The Goats of West Point
Where are they now?
Written by Filed under History
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.