The Goats of West Point

Where are they now?

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.

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