In every graduating class someone has to finish last. At West Point Military Academy that person has long been known as “the Goat.” In our own version of “Where Are They Now?” we interviewed James S. Robbins, author of “Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point” (Encounter Books) about the implications of being ranked dead last at West Point. The irony? Some of the Academy's least distinguished cadets developed into the most famous and remarkable figures in American military history.
How did you get the idea to write “Last in Their Class”?
I teach in the military education system and the idea came when I was at Gettysburg on a staff ride. We were on Little Roundtop and some guys were talking about Patrick O'Rourke, who was first in the class of June of 1861 and had died on Little Roundtop defending the hill. And then someone else talked about George Pickett—who was last in his class —and led Pickett's charge. Then someone else mentioned Henry Heth [pronounced Heath], who was Pickett's cousin. He was there and he was last in his class . And George Custer—who was last in his class [June of 1861]—was also at Gettysburg. I began wondering how many last in their class guys fought at Gettysburg? When I looked it up I found there were six of them—three on each side. I thought it might make a good article à la “Six Goats at Gettysburg,” but I found a whole bunch of other stories about guys who were last in their class. There were so many good stories that I started collecting them. Then a publisher got interested and we had a book.
What is the definition of the “Goat”?
Technically, the Goat is the person who comes in last in his class. Goat has also been used to refer to anyone who comes in towards the bottom of the class, or to someone who has to repeat a year. But I have tried to cleave to the most technical definition. In the book there are also many guys who were near the bottom—like James Longstreet and Jefferson Davis.
Where did the term originate?
No one is quite sure. The term “Goat” is a slang term meaning someone who screws up. But the Goat has also been a symbol of frivolity and sexual excess, which is another thing that the West Point Goats have excelled at. So it fits in many ways.
Historically, did the Goat finish last because he was in over his head, or was he more of a slacker?
There are two types of Goats. Some guys go to West Point and work as hard as they can, but they just barely hang on and graduate at the bottom. The other kind of guy—like Custer, Pickett and Heth—are guys who are actually pretty smart. They know they can graduate but don't care about grades. They study just enough to get by, and use any extra time to have a good time. It's an important distinction because the former—the ones who just aren't bright enough—are a little bit different. They are earnest, well meaning guys who hang in there and do a good job, but they have a different type of personality. But George Custer, for instance, proved early in life that he could do school. That wasn't his issue. He just wanted to have fun. Same with Pickett and Heth. They were good-time Charlie's.
How did you decide which Goats to profile?
Well, it's hard to write about people who didn't do anything so I chose those Goats who went out and actually did something interesting after West Point. There were also a few who did interesting things at West Point but later didn't amount to much. So it depended on what they did and what I could find out about, because there aren't a lot of records when you go back to the early 1800s. The project was driven by what I could find through my research.
It's interesting how you weave in the history of West Point and the history of the U.S. military. Why did you take that approach?
That's one of things about the book that I'm most proud of. My publisher asked if I could do individual biographies of each person, and I suppose one could do it that way, but these guys kept running into each other. So I tried to lay it out such that the stories would weave back and forth depending on which events were taking place that were of historical moment. I tell stories at West Point and then I go out to the field and follow people out there for a while. Then I return to West Point as a new generation comes up. I talk about the new superintendents and the new personalities and what aspects of West Point had changed—from a Goat point-of-view, of course: “Is it easy to get on and off post? Is it easier to go drinking? How many young ladies are hanging around?”—that kind of thing. In that way I could not only talk about the lives of these people but how West Point and the Army evolved over time.
What makes West Point Goats so interesting?
Everybody loves an underdog. The story of the Goat demonstrates that you don't have to be an academic superstar in order to be successful or to make a difference. I think that military leadership and bravery and other qualities of that type are not necessarily learned in a classroom. Somebody who studies all the time, obeys all the rules, and gets good grades may not necessarily be a great leader of men and may not necessarily be someone who has the kind of decision making qualities that will lead to victory. What I am exploring is another aspect of military leadership and also the qualities of human bravery and that type of achievement.
At West Point, has there been any relationship between class rank and career success?
I never ran across a formal study, but there is folklore about that—that it's always the people from the middle and below who make the best officers and leaders. Now you sometimes find people who graduated at the top and went on to greatness—like Robert E. Lee was second in his class. Or Douglas MacArthur, for example. But frequently you find people like Dwight Eisenhower, who graduated somewhere in the middle of his class and said, “If anybody saw signs of greatness in me while at West Point they kept it to themselves.” Or Ulysses S. Grant, who was in the middle of his class. And then all the people I profile in the book, who were from the bottom or near the bottom, who themselves did great things.
