When Their Countries Called

Three notable members of the Class of 1854: G.W. Custis Lee (left), J.E.B. Stuart (center), and Stephen D. Lee (right).

West Point’s Class of 1846 is its most famous of the pre-Civil War era. Perhaps a close second could be the Class of 1854, which included 46 graduates. Of those 46, 37 fought in the Civil War: 23 for the United States and 14 for the Confederacy. Some of the better-known members of the class include Benjamin F. Davis, George Washington Custis Lee, Stephen D. Lee, John Pegram, William Dorsey Pender, J.E.B. Stuart, and Stephen Weed. No other prewar West Point class lost more members in the Civil War than the 1854 class—12 were killed or mortally wounded.

Ironic then that the class graduates selected as their motto, “When Our Country Calls.” The phrase adorned their class rings alongside a hand wielding a sword. At the time of their graduation, fractures were visible between the northern and southern sections of the country, but a civil war was not yet a foregone conclusion. Less than seven years after their graduation and commission into the United States Army, the graduates of the Class of 1854 had to decide which country was calling. Many found one another on opposite sides of many Civil War battlefields.

J.E.B. Stuart’s class ring shows the sword-wielding hand that accompanied the class’s motto.

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5 Responses to When Their Countries Called

  1. Donald Smith says:

    “Onward! ’tis the country needs us,
    He is bravest, he who leads us
    Honor’s self now proudly heads us,
    Freedom, God and Right!”

    – A section of one of the many versions of “Men of Harlech.”

    Serving one’s country, no matter how flawed it may be, has been a powerful reason for men and women to fight in the past. If memory serves, a fair number of German-Americans went back to Germany to fight for the Fatherland in World War II, because their country called them.

    Just as their states called Confederate soldiers.

  2. Stefan says:

    The guy on the right in the group image is not S. D. Lee but Alexander William Stuart, Jeb’s brother…

  3. Gene Adcock says:

    Nothing like old photos to stir up interest—and occasional controversary!! I think I can see Stuart features in man on the right. Certainly does not look like SD LEE in War and post-war photos.
    More interesting to me is who are the 12/37 (32%) Class of 1854 deaths during the CW? Custis Lee, of course, survived to successfully sued the US Gov’t. over Arlington House (which he sold to the Gov’t in 1883). Any info?

    • Lyle Smith says:

      I count the below 13 as killed, mortally wounded, or died of disease while serving in the war. 8 Confederate and 5 Union. So, yes, 12 were killed or mortally wounded.

      J.E.B. Stuart
      Benjamin F. Davis
      James Deshler
      Dorsey Pender
      Archibald Gracie
      Stephen Weed
      John T. Greble (first West Point graduate to be killed in the CW at Big Bethel)
      John Pegram
      John R. Smead
      John T. Mercer
      Edgar O’Connor
      Horace Randal
      John Villepigue (died of disease while posted at Port Hudson)

      Oliver O. Howard obviously lost an arm.

  4. Kevin – where did find the photo of the class ring? That is so interesting and I’d love do a little more research on the historic rings.

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