices in Washington newspapers and out-of-town letters, and I fear her “head has been turned.” Her dress was unwisely conspicuous and her manner rivaled her gowns, while her liberal use of cosmetics was indeed shocking.

“What good is the Visiting Board anyway?” I asked one of the officers.

“I don’t know what this Board will do, but they have seemed interested anyway,” he answered. “One year after a Board had visited here and had been shown everything, the only result was that one member thought we should have lady teachers for the cadets and another thought we should have more benches along the walk.”

“And the others?”

“Didn’t think anything,” was the reply.

The Cadets In Recitations

Morning brought nothing livelier. Some few enthusiasts got up in time to attend reveille, and when the sleepier visitors arose the cadets were busy in their examination rooms. There was nothing to do but stroll round and admire what there was to be seen. The examination rooms were open to those who eared to attend, and they really presented a very pretty sight with the handsome young cadets arranged before a line of gaily uniformed officers, with anxious mothers and sisters in brilliant morning dresses as a background. Only those very much interested in the cadets’ progress waited for the finish of the examinations. The less interested visitors strolled in and out everywhere.

From the library we went to the quiet stone chapel where the cadets attend service Sundays. The walls are well covered with tablets to the memory of brave soldiers, and in two cases are a number of tattered flags captured by the Americans in Mexico. In one far corner of the chapel is a tablet on which the name has been erased. It is said to have been intended for Benedict Arnold before he became a traitor. Large pillars most admirably afford shelter for cadets to whisper slyly to their “cousins” during service, and they improve the opportunity, too. The cadets bravely maintain their rights in regard to the length of the sermon. If the minister has not finished when the clock strikes 12, every cadet begins to move about, causing his sabre to jingle against the benches, until the minister is forced to dismiss them. If the rest of suffering humanity only wore sabres!

A group of admiring women gathered on a corner to see the cadets march into the mess hall. They looked just as lovely as soldiers could, and they walked proudly, conscious of the admiration they were exciting. In connection with the cadets’ mess hall is a wing occupied by the bachelor army officers who serve as instructors. There are eighteen of them. Think of it, girls! And every fellow I saw was handsome.

 Biggest Man At The Point

There was Lieut. Daniel L. Tate, a superb young giant who stands 6 feet 3 inches and is the largest man at West Point. He much resembles the handsome giant member of a legation in Washington, who attired in a white uniform and gold helmet, creates such havoc among the hearts of the feminine population of that city. Lieut. Tate was formerly at a post in Montana.

Then there is Lieut. Montgomery M. Macomb, one of the most pleasant as well as most learned men at West Point. He has charge of the department of drawing and has now on exhibition drawings by the cadets. Indeed, one never realizes how thorough in all educational branches a boy must be in order to be graduated at West Point.

Lieut. William W. Galbraith is another handsome bachelor. He has large black eyes which speak pretty things, a handsome black mustache and a pleasant smile, all of which tend to make him a favorite with the girls. These are only a few of the handsome bachelors at West Point, and they all claim to be heart whole.

Lieut. Dodds and Lieut. Johnston are two of the handsome married officers. Many are the girls who sigh after Mr. Dodds, but he isn’t the least bit inclined to be flirtatious. Mr. Johnston is so kind and thoughtful of others that he is a general favorite. His affections are completely wrapped up in his lovely little yearling bride, who is the prettiest woman at West Point. Mrs. Johnston was a Pittsburg girl and though giving up a luxurious home to be a soldier’s wife, yet she says West Point is the loveliest place on earth and she never was happier.

Adjt. Brown is also blessed with handsome looks and graceful manners, which make him very highly regarded by all. I don’t know whether he is one of the eighteen bachelors or not, but at any rate he acts as if flirtations have no attraction for him.

A Confirmed Bachelor

I have left the handsome Capt. Joseph H. Dorst, the senior assistant instructor of cavalry tactics, to the last. I saw him first in the afternoon when we had all gone down to the riding academy to see the cadets do wonderful things on horseback. The little galleries were crowded, and I am sure every girl whose special cadet “cousin” was not among the twenty-four riders spent more time looking at the handsome Captain than at the cadets. He wore a lovely uniform and rode a black horse that looked as soft as satin. The captain had a melodious voice and was thoroughly intent on the exercise of the cadets, never once noticing the admiring attention bestowed upon himself. His brother officers say that Capt. Dorst is fireproof. Many girls try to awaken his interest, but to no avail. They all clamor for an introduction, but they find his heart as hard as stone. A love affair? No. A little mother to whom he is devotedly attached.

