First Class Camp – Henry Flipper

It is a common saying among cadets that “first-class camp is just like furlough.” I rather think the assertion is an inheritance from former days and the cadets of those days, for the similarity at present between first-class camp and furlough is beyond our conception. There is none, or if any it is chimerical, depending entirely on circumstances. In the case of a small class it would be greater than in that of a large one. For instance, in “train drill” a certain number of men are required. No more are necessary. It would be inexpedient to employ a whole class when the class had more men in it than were required for the drill. In such cases the supernumeraries are instructed in something else, and alternate with those who attend train drill. In the case of a small class all attend the same drill daily, and that other duty or drill is reserved for autumn. Thus there is less drill in camp, and it becomes more like furlough when there is none at all.

Again, first-classmen enjoy more privileges than others, and for this reason their camp is more like furlough. If, however, there are numerous drills, the analogy will fail; for how can duty, drills, etc., coexist with privileges such as first-class privileges? Time which otherwise would be devoted to enjoyment of privileges is now consumed in drills. Still there is much in it which makes first-class camp the most delightful part of a cadet s life. There are more privileges, the duties are lighter and more attractive, and make it withal more enjoyable. First, members of the class attend drill both as assistants and as students. They are detailed as chiefs of platoon, chiefs of section, chiefs of caissons, and as guidons at the light battery; as chiefs of pieces at the several foot batteries; attend themselves at the siege or sea coast batteries, train drill, pontoon drill, engineering, ordnance, and astronomy, and they are also detailed as officers of the guard. These duties are generally not very difficult nor unpleasant to discharge. Second, from the nature of the privileges allowed first-classmen, they have more opportunity for pleasure than other cadets, and therefore avoid the rather serious consequences of their monotonous academic military life. A solitary monotonous life is rather apt to engender a dislike for mankind, and no high sense of honor or respect for women. I deem these privileges of especial importance, as they enable one to avoid that danger and to cultivate the highest possible regard for women, and those virtues and other Christian attributes of which they are the better exponents. A soldier is particularly liable to fall into this sans souci way of looking at life, and those to whom its pleasures, as well as its ills, are largely due. We are indebted to our fellows for every thing which affects our life as regards its happiness or unhappiness, and this latter misfortune will rarely be ours if we properly appreciate our friends and those who can and will make life less wretched. To shut one s self up in one s self is merely to trust, or rather to set up, one s own judgment as superior to the world s. That cannot be, nor can there be happiness in such false views of our organization as being of and for each other.

At this point of the course many of the first-class have attained their majority. They are men, and in one year more will be officers of the army. It becomes them, therefore, to lay aside the ordinary student s role, and assume a more dignified one, one more in conformity with their age and position. They leave all cadet roles, etc., to the younger classes, and put on the proper dignity of men.

There are for them more privileges. They are more independent more like men; and consequently they find another kind of enjoyment in camp than that of the cadet. It is a general, a proper, a rational sort of pleasure such as one would enjoy at home among relatives or friends, and hence the similarity between first-class camp and furlough.

But it is not thus with all first-classmen. Many, indeed the majority, are cadets till they graduate. They see every thing as a cadet, enjoy every thing as a cadet, and find the duties, etc., of first-class camp as irksome as those of plebe or yearling camp. Of course such men see no similarity between first-class camp and furlough. It is their misfortune. We should enjoy as many things as we can, and not sorrow over them. We should not make our life one of sorrow when it could as well be one of comfort and pleasure. I don t mean comfort and pleasure in an epicurean sense, but in a moral one. Still first-classmen do have many duties to perform, but there is withal one consolation at least, there are no upper classmen to keep the plebe or yearling in his place. There is no feeling of humbleness because of junior rank, for the first class is the first in rank, and therefore need humble itself to none other than the proper authorities.

Again, their honor, as “cadets and gentlemen,” is relied upon as surety for obedience and regard for regulations. They are not subject to constant watching as plebes are. The rigor of discipline is not so severe upon them as upon others. It was expended upon them during their earlier years at the Academy, and, as a natural consequence, any violation of regulations, etc., by a first-classman, merits and receives a severer punishment than would be visited upon a junior classman for a like infringement on his part.

The duties of first-classmen in first-class camp are as follows: The officer of the day and two officers of the guard are detailed each day from the class. Their duties are precisely those of similar officers in the regular army. The junior officer of the guard daily reports to the observatory to find the error of the tower clock. Also each day are detailed the necessary assistants for the several light batteries, who are on foot or mounted, as the case may require. The remainder of the class receive instructions in the service of the siege and sea-coast artillery. These drills come in the early forenoon. After them come ordnance and engineering.

The entire class is divided as equally as may be into two parts, which alternate in attendance at ordnance and engineering.

In ordnance the instructions are on the preparation of military fireworks, fixing of ammunition and packing it, the battery wagon and forge. This instruction is thoroughly practical. The cadets make the cases for rockets, paper shells, etc., and fill them, leaving them ready for immediate use. The stands of fixed ammunition prepared are the grape and canister, and shell and shot, with their sabots.

The battery wagon and forge are packed as prescribed in the “Ordnance Manual.”

The instructions in engineering are also practical and military. They are in the modes of throwing and dismantling pontoon bridges, construction of fascines, gabions, hurdles, etc., and reverting batteries with them. Sometimes also during camp, more often after, foot reconnaissance’s are made. A morning and night detail is made daily from the class to receive practical instruction in astronomy in the field observatory.

Night signaling with torches, and telegraphy by day, form other sources of instruction for the first class.

Telegraphy, or train drill, as the drill is called, consists in erecting the telegraph line and opening communication between two stations, and when this is done, in communicating so as to acquire a practical knowledge of the instruments and their use.

These various drills all of them occurring daily, Sunday of course excepted, and for part of them Saturday also complete the course of instruction given the first class only during their first-class camp. It will be observed that they all of them are of a military nature and of the greatest importance. The instruction is thorough accordingly.

I have sufficiently described, I think, a cadet s first-class camp. I shall, therefore, close the chapter here.



Flipper, Henry Ossian. The Colored Cadet at West Point: Autobiography of Lieut. Henry Ossian Flipper, first graduate of color from the U. S. Military Academy.

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