Recently, I sat in the solemn, silent archives, reading The End of an Era by John S. Wise. Among his treasury of memories and musings about antebellum Virginia, slavery, and the Civil War, there are several sections focused on cadet life at Virginia Military Institute and the Corps of Cadets at the Battle of New Market.
Since it’s that season of hot, humid days, broiling, burning sunshine, and pesky, pinching bugs, I wanted to share one of Wise’s stories in its entirety to liven up this summer day. When I first read this account, it was a struggle to keep from laughing aloud in that imposing archive room!
Enjoy, and I’ve included a few paragraphs at the end of the source to fill in some historical details of interest.
Then came the sultry June days, when it was work, work, work at books preparing for examinations, and drill, drill, drill in the school [Virginia Military Institute] battalion.
From reveille until four o’clock P.M., we were in the section-room reciting, or studying in our quarters on review. At four o’clock, the battalion was formed for drill, and exercised in the hot sun, until time for dress parade, in every intricate maneuver. More than one little fellow fell exhausted from the intense strain, and every cadet in the corps was longing for the time when our arduous apprenticeship would end.
One hot, steaming evening, Charley Faulkner, Phillips, and I sat in an open window which overlooked the parade ground. It was during the half-hour of leisure after dinner, – the only leisure time that was left to us. The parade ground shimmered with the noonday heat. Not a leaf of the guard-tree was shaken by the slightest breeze. We were commiserating each other at the sweltering prospect of two hours’ drill in a tight-fitting uniform, under the rays of such a sun.
“It’s brutal,” exclaimed Faulkner. “It’s enough to kill a man.” We all called each other “men.”
“Yes,” said Phillips, “somebody will be sunstruck. Poor little Jefferson fainted yesterday, and today is worse.”
“Then why don’t you faint, Reuben?” said I. “Charley and I will bring you off the field, and that will give us all a rest.
“I’ll ‘cut’ with you two fellows which shall faint,” said Reuben. All matters of lot were decided by opening a book, and the second letter, second line, left hand page, decided the matter: “a” was best, and “z” was worst. Down came the book, and Reuben cut the lowest letter: so it fell to him to faint, and to us to bring him off the field. When the drill-drum beat that afternoon, we fell in line with Reuben between us. As the company was divided into platoons, we came near being separated, for Faulkner was last man in our platoon. Breaking the battalion into column of platoons, Shipp marched us to the drill grounds. Oh, it was hot, – hot enough to disarm suspicion at anybody’s fainting.
Through all the evolutions we went, “Right of company’s rear into column:” “Close column by division second division, right in front;” “To the rear by the right flank, pass the defile;” and what not. The file closers were so near to us we could not talk. All we could do was to nudge Reuben, and we began to think he would never faint.
At last Shipp trotted his great gray horse to the flank of the battalion and gave the command, “Forward into line, – forward doubled time, – march.” The perspiration was streaming from us.
“Now, if ever, Reuben,” I whispered as we started off, and, sure enough, Reuben made a feint of stumbling, his gun pitched forward from his shoulder, and he threw himself forward in a beautiful fainted as ever was feinted.
“Help him there, Faulkner and Wise,” said the left guide, as the battalion swept on; and Charley and I bent over him with infinite tenderness and concern. We were about to pass some congratulations, when I looked up and saw Shipp, galloping, warning Phillips. That gave him all the pallor he needed.
“Who is that man?” said the major.
“Phillips, sir,” said Faulkner and myself, rising and saluting.
“Is he seriously ill?”
“No, sir, hope not – seems to be overcome by heat.”
“Eh! take him to barracks and summon the surgeon,” said he, and roweling the old gray, he galloped back to the command. He did not order us to return, so Master Faulkner and I remained in barracks to nurse the invalid, after making a brave show of his helplessness as we assisted him across the plain. In barracks, we at once began business. Faulkner hurried to the hospital for a bucket of ice for the invalid. A happy thought struck me. I stole around behind Colonel Williamson’s, and milked his cow into our drinking-pail. We three then sat up in a quiet room, drinking iced milk, watching the battalion drill.
It was all very well until next evening parade, when we heard ourselves reported for not returning to ranks, and, in spite of some very plausible excuse given to the commandant, five more demerits were added to our already overflowing score. The story of our ruse was all over barracks, and I have always thought it had reached Shipp’s ears.
Whether it did or not, I had by this time, and in many ways, become known to the superintendent and commandant as mixed up in, and capable of, any sort of prank or dereliction which took place – a reputation by no means enviable, let me assure you.[i]
John S. Wise, the boy with the unenviable reputation and later author of the account, was the son of former Virginia governor, Henry Wise. Packed off to Virginia Military Institute in 1862 after making too many threats about running away to enlist in the Confederate army, the sixteen year old settled into Institute life, guided by his cousin, Louis Wise. However, John Wise’s academic record did not excellent and he acquired demerits, though making many friends.
Charley Faulkner had arrived at VMI in the autumn of 1862, after spending much of his youth in Europe while his father served as ambassador to France for the United States.[ii] Reuben Triplett Phillips, studying with the Class of 1866, attended the Institute for two years.[iii]
Aside from the mischief makers, other notable persons were mentioned in the account. “Poor little Jefferson” was probably Thomas Garland Jefferson, a sixteen year old in 1863, recently arrived at the school on August 1; Jefferson died of injuries after the Battle of the New Market in the following year.[iv]Scott Shipp, who rode the “great gray horse” and struck fear in the hearts of the cadets in the story, had graduated VMI in 1859 and returned in 1862 as commandant of cadets, overseeing drill, discipline, and military leadership.[v] Virginia Military Institute’s superintendent was mentioned, but unnamed in the account; Francis H. Smith served as superintendent of the military academy for five decades and was known for his foresight, administrative qualities, and deep sense of responsibility to shape the lives of the young men in his charge. Cadets called Smith “Old Spec” behind his back, a nickname from the spectacles he habitually wore.
The constant drilling on the parade field – hated by most cadets, especially in the summer – became a badge of honor when, at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864, the Corps of Cadets dressed lines under fire and continued their advance under fire at parade step, gaining the admiration from formerly skeptical Confederate veterans. Later, in the battle, the cadets filled a gap in the battle lines, charged across an open field, and captured a cannon. John Wise and Charley Faulkner served at the battle; Reuben Phillips was absent – apparently not attending the Institute at that time – though his brother, Samuel Phillips, fought.
However, preparing for actual battle was far from the minds of those delinquent cadets on that hot summer day in 1863 when they devised a plan to evade drill and dress parade to lounge in the barracks and drink iced milk. War raged elsewhere, and for those summer months at least, Wise, Faulkner, and Phillips worried most about escaping the heat…and later about their fast accumulating demerits at their school of the soldier.
[i] Wise, J.S. (1899). The End of an Era. New York, NY: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. Pages 272-275. (Accessed at The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.)
[ii] Couper, W. (2005). The Corps Forward: Biographical Sketches of the VMI Cadets who Fought in the Battle of New Market. Charlottesville, VA: Mariner Publishing. Page 68
[iii] Ibid., Page 157.
[iv] Ibid., Page 105.
[v] Ibidl, Page 182.