The Goats of West Point

Where are they now?

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.

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