This riding exhibition was one of the prettiest features of the week. First in Indian file the cadets plunged around the ring, striking with their sabres the rubber heads of their imaginary enemies, drawing their sabres first with the right hand and then with the left. Afterwards at full gallop they shot the same rubber head, drawing their pistols with right and left hand. Then they jumped hurdles, and again, bareback, they rode headlong around the ring, reaching down to pick up the rubber heads from the ground. This caused many a tumble, and when it came to springing from the ground over the back of a running horse and back again there were ore tumbles, and often horses and cadets both went down, to be on their feet again in an instant. Nobody seemed a bit afraid they should be hurt, and there wasn’t a feminine scream from the gallery. One cadet turned a somersault over his horse’s back, and instead of lighting on the horse as he intended he lit in the sawdust ring on his cheek. It was a splendid way to have his neck broken, but everybody laughed, and he got up and, rubbing the stains away, mounted his horse again. It was a beautiful sight, and the cadets were as elastic as rubber balls.

Cadet Keep the Best Rider

I think Cadet Kemp was the best rider of the day. He is the best gymnast at West Point and the way he executed the most dangerous maneuvers on horseback was something wonderful. Cadet Harts, the handsomest cadet and the cadet adjutant, came very close to Cadet Kemp as the best rider. I suppose a number of the girls who have named Cadet Harts “Sweetheart” think that no one can excel “Sweetheart” in anything. He has a deep mellow voice that is the admiration of the whole school. The cadet poet, whose name I have forgotten, is also a splendid rider. I think that all things being equal it would be very difficult to say which cadet does really ride the best.

This week the hops will take place. They are the most wonderfully arranged things—at West Point. A cadet invites a number of his “cousins” and when they accept and he finds himself only able to provide for one he immediately hunts up some cadet who has no “cousins” and gets him to promise to take the extra girl. Then the cadets take the young ladies’ cards and they are all filled and returned to her without so much as “by your leave.” The night of the ball arrives. A cadet, whom the young woman may never have seen before, comes to escort her to the hop. While there she dances one dance after another with young men to whom she has just been introduced. They all look alike to her, and they all act alike, full of life and happiness and hopes; and if she should meet them in the morning she couldn’t tell one from the other. The arrangements are very lovely for the strange girls, though, because there are no wallflowers, and every girl and cadet is provided for.

Hard Times For the “Plebs”

The first year cadets, known as the “Plebs,” are not permitted to attend the hope. The other cadets, called the Patricians, would not give a “pleb” who was bold enough to overstep this social rule one dance, and he would be treated very shabbily. While West Point is thoroughly democratic, the social rules made and enforced by the cadets are very strict. Saturdays are their visiting days, and the cadets have pleasant times calling on the officers’ wives and daughters. A “Pleb” dare not enter an officer’s house while a “Patrician” is there, and if he did the “Patrician” would make him feel his offense very severely. Of course, it’s all very hard on the “Plebs,” but the following year, when they have become “Patricians,” they enforce the same rules against the new “Plebs.”

Down near the shore, in a pretty little cottage that looks most unlike a business place, is the post office. Miss Blanche Berard and her two sisters and niece have charge of it. Miss Berard’s father came to West Point in 1815 as the French professor. In 1824 Miss Blanche was born, and in 1835 her father was made postmaster. At Mr. Berard’s death, in 1848, Mrs. Berard was given the office, and as she was quite old and the duties grew too heavy for her it was transferred to her daughter, Blanche, in 1872, who has since held sway. The Berard sisters are fond of the cadets, and the cadets’ first faith is pledged to them. Not long ago some candidate promised the office to some backer, and then a great wail of distress went up from the cadets. However, after some trouble matters were arranged and the Berard sisters are still in the office that has been a family trust for years, and the cadets and officers pray that they may end their days there. The Misses Berard live very modestly and al they have earned all their life has been devoted to the most sensible and useful charities.

Do the Boys Really Lace?

And now comes an important question: Do the cadets lace?

Their slender waists and square shoulders are the admiration of everybody. Visitors are always anxious to know if the cadets really lace. I think they do, but not after the manner of girls. Of course you know that the adjutant of the cadets always aspires to have the smallest waist, and so Cadet Harts—Sweet-heart—is the slimmest man at West Point. I have forgotten whether it is eighteen inches or twenty-two he measures. And just think of such a waist on a handsome fellow fully six feet tall if not more!

“Their coats are lined with leather,” said a lieutenant when I asked for enlightenment on the subject, “and they are as strong as steel, so a cadet can button his coat up so tight that he can hardly get his breath. There was one cadet who injured his health by wearing his jacket too tight, and another injured his ribs—made them grow in. I am up to all their tricks, for I used to do them myself. When they go for a coat they always draw their chest up and draw themselves in until one can almost span their waists, so as to get their jackets tight. I always tell them to let their breath out and let themselves come down. It’s the same about height. Everybody wants to be the tallest. In my regiment there was one cadet as tall as I was, and when asked our height, if he was asked first and said 6 feet 2 inches I would say 6 feet 3 inches, or if he would say 6 feet 3 inches I would go 6 feet 4 inches, and pull myself away up. I think I got my appointment by stretching my height.”

Long live the cadets! They are the loveliest boys I ever saw.

(Source: Undercover Reporting, http://dlib.nyu.edu/undercover/nellie-bly-west-point-nellie-bly-new-york-world)

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