Can you explain how [in the 19th century] commissions were given to graduates based on class rank? It appears that West Point may have unwittingly provided an incentive for some cadets to graduate at the bottom.
That's absolutely right. Back in those days, where you went in the Army was completely determined by where you graduated at West Point. If you were at the top you might go into Engineers or Ordinance or something like that, because those were highly technical skills. Whereas if you graduated near the bottom they put you where a guy like that might want to go—Infantry and Cavalry. The men who were the grunts and the horse soldiers—they could go off and find opportunities to fight and win glory.
As a result, many Goats have figured prominently in famous battles—especially Custer.
Right. Custer was at the two most famous battles of nineteenth century American military history—Gettsyburg and Little Big Horn. Naturally, I spent a lot of time on those two battles, not just because of Custer but because of other Goats who were there. But it's really noteworthy that Custer and Pickett—two West Point Goats—figured prominently in the two most written about battles in American history.
It's also interesting how you discuss several now-famous individuals who managed to get themselves expelled from West Point. What happened to James McNeill Whistler?
Whistler failed chemistry. Everyone knows about Whistler's mother, of course, because she's in her son's painting [Arrangement in Grey and Black, 1871], but Whistler's father was a noted civil engineer of his day and a top ten West Point graduate from the class of 1819. James followed in his father's footsteps and went to West Point, but he was not like his father. He was kind of a screwball. He liked to go drinking and make sketches and flirt with girls. He was okay academically but his heart wasn't in it and in his third year he failed chemistry by misidentifying silicon as a gas.
Another notable expellee was Edgar Allan Poe.
A little known fact about Poe was that he was a sergeant major of artillery before he went to West Point. He was recommended there by one of his officers who said that he was of sound temper and entirely free of drink, which as we know, is not true. He only spent about half-a-year at West Point. The thing about Poe was that he was such a genius that he got great grades without studying. The lore at West Point is that Poe was a bad student but that's not true. He was a good student in the sense that he could take a test and score high, but he was also very interested in smuggling drink into the barracks and having other adventures. After about six months he stopped reporting to class and assembly and they expelled him.
Tell me about Henry Heth. He's one of the few people who lived to read his own obituary in the New York Times.
He was Pickett's cousin, from a distinguished Virginia family. He went off to fight the Indians during the Great Plains wars. After the Battle of Blue Waters a notice ran in the New York Times that he had been killed in the battle. His West Point chums were distraught because everybody loved him. Heth was very charismatic, he was good looking, he was witty, and always having fun. They set up a memorial for him and published a poem in the Times about how gallant he was. But it turned out the report was wrong; he hadn't even been wounded. He collected all the clippings of everybody saying wonderful things about him and said, “It's a wonderful thing to be dead to read what people say about you.”
Do they still recognize the Goat at West Point?
Not officially. The Goat was done away with in 1978 when education reformers figured that it was a blow to self-esteem—that the person at the bottom of the class shouldn't be celebrated, only the people at the top. The tradition had grown up at West Point that during graduation when they got to the last person there was tremendous applause and cheers for the Goat. And the Goat was given a silver dollar by every member of the class, which could add up to a lot of money when you have about a thousand graduates.
But education reformers didn't like this practice. They called it the Cult of the Goat. So West Point went to alphabetical order for graduation, except for the very top people. However, there is still a list of who ranks where and even though the list is kept under wraps, on graduation day everybody knows who the Goat is. As they go down the list alphabetically, suddenly somewhere in the middle everyone starts cheering. And if you don't know why, you don't understand why everyone starts cheering. The reason is that person is the Goat. The tradition has been much more durable than these bureaucrats have given it credit for.
How do they get the word out to the cadets?
I'm not exactly sure how the word is spread. But in these days of e-mail I think it's probably a pretty easy thing to do. Somebody gets the word out and on that day everybody knows.
Has West Point lost anything by officially doing away with this tradition?
Oh sure, I'm a great believer in tradition. I think they say a lot about cultures, institutions, and who we are. It's a very American thing to celebrate the underdog. I think our country was founded by a lot of underdogs and people who were kicked out of a lot of the best countries in Europe. And we have made a great country. The most powerful, most influential country in the world in human history has been built by people who fled Europe because they were peasants or just weren't succeeding there so they came here. And the Goat tradition grew out of that. It's a very natural, spontaneous, American tradition. It's something that should be honored and I think West Point should bring it back officially, but even if they don't it's still going to be